Archive for the ‘Applied Neuroscience’ Category

In an earlier post entitled “A blow by blow account of how my formal schooling got nuked“, and the follow-up post called “How I got fixed as a student“, I described how my early precociousness was identified but completely squashed at school, and how subsequently I found an organization with a completely different take on training and education that were able (at least up to a point) to take my abilities at face value, rather than award or withhold learning opportunities based on arbitrary “prerequisites”.

My opportunities to pursue formal education or enter a professional career may have been limited, to say the least, but I was a busy person who did a lot and learned a lot regardless. I have already mentioned elsewhere how I self-educated with great enthusiasm using the public library as a resource. I played in a band and won local and national music prizes. I taught myself to play several instruments and wrote several albums’ worth of songs. I went to evening classes, at various times, in art, yoga, martial arts, and even a series of lectures on parapsychology. I entered myself for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, straight in at gold award level, during which I was lucky enough to take part in an exchange trip to Trinidad & Tobago. I volunteered as a youth leader and obtained a guider’s warrant. I wrote novels and short stories and started to work on a philosophical thesis. I got into political campaigning. People I met who took the time to get past my very quiet external facade, almost to a person, expressed astonishment when they found out I had dropped out of school as a 16 year old and did office dogsbody jobs. My outside life “CV” showed a very different person to what my official CV showed I could do, even then. But the yawning chasm was going to get a whole lot wider.

When I was 21, someone suggested that I make enquiries of the Open University. For those who are not familiar with this establishment, it is a distance learning university in the UK that caters for mature students who do not have the usual university entry requirements. Now, I wasn’t sure what subject would be the best choice, but thought that perhaps something IT or business related might put paid to the constant school record pigeonholing. I recall that phone call to this day; even the name of the advisor has stuck in my memory, and since the gentleman sounded quite elderly back then, I will show enough respect not to name and shame the (probably) deceased. We chatted about the course curriculum, and then he asked me about my educational record. From that moment, the conversation rapidly went south. Instead of enrolling on the Access (A-Level equivalent) year, which was a part of the course, he told me that I should enquire around my own town to see if there was a pre-access level course that I should take first. I queried this, as the Open University is supposed to follow the philosophy that it’s the qualification you leave with that is important, not the ones you start with, and I had never heard of anyone else being given such advice. At this juncture, the advisor started suggesting that I ought to look into purchasing certain remedial educational workbooks designed to ready learners for a pre-access course. I thanked him politely for his time and put the phone down. Whichever way I looked at it, these people were expecting me to sit through years of dum dum classes before I even made it to first base. That had worked well at school (not).

So I poured myself into studying any self-development and brain-building techniques I could find with a vengeance, and when I read Hubbard’s Dianetics I was totally intrigued. I rapidly moved from new public to academy student,  to course room volunteer, to student debug specialist, to supervisor, to training director. By the time I left the organization, 13 years later, I was in fact about three training courses away from getting my full Professorship, since they have a whole parallel system of teaching/tutoring qualifications. I learned things I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be taught anywhere else. Where else would a school dropout be trained as a Professor from scratch? Or trained on advanced staff organization and management courses from nothing? I kept going back because the philosophy and the techniques went much further towards providing the intellectual stimulation I craved than anything else the world had deigned to send my way.

In my “moonlight” jobs in the outside world, I was still seen as just the office girl. That was just about liveable as long as I was an executive and senior course trainer in my voluntary gig, but when I ended up having no choice but to leave that organization, and only had the day jobs to keep me occupied, I didn’t just feel bored or restless or unhappy. I felt positively degraded. (Imagine if you were a senior lecturer somewhere, and you somehow fell into a parallel universe where none of your post-16 education was recognized, and your work history was discounted, and you had to fall back on that typist or telephonist experience from your student days just to survive.)

I don’t blame the organization. And I make no apology for my choices under the circumstances. But I suggest that if a talent-spotter had made themselves available and done the right thing, and the right training and the right sort of career had been offered at any stage, I might not have had a “need” for that organization for so long. Just a thought.

As best I could do with a hugely time-consuming desk jockey job in the legal world and, by this time, a partner who did not enjoy good health, after sorting out a few life logistics I continued investigating the world of self-development and cognitive enhancement from a more scientific perspective. The difference now was a new tool was available to me that hadn’t been available in my course room or the old-fashioned little companies where I’d moonlighted – the Internet. I spent my lunchtimes and tea breaks reading everything that was available.

One technology seemed particularly fascinating to me – that of light and sound stimulation. It worked on a purely physiological level, using flashing lights and repetitive tones to gently entrain the brain waves to desired frequencies via the frequency following response. There was an organization based in Switzerland that seemed to have a particularly interesting application of the technology to teach advanced reading skills (and I ended up training as an instructor – but that’s a whole other story). There was also an organization in Canada that sold these machines, and whose blog I started to follow. When I saw one day that the CEO/chief developer was coming to deliver a workshop in England, I signed up straight away.

Ironically, the workshop was to be delivered at the Open University’s headquarters in Milton Keynes, the very same institution whose advisor had effectively labelled me a remedial ed case all those years ago. This was especially amusing to me since I had fairly recently discovered that I was something of a cognitive outlier and had found my online home in “IQ Land”.

Towards the end of the workshop the Professor in charge of the Brain Lab at the Open University invited attendees to another workshop that he was also hosting that was to do with qEEG (quantitiative electroencephalography) and neurofeedback. No one had asked me about my background, so I signed up for that too.

It was only after I had been to a few of these applied neuroscience related workshops that I mentioned working for a law firm. The lecturers assumed I worked in criminal law and used the technology for some purpose in the criminal justice system. I said no, I’m a dogsbody in an intellectual property department. The room went abuzz. These workshops were for clinicians, researchers and postdocs. How had I been able to keep up, ask questions, and do the practical work if I was just an interloper?

