Sunday, September 19, 2010

ADD, brain wave frequencies, and binaural beats

I've realized that I'll probably never be able to get an ADD/ADHD diagnosis. Partly this is because they tend to look at your grades (especially those in childhood) to determine if you've done poorly enough to qualify for the DSM IV criterion that the condition presents a "serious detriment" to your life. So, basically, a combination of natural ability and sheer tenacity seems to have condemned me to a life of dogged exercise of sheer tenacity. Great.

Of course, even if I could find a doctor who didn't just think I was a grad student trying to score some Adderall, it would mean finding time to schedule an appointment. And make phone calls. And get my medical history together and my insurance information and fill out forms. And I am really bad at these things, because I have ADD. Correction: I am really bad at these things and having to do them makes me want to tear my skin off and stomp and yell.

And in addition to this, I'm concerned about the drugs. ADD meds are mostly stimulant medications. I'm already drinking a rather insane amount of coffee to try to keep my mind calm and focused. The scary thing is that it does work; I can tell that I'm more sedate and "normal" on coffee. Certainly, this fact will terrify anyone who knows me with unthinkable thoughts of how crazy I would be without the coffee.... But I am not really eager to get drugs which have side effects like "stroke" and "heart attack" and "death". Not that the non-stimulant ones are much better; they promise the usual digestive cocktail of nausea, vomitting, diarrhea and constipation. This would be on top of all the regular fibromyalgia tummy upsets.

So I despaired of a solution and told myself I'd just have to try harder. The problem with this is that for ADD people, trying just makes it worse. But then, completely by chance, I discovered the spiffy brain-wave research on ADD/ADHD.

Spiffy New Brain Wave Research

This is actual research, but I don't feel like linking to the medical articles. Also, you all probably don't feel like reading them. They're rather boring (unless you're a neurologist or a medical-type person). So here are the highlights:

Our brains oscillate. The little cells up there vibrate when our brains are doing things (which is all the time unless we're dead). And they vibrate at different frequencies depending on what we're doing. Or, rather, different frequencies of vibration help us to do different sorts of things. Most people's brains self-regulate: if the person decides to relax, their brain wave frequency decreases in response to their intention; if the person decides to concentrate, their brain wave frequency increases as needed.

Waves are classified by little Greek letters (which makes me like this science better). And since I'm sure you would feel unfulfilled if you didn't know this stuff, I will tell you about the different frequencies:
  • delta waves (1-4 Hz) -- these are for deep, dreamless sleep
  • theta waves (5-8 Hz) -- day-dreaming, drowsiness, have been linked to long-term memory, intuition, self-awareness and creativity
  • alpha waves (9-14 Hz) -- these occur during relaxation or meditation and are, to a lesser extent than theta, linked to creativity, visualization and cognition
  • beta waves (15-40 Hz) -- these are the normal alertness brain waves; at the lower end they pertain to focus and concentration on normal tasks and linear, logical thought; frequencies at the upper end of the range are engaged during worry, anxiety and hyper-vigilance and provide for faster reaction to the physical environment
  • gamma waves (40-70 Hz) -- these are the most recently discovered frequency group; they seem to occur in peak-performance situations; scientifically they have been shown to be linked to leaps of insight and higher problem solving -- as well as anxiety, hyperactivity and schizophrenia. Less scientific groups are deciding that gamma is a sort of "Buddha" frequency which characterizes master gurus and transcendental states of consciousness. Which, presumably, would indicate that the Buddha was schizophrenic. [Oh, the things you learn on my blog!] These frequencies are unable to be sustained for long periods of time and will actually cause your brain to hurt.
The neat thing that scientists have discovered is that ADD/ADHD people can be characterized by their brain wave production. Most people spend most of their waking hours in beta states with occasional drops to alpha (during moments of relaxation) or theta (during repetitive tasks). ADD people spend most of their days vibrating at theta frequencies. That is to say, we are as close as you can get to being asleep without actually being asleep (since if your brain is vibrating at delta frequencies you are, by definition, asleep). When ADD/ADHD people try to concentrate, they generally skip the lower beta frequencies and spike into higher beta and lower gamma (the realm of hypervigilance, hyperactivity, stress, and anxiety).

No dark cloud lacks a silver lining. People are trying like crazy to get into gamma and theta states because of the supposed pay-off for intuition and insight and vivid dreaming and all the stuff that sounds really fabulous to New-Agey generic-spirituality buffs. And yet, theta and gamma are basically where I am all the time! So, my lack of ability to focus is supplemented by whatever benefits there actually are from the processing done at those frequencies. Still, I'm not a fan of the high-beta stress and hyperactivity. And sleep-walking through the day is rather difficult, even if it makes me more "creative". So it seems that what I need is a way to make my brain vibrate at lower beta-range frequencies.

