Is Brain Training the New Meditation?
Its champions say it'll help rewire your head. Our writer found out.
I’ve been trying for some time to become a regular meditator. It has so many benefits—less stress, better ability to concentrate, even an improved immune system—and I wanted to get a handle on my chronic worrying. Like most resolutions, I promptly failed at it. I’d meditate for a few nights before bed, then stop.
I gave it another shot this summer, with a twist: I was going to try neurosculpting. Lisa Wimberger, who runs The Neurosculpting Institute in Denver, created it when she felt like traditional meditation wasn’t doing enough for her. The premise is that you create a new automatic processes in your brain so that when something stressful happens, you react calmly instead of going into fight-or-flight panic. And you do that by repeating a specific mental exercise a few times a week. “The brain can be reshaped with repetition,” says Wimberger. “So I realized you could actually train your brain to respond differently to stress.”
Wimberger’s process is explicated on her guided lessons, so I followed along every day for two weeks.
It starts out like most mindful meditations, prompting you to sit quietly and focus on your breath. This calms your nervous system and sets you up for the next phase, which is when Wimberger suggests bringing your attention to random places on your body (your fingertips, the back of your eyelids). “I want to get your curiosity going, which activates your prefrontal cortex,” she says. “That’s the area used when you retrain your brain, so activating it gets you ready to unlearn an old automatic thought process and learn a new one.”
Now that I’m in the right mindset (relaxed with blood flow and oxygen heