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Brain Optimisation – Enhance your Cognitive Ability and Truly Excel

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others.

So, we’ve got with us the lovely Natalia Ramsden. She is a business psychologist and she specializes in cognitive performance and brain optimization. And she’s the founder of SOFOS Associates. Now, that’s the UK’s first brain optimization clinic. And she works in areas like neuro-enhancement and its application for future development. My first question for you is what is wellness to you?

Natalia Ramsden: Wow. I mean, I think it feels like this should be a simple answer, but actually it’s quite involved to me. And some of this is personal, obviously. I think to me, wellness is about being able to live the life that you want to live. So, whether that’s physically able, mentally, financially, even, I think it’s really about being able to live the life that really makes you happy and fulfills you.

AB: Fantastic. That’s a great answer. I’ve looked a lot more into brain optimization and we’re talking so much… I mean, this is sort of the buzzword— the brain at the moment, whether it’s mental illness or whether it’s mental enhancements. So, tell us, what is brain optimization? 

NR: Sure. And this is probably my most favorite topic, and I’ve been talking about the brain for a while now. It’s really this peace, and as with every other aspect of our existence, this idea of getting the brain to work as well as it can possibly work. So, in the same way that you might exercise and optimize your fitness, it’s the same sort of peace around the brain. And it really comes from this understanding that the brain changes. It’s not static, it doesn’t kind of get to a certain point in development and stay still the way that we used to, but actually continues to change over the course of one’s life. And so, there are a number of things that individuals can do with or without the help of a clinician to really optimize its processes, to get it working as fast as possible, as accurately as possible, as efficiently as possible. And that’s really what SOFOS kind of came together to do, to look at ways that we could boost intelligence by getting the brain to work as effectively as possible, in essence for it to be optimized.

AB: And tell me, you’re saying that the brain doesn’t stay stable. Just like you can optimize the body, you can optimize the brain. So, tell me what processes and treatments go into trying to optimize the brain.

NR: Sure, obviously not loads of background, but just in terms of the timeline, scientifically it’s a relatively new understanding that the brain changes. We didn’t really think certainly as a psychological community; that wasn’t what we thought. We thought you kind of got what you were given intelligence wise and you just sort of learned to live that way. And we’ve discovered that through, sadly, kind of, I guess, rehabilitation ways, injury, a number of different avenues. And a lot of what we use in the enhancement area has taken its origins from there. It was originally developed to help people who were experiencing either cognitive decline or various conditions or dementia. And there aren’t really, I guess, one or two main treatments because there’s just so much happening, they’re coming at pace. The development is phenomenal, how quickly things are being developed. But there are definitely a number of different things and I can sort of mention a few and certainly ones that we use. 

SOFOS is a multidisciplinary approach. So, we’re interested in anything and everything that impacts the brain. So, we’re looking at, physiologically, what’s happening psychologically, what’s in your environment and we call applications for that. So, anything from how you are eating; what you are putting into your body and what impact that has on your brain; how much are you drinking, you know, hydration or drinking things, how much alcohol are you taking in; how much exercise do you get? What’s the impact of stress— all the way through to some very cutting-edge innovations. So, brainwave training applications where we do some incredible things around training people’s brain waves.

AB: Wow.

NR: Yeah, some really remarkable things. [With] Oxygen therapy, some great research is coming out. So, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful that these things that people are learning about them, that people are getting out and talking about them, and also that they’re no longer reserved to just a rehabilitative sort of population, which of course, we want them available there, but people are starting to look at. Well, actually, how can I use this for an enhancement effect? If I don’t have Alzheimer’s, how do I either prevent or prolong or optimize when I’m perfectly healthy? We don’t need to wait until something goes wrong before we try to get the best out of ourselves.

AB: And tell me a bit about brainwave training. That sounds fascinating.

NR: There are various different types of neurotherapy. One that has particularly lots of research papers and good results is something called neurofeedback. It was originally used a lot for conditions like ADD, ADHD and as I said, people started to pivot and see what actually happens when people don’t have those conditions. Do we get an enhancement effect? And the answer is, of course, to a different extent. But yes, it’s very cool. You sort of sit on with a cap and there’s these electrodes that are measuring your brain activity in real time. And we’re able to train brain waves through an operant conditioning model. So, you have a screen in front of you and it’s giving you real time feedback. And through that model, you’re able to reinforce essentially what you want the brainwaves to do. That’s a very sort of high-level basic overview, but it’s quite a remarkable thing. And then paired with other interventions, you can see how it kind of all comes together.