The New Treatments

Neurologists have begun to use this new information about brain waves to develop non-medicinal protocols for ADD/ADHD. One of these is neurological biofeedback (or "neurofeedback") in which the patient is hooked up to an EEG and gets to see his/her brainwaves in real time. The idea is that we can actually control our brain's frequency consciously but need to learn to do so by trial and error with instant "feedback" to self-correct. The problem with this (for me) is that you need a diagnosis, it takes a lot of sessions over a year or so to train you to do it on your own, the sessions last 45 min or so and cost about $100 a pop. Try getting an ADD person to be able to schedule all that stuff without going postal.

The other treatment is a bit easier and more accessible, if a little harder to check for efficacy. This is binaural beat therapy (along with isochronic tones, hemispheric synchronization, and all sorts of other scientific sounding stuff). It basically involves listening to some audio.

The way it works is that two frequencies are played, one for each ear (hence, "binaural" -- two ears). So you need stereo headphones. Each ear drum vibrates at a different frequency. The brain's frequency can be influenced by this external stimulus, but the natural frequencies we're aiming at are too low for the human ear to hear. However, the brain detects the difference in frequency between the sounds in the two ears and so the difference between the two is set at the frequency at which you want your brain to vibrate. The differentiation between the two sounds creates a pulse and it's often best to combine this audio with white noise, pink noise, some nice nature sounds or music.

So, you can find binaural beat files in different frequency ranges online. Or you can download software to make your own mixes. Or you can splurge and buy nice CDs or mp3s that have pretty music and special stuff with the isochronic tones (no idea what these do) or hemispheric synchronization effects (which make the two hemispheres of your brain harmonize). Speaking of hemispheric synchronization... another fun fact is that beta frequencies provoke more left-brain action than any other frequency (since it's useful in linear thinking). Basically, my brain very rarely does much positive left-hemispheric cognitive activity. The only time I'm in the beta range with my left-brain "on" is when I'm anxious and hyperactive (which is very tiring). So I'm wondering how much averse association I may have developed toward higher brain frequencies (which would maybe reinforce unconscious selection of theta waves... could be a factor in ADD... who knows?)

My Test Run

I got some of these beta/gamma beat files and had a listen this afternoon. Here's how it went.

At first, I didn't notice much of anything. I was trying to do some reading. I didn't get as grouchy as I usually do when trying to concentrate, but I wasn't particularly focused or retaining information either. After about 10 or 15 minutes, my mind was way more "on". I didn't feel any sort of magical tingling like some people on the ADD forum had described, but what was really amazing is that my mind didn't wander. It was a bit odd, because I'm used to looking for connections when I read -- which is good, because it integrates the new stuff, but bad because I can get totally distracted with the thought of the matrix of ideas and some other project I could do but, darn, I still have to do grad school applications and other reading and it's getting late and what's for dinner? and man, I feel stressed, I must have been working hard and have clearly earned some TV time, and gosh my cat looks cute....

But this time, I didn't get distracted. I noticed I wasn't distracted and tried to let my mind wander. And it didn't. I was into what I was doing -- although it wasn't particularly interesting. And I didn't feel particularly "sharp" or super "on" like I do when I'm having lots of ideas. I was calm, but not falling asleep. So that was sort of nice. But I'm not sure it actually helped my retention of the material I was reading. Further tests will be required. Anyway, the recording lasted half an hour. For about 5 or 10 minutes afterward, I felt the same. And then I started to feel really, really tired. I think what was happening there is that I was coming back down to my normal quasi-somnolent theta-wave state. But I managed to read straight through for 30 minutes without having to take a break or getting distracted and without feeling like climbing up the walls. So that in itself is a pleasant change.

I just need to test to see whether my usual methods work better for knowing material or not. Usually, I manage to work in 5-15 minute stretches of what might be crazy-fast reading with crazy-fast brain-storming of connections, if by sheer luck I'm interested in what I'm reading and feel particularly energized. If I'm not interested or energized, my work time is characterized either by extreme sleepiness or extreme crankiness and inner "boiling" as I try to make my brain concentrate by sheer force of will or serious distractability if I'm less strict about making myself concentrate. And if I'm doing something really long and less "original" and creative that is on a time limit without allowances for breaks (like writing final exam essays or doing footnotes for a paper), I tend to alternate between cranky and drowsy. And when I say "cranky", I really mean "angry at the world and should be kept away from sharp objects, dull objects, or any objects with which I could either end my own misery or take out my rage on anyone who so much as coughs and disturbs my train of thought (which it will take me about 10 minutes of serious effort to regain)." Wow. Whenever I think about this, I have no idea how it is I manage to get through my exams. I have particularly horrid memories of the OT 12 exam last spring. I was bringing every shred of my habituated virtue to bear (and praying ceaselessly for mad grace) in order not to throw a full-scale 2 year old temper tantrum and scream some really dirty things about Eccelsiastes and then hit people in the middle of the Divinity school. My essays were basically illegible. But I passed.

Still, I'm such a nut that I'd rather go through all that angst rather than be able to concentrate painlessly and easily at the expense of the capacity for the sort of cognitive processing, intuitive understanding and relational big-picture meaning-making that I'm accustomed to. Go figure.


  1. Damn, I wish the links to the articles were available.

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