Well, the professor asked me if this was a field that I wanted to get into, and I said yes. He asked me what subject my degree had been in (assuming perhaps it had been something law related). I said I had escaped school at 16 with a Pitman typing certificate and (luckily, if you could have seen my school) my life. So he started giving me advice as to where to go from there.

The first thing, he said, was I would need to complete an undergraduate degree, and to give the Open University another chance. “We will accept your application,” he said. I took that as a promise. I’d had so much resistance from tutors I’d spoken to on and off over the years, who seemed to think that my unfortunate school experiences counted for everything, whereas my life experiences and unusual cognitive profile should count for absolutely zip. When I stood in the 2001 general election, I was contacted by several university libraries who said they collected election material from all the parties in every constituency at election time. My election leaflets were worth having, but I as a person was not. I sent them the material, but with a cover letter stating as much. In fairness, I did receive a very supportive letter from the librarian at, I think it was Bristol, who said that he had managed to get accepted as a mature student. However, his encouragement was undone by the extreme rudeness of a tutor at one of the London universities that I spoke to, who basically said that I didn’t have a good enough brain. (I’ve seen my qEEG recording, several in fact, and I’m still looking for what could possibly be so wrong that made me an educational pariah. LOL.)

So I went to the Open University’s Camden Town campus and spoke to an advisor there. I told him about the workshops I’d been to, and the research (at least, some of the most basic, preliminary stuff) I was interested in doing. Well, he said, you wouldn’t get into that until Master’s level at the very least. I didn’t even know what subject area it belonged to. The advisor suggested I do a psychology degree. I applied, ignoring the Access modules and going straight for Year 1. To my surprise, I was accepted with no questions asked, and the government loans company approved my application, again with no questions asked. (The cynic in me tells me that now students have to pay £9,000 a year tuition, the university probably wants all the paying customers they can get.)

At another workshop, I told my professor guy that I didn’t really see the relevance of the course I was doing. The curriculum had a great emphasis on the social sciences, whereas what I was into was EEG, brain imaging, brain stimulation, and peak performance. So when he emailed me with a heads up that there was a cognitive neuroscience degree available at one of the London universities, and that another one of his mentees had landed a place there, I knew what I had to do. The course leader was really nice and said I could use my OU credits instead of A-Levels, although I would have to start again from Year 1 as it was a different curriculum. I was too cynical about admissions tutors by this point to think that I would actually get a place, but I applied anyway.

I am now about to go back for my second year, having completed the first year as a straight A student in every class. I think the course leader knows I am considerably ahead of the typical undergrad in many areas, and even have some fairly specialized knowledge, but considering the astonishing amount of resistance I have had to even getting a foot in the door, I’m not going to make waves at this point.

The title of this post, by the way, is entirely tongue-in-cheek. If you are seriously looking to get to university, at any age, I do not recommend the peripatetic and circuitous route I took.

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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a tES (transcranial electrostimulation – a term covering both AC and DC stimulation) and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) workshop at University College London’s neurology department, hosted by Rogue Resolutions. This short video includes a clip of me delivering TMS to a fellow workshop attendee.

It was great to get some actual hands-on experience with these technologies. Although the workshop was primarily aimed at post-doctorates and PhDs, no one bothered to check my credentials, and of course once I was there and had a chance to speak to everyone it was obvious that I was rather more clued in than your typical person off the street.

Medical tES boxes are large and heavy, and nothing like the consumer stimulation devices you can buy online or manufacture out of parts from RS. The doctor in the video demonstrating how to set up the tES machine says she is the only NHS medical professional in the UK who uses tDCS to treat depression.

The trickiest thing with the TMS is getting the coil lined up at both the right location and angle. A camera mounted on a tall frame locates where the coil is in space by spotting the assembly with the three white globes mounted on top of the coil, and transmits this information to a computer so you can see on the screen where to position the coil. The system they are using to do this is called Brainsight.

In this demonstration, the volunteer has electromyograph (activity from the muscles) electrodes on her right hand. The TMS is stimulating the part of the motor strip that activates the relevant part of the hand. Once I had found the exact right location with the TMS coil, you could see the increase in EMG activity. The TMS machine was set up to deliver one magnetic burst per second automatically; I didn’t have to press anything. One burst of magnetic stimulation activates the cortical neurons to fire. This differs from those somewhat dramatic looking demonstrations you might have seen where a train of stimulation is delivered that, for example, interrupts the volunteer’s speech. That is a different use of the technology that creates “virtual lesions”.

One intriguing thing for me as a person interested in EEG research was the demonstration of the use of first tACS and then tDCS on one of the staff while taking an EEG recording at the same time. I had previously been advised that such a thing was impossible, since EEG picks up the miniscule changes in electrical activity from the brain through the skull, and adding an external source of electrical stimulation would naturally introduce a lot of “artefact” (noise in the signal) or render the recording unreadable. Apparently, electronics technology is now so advanced that there are EEG systems that are designed to be used during electrical stimulation of the brain. Naturally, these systems cost a LOT of money!

It was great to actually meet people who are doing research in the field, and to listen to lectures discussing the most up-to-date brain stimulation research.

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I haven’t had much time to write any new blog articles lately, but I’ve checked in today and given the blog a few minor updates: I’ve tweaked the main title and tagline, and made a few edits to the “About” and “My Activities” pages.

I have also added a page detailing my proposed Crowdfunding campaign to purchase a professional 19-channel research grade EEG machine. Not having the right professional equipment to produce acceptable journal format papers is a key stumbling block as matters stand to getting my research work noticed.

If you are in a position to consider supporting this project, or helping spread the word if not, the GoFundMe account I have set up can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/2jnfjyjs

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