AB: Now tell me something, Natalia. So, we’ve got, like you mentioned, too, you mentioned brainwave training, hyperbaric oxygen therapy… I’m sure there are loads of others, but for a lot of us laymen, we’re thinking, they’re showing us all this— how do we know it works? Do we have scientific proof that it works?

NR: Anshu, I think it’s such a good question because there is just so much content. After this if you put into Google: how do I increase my intelligence? You will just be completely inundated. And the truth is, some of it is very good, some of it, sadly, not so much. And I suppose that’s where people in my discipline or clinics really come into their own. I mean, we have a clinical team and what they’re able to do is create very customized, tailored programs for individuals based on them, based on their results, what’s happening in their specific brain. And all of that is empirically backed. Let’s take meditation, for example. I don’t need to run those research studies. They exist, they’ve been out for quite some time. Numerous studies show how effective meditation is to the brain, likewise with cardiovascular exercise. Again, I personally don’t need to run those. There are very credible researchers who have done that for us. And I can only talk about our practice. Everything that we pull together, everything that is curated in our enhancement program, goes through a very rigorous process and research phase so that we make sure it is scientifically backed and it’s also coming from very credible research facilities.

I will say that. And you’re always going to have this trade off, aren’t you? There is some stuff that’s very new. The application of hyperbaric oxygen therapy in a healthy population is relatively new compared to something like exercise. So, yes, there are scientific papers and they’re very promising and they’re very good, but there isn’t going to be as many as something that’s been around for 100, 200, 300 years. So, you’ve got to sort of balance that trade off with something being highly innovative and cutting edge and having that kind of appeal. It’s not going to have the same longitudinal data as something else.

AB: A lot of times what happens is there’s all these new therapies and some of them are very effective. You know, when we present it to them, we like people to have some sort of proof. Like you said, if you start googling it, it’s just a minefield, you don’t know where to start.

NR: I know for our clients, for example, we give them a research guide. We give them bodies, put together a whole research guide that references all the papers that talk through why we’ve chosen each therapy that we’ve chosen for them specifically, because we’ve got their brain maps in front of us. We’ve got their heart rate data, their nutritional data. So, we can sort of demonstrate that. And it’s our responsibility to know that clients will see something, I don’t know, in the Guardian on a weekend and sort of email through and say, “look, this says I should be eating blueberries. What do you think?” And we need to have an answer to that. You need to say, ‘yes, it’s true’, ‘no, it’s not’, or ‘we don’t know.’ And this is why, because there is so much, there’s brain training apps and games and some of them are fantastic, as I said, and some are still in development.

AB: You know, there’s so much progress in technology of course. So, can you give us an idea where you use technology? How does technology help in increasing intelligence?

NR: This is what I guess really helps software kind of get on its way. I mean, I think we came to be because of what was happening in the sort of cognitive field and I think that crossed with personalized healthcare and then the sort of rise of health-tech. So, things like QEEG are where you measure the brain’s electrical activity in real time and it gives us an indication of what’s happening that has opened up massive worlds for us. That sort of technology was once reserved for hospitals, for kind of labs in science departments in universities, and whilst it’s not in everyday homes just yet, it is more readily available to us. And that technology means that we can create these sorts of programs. We can measure in a much more finite way than we were ever able to. On the development side, we have technology to help enhance practice. The Muse headband, which people find that it really enhances their meditation practice.

AB: Tell me about it. I don’t know about it.

NR: It sort of sits like a kind of headband across your forehead and it provides you feedback in real time as you meditate. So, it’s measuring a brainwave when you’re trying to get into a flow state. As you succeed in that state, you kind of get nice soft music. Mine is a bird chirping, and if anyone who’s tried to meditate, [you know] you sort of lose track and your mind wanders, then it gives you an alarm to sort of tell you that you’ve done that and help you kind of train your mind. 

AB: Oh my God!

NR: It’s a phenomenal piece of equipment. It’s something very easy you use at home. But it’s those little bits of tech that really help enhance people’s practice in whatever that is. Your Apple Watch that’s collecting data and telling you to do certain things. There’s a lot of headgear at the moment that’s kind of quite interested in measuring brainwaves. So that’s a kind of, I suppose, a very nice example of how tech has really opened this world up and really helped people get the most and so to optimize their performance.

AB: See, What confuses me about all these things is that at the end of the day…like the Apple Watch, you’re constantly putting a piece of technology on you. Constantly. It’s not like you’ve done it for a while and taken it off. So, you’ve constantly got Wi-Fi on you or whatever all the time. I know that helps to measure things. I don’t know but I will look into the Muse headband. But again, that’s probably battery operated or Bluetooth operated or something like that.

NR: So, it is, but you wear it for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, and the truth is I really wouldn’t be able to comment on the long-term effects of an Apple Watch. You’re absolutely right. You’ve got something that’s running skin to skin all day and all night. Arguably something like the Muse is put on for 15 minutes and then you take it off and that’s it. And maybe there are some adverse effects, but I suspect the positive effects that you get from the enhanced meditation practice are likely to well outweigh and it’s just different things. I mean, there are various kinds of tech pieces that work for some people but don’t work for others. I mean, I love the Muse personally because it acts as a kind of reminder to do my meditation, which sometimes kind of feels like it falls to the bottom of the list. I guess the point is that the tech world has allowed us to see the brain in a way that we could just never see it before.

AB: That’s absolutely true. Yes.

NR: Think about medicine as a whole. Psychiatry and psychology were one of the only disciplines that were focused on an organ that they never see. If you’re a cardio surgeon, you see the human heart; as a psychiatrist, as a psychologist, you never see that organ. And so, this tech has brought us a little closer to it.

AB: Yes, that’s very true. Now tell me, like you’re talking about the Muse headband, which is something you can use at home. Can you give us some tools or techniques that we can use at home to increase our intelligence or brain optimization? Something which will convince us when it’s beginning to work?

NR: Honestly, good quality sleep is just undeniably good. I just don’t know how else to put it. I mean, we see it automatically in people’s brain maps, in every aspect of their health, their well-being, their mood. It’s not just about sleeping enough, but having good quality sleep. There’s nothing quite like it in the world. So, my sort of philosophy is that you’re either out having the best time of your life or all sort of sleepy by 9:30 – 10:00. And that’s something that people probably know about but don’t really realize. Once you get into a habit of good quality sleep, you can feel that difference straight away. You feel that the next day, the next week, the next month. That’s a huge one. 

Meditation, again, I think people feel the effects of that really quickly. I mean, I’ve read studies where they’ve had control groups and research groups and eight weeks of meditation and they have seen their hippocampal volume increase. So, the part of your brain that’s involved in learning and memory, they’ve seen in just eight weeks that people who meditate every day have increased that in volume. They’re things that people have heard about. But I think even reading an abstract of a study will make you feel very differently about those sorts of practices.

AB:  And tell me, like you spoke about meditation taking eight weeks, would you say there is a particular period of time that you need to give, whatever treatment it is that you’re going for, to try and increase brain optimization?

NR: I think it really depends. I think something like neurofeedback, people will feel the difference within a week or two weeks. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy: I’ve heard people come out of the chamber and sort of feel very alert that very afternoon. Nutrition has a huge play and again, that’s something that can be corrected and optimized very quickly. But it really depends on you as an individual and where your baseline is, where you’re starting from. We have clients that come to us that are pretty healthy and have good life practices and they make improvements, but the times vary. And then we have some who don’t sleep very well, are always jet lagged, drink a lot of alcohol, don’t have a healthy diet, don’t exercise, and so they feel different effects in a different sort of period of time. So, it just depends on you and your individual make up.

AB: Okay. And finally, I wanted to ask you, do you have any advice, something they can go away with and remember— that you can say to them?

NR: Yeah, I have, I guess, two comments. I mean, I think the first is the knowledge that you as an individual, can change your brain. For me, that is the most empowering piece of information. There are things that you can do with your life to literally change the structure of your brain. So, I think that is incredible. I guess there’s a little hack to walk away with. I read a paper on hydration and on sort of what water does to the brain, and I was amazed to read that it was something like— two liters of water a day can increase productivity by up to 30%. Oh my, I mean, I knew it was good, but not that good.

AB: That is incredible.

NR: So, that would be my take home. I mean, water is free. It’s very easy, it’s very accessible. And I think that feels like a very small bit of effort for a big game. 

AB: That’s lovely. Thank you, Natalia, for a lovely chat. And I hope people have gone away with some pearls of wisdom. 

Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you leading your best life.