God is in the brain

Neuroplasticity comes to Sacramento, offering treatment for addiction and stress and opening a window on the soul

Michael Cisneros, 24-year-old son of Sacramento Brain Guidance CEO Kristen Cisneros, kicks back, plugs in and tunes out.

Michael Cisneros, 24-year-old son of Sacramento Brain Guidance CEO Kristen Cisneros, kicks back, plugs in and tunes out.

Photo By kyle monk

My morning run around McKinley Park is always the day’s first mental battleground. Stop thinking is my jogging mantra. Stop planning. Stop worrying. Just be here now. For years I’d been told by those closest to me, “You think too much.” Running had become a way to start the day off right, and provide what a friend called “God time.”

So it surprised me to find out, while researching a story on “brain optimization,” that God may be found in a part of our brains called the parietal lobe.

Outdated theories of brain function hold that the brain ages, cells die and there is nothing humans can do to avoid its slow decay. New developments in brain science have popularized the notion of neuroplasticity—that the brain is flexible, new neural pathways can be created and the brain can literally be refreshed and rewired. Some scientists even liken the brain to a muscle that bulks up with proper exercise.

Neuroplasticity is the foundation for an explosion in brain treatments that include computer-based brain games and actual “brain gyms,” where members work out their tired brains at a variety of stations, just as they would their flabby glutes or aching abs. Sacramento’s Brain Guidance, located on the eastern border of Midtown, uses a new technology called Brain State Conditioning.

As Brain Guidance CEO Kristen Cisneros explained, BSC is a relatively cutting-edge technology intended to balance the brain waves of clients whacked off-kilter by stress, depression, fatigue and emotional trauma. It’s similar to noninvasive treatments such as neuro- and biofeedback, but adds a modern spin: It claims to translate brain waves into sound and feed that information back to the brain, thereby encouraging certain brain patterns while discouraging others. The goal: to equalize and harmonize the brain.

Cisneros offered to tune me up, and I agreed to receive a series of BSC treatments during the course of the next several weeks. As she attached electrodes to my head for my initial session, she recalled her first experience with the procedure to put me at ease. “I felt like I was getting intimate with my brain,” she said softly.

After an initial assessment of my brain-wave patterns to customize the treatment “protocols,” she offered me earplugs, tossed a comfy blanket over me and dimmed the lights. I snuggled under the blanket, closed my eyes and began the first of 10 sessions.

I imagined the music would be breezy New Age or saccharine Muzak. Instead, each session featured a unique and mostly atonal shred of computer-generated tones, ranging from Zen wood blocks to Thelonious Monk on acid. Often these tunes were punctuated by sudden staccato jabs. They weren’t soothing, but proved key to the training. My brain creates the tones itself, Cisneros informed me.

Once angling for a career as a life coach, Cisneros discovered BSC technology three years ago and never looked back. She felt the potential for personal change was far more powerful and immediate. During the 10-minute sessions, she works as technologist, visualization coach and counselor, guiding clients through different scenarios. I closed my eyes and imagined myself swimming through water, flying over life’s obstacles or scrubbing parts of my own brain. She watched the rise and fall of my brain waves intently, sometimes stopping mid-session to offer feedback.

Late at night after my first session, I could sense a difference. I felt more relaxed, yet oddly more energized. In the morning, I awoke refreshed and clear. Even my daughter, who was running late yet again for school, didn’t antagonize me. I remember how many times during the day Cisneros encouraged me to “just be.” Just be.

I knew where she was trying to send me.

Sports psychologists have long described “the zone,” the fluid mental space competitive athletes visit when they are at the top of their game. The zone is a head space where the athlete disappears into the act itself … and thinking stops. A friend stepped into the zone recently when she picked up a pool cue for the first time in years and sank every ball in sight: “I wasn’t thinking,” she later gloated.

In Get Out of Your Own Way, author Robert Cooper explores the intricacies of brain physiology, identifying areas that promote change and others that succumb to fear. The key to success, Cooper writes, is to “quiet down the usual outcry” of the brain and let it perform its job description.

Similarly, in a recent radio interview, musician John Mellencamp revealed, “My best songs are given to me from some place outside myself.”

As neuroplasticity gains a foothold in today’s culture, entrepreneurs have quickly jumped on board. The market-research firm SharpBrains, which calls itself “The Brain Fitness Authority,” estimates that consumers spent $80 million on brain-improvement products last year.

Although the past year has seen an explosion of products targeting cognitive ability—both natural and electronic—long-term clinical trials are rare. A study of 2,832 participants aged 65 and over by academic researchers from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly found that brain training helped improve cognitive ability as well as the ability to cope with day-to-day living. According to the study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the effects were both immediate and lasting.

“I’m confident about this technology, that it works quickly, without drugs or weeks with a counselor,” Cisneros confirmed.

Brain-training techniques have quickly gained popularity for treating difficult problems such as addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Celebrities such as Wynonna and Naomi Judd swear by it. So does an Iraqi war veteran from San Francisco who visited Cisneros to shake the stifling anxiety he developed upon returning stateside.

“You’re living on instinct, like an animal,” he told me. “And you come home and you can’t shake those instincts.” After eight sessions in three days he felt transformed, calling it “a miracle.” When he sensed the anxiety creeping back in less than a year later, he returned for a tuneup.

BSC was developed by Lee Gerdes, founder of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Brain State Technologies. Gerdes combined his expertise in psychology and computer science with a growing interest in quantum physics. “I wanted instead to teach the brain to heal itself,” he says. Eager to prove the technology, in 2007 he asked warden Lenard Varé at the Southern Nevada Correctional Center to handpick inmates with severe emotional and impulse control issues: “Throw me the worst you got.”

Five inmates went through the treatment, and afterward, Varé said inmates showed “a pretty high level of success.” The most disturbed and violent participant transitioned from extreme paranoia and tension to “really relaxed and being able to talk, really engaging, and started to become charming and tell jokes.” Other inmates, he said, experienced significant improvements in behavior and mood.

Varé, today director of the Napa County Department of Corrections, joined the inmates and found the training remarkable, dropping his high systolic blood pressure from 220 to 120. Prison staff members were so impressed with the changes in inmates, several of them also underwent BSC treatment.

Interest in brain-training technology is bound to build as we learn more about the brain itself. Only days after I completed my sessions, Time magazine reported in a cover story called “The Biology of Belief” that the parietal lobe may have “the most transporting effect” on us, its wiring closely aligned with spiritual practice. Prayer produces profound changes in the parietal area, as overthinking is replaced by belief and faith.

God is in the brain.

During my initial assessment, Cisneros noted that my parietal lobe was out of balance, the soothing alpha waves were far too low, the busy beta waves way too high. As the treatments proceeded, I felt my body and mind relax, as a profound inner peace settled in.

After two particularly intense sessions, I began my run the next morning. After less than half a mile, I stopped dead in my tracks. I searched for the nearest park bench. I broke down in tears and sobbed uncontrollably for 10 minutes. I didn’t care who saw me. The message was clear. My brain was exhausted, completely exhausted from thinking too much. Planning too much. Worrying too much.

I pulled myself together and started to run again. I felt the ground below. I saw the trees above.

I’m learning the lesson: Be here now.