Dr Daniel Glaser is an esteemed neuroscientist and the director of Science Gallery at King’s College London. We had a word with him about taking control of our human experience by getting to know the brain better. Here he shares the ultimate trick to a good nap, explains how your body language affects how you feel and considers the politics of the pineal gland.
“You need to have your neck supported, otherwise you jolt when you go to sleep. You need to feel unsurveilled. Follow a train of thought so your mind goes from this to that: I’ve got to do a cycle, I’ll park off Bond Street, actually there’s Crossrail, oh yeah, that’s right there’s that thing I read about the pollution from Crossrail… so you do that and then eventually a non-sequitur pops up which is a thought that is not in the sequence. You’ll suddenly have a random thought like “bananas!” and as soon as you notice a non-sequitur you can get up and go back to work. It’s that instantaneous break in the train of consciousness which does the reset. If you open your eyes having had that instantaneous loss of context, loss of continuity, then you are refreshed; the lunchtime slump has gone and you’re ready to face the afternoon.”
“When you close your eyes one of the things that happens almost immediately is alpha rhythm; 14Hz. There are biofeedback techniques you can learn to do to boost that rhythm under voluntary control, which people who meditate are very good at.
You cannot control your 14Hz at will as you can control your hand but you can learn to. It will take you a month or two. First get an EEG training kit off eBay and connect it to your computer, it’s quite easy. You start by putting some electrodes on, you don’t need very many of them and you wire them up to an amplifier and then a frequency generator and onto a tonal display where high tones are more alpha and low tones are less alpha. If you make yourself anxious or look at a brightly coloured thing the tone will drop because a brightly coloured light or something visually stimulating pushes the alpha down. If you close your eyes or meditate you’ll notice the alpha start to go up. Over a period of a month or so of training you can learn to bring your alpha under conscious control so you can say ‘Dan, I’m just gonna lift my alpha a bit now aaaand there it goes’.
You can do the same with blood pressure, heart rate, sweat – these are all things which through biofeedback you can learn to bring under conscious control.”
“When I’m going into a difficult conversation I will power pose before just to stop myself from being defensive. Similarly, if you hold a pencil with your teeth, the muscles that you use to hold it in place are your smile muscles – or if you hold the pencil at your brow and balance it it’ll give you a wrinkly nose and that’s the muscles you use when you frown – then if I give you six faces to judge you will judge them as being happier because you’ve had the pencil in your teeth or if at your brow you’ll judge them as sadder. So the physical act of smiling makes you happier and also makes you see the world as happier. All of these judgements we make of the world – ‘god the world is shit’ – you can bring those under indirect control through body language. Not through introspection. Thinking yourself happy doesn’t work but moving happy does.”
“It’s essentially meaningless to have a relationship with a part of your brain. Trying to feed your pineal gland [as the trend goes] is like saying of my Macbook Air that I want to use the 18th and 19th GB a lot more. Appeals to biology in culture are interesting. For example, the appeal to evolution, there is a long history of that being appealed to by the people on the political right – it’s taken to justify sexism, sexual violence and capitalism – they say it’s dog eat dog, it’s caveman. It feels to me that this thing of identifying bits in your own brain, like your pineal gland, could arguably be of a different political hue in the sense of being more about empowerment, more about personalising abstract knowledge, more about a narrative that’s about the individual taking control of her own life and her own brain.”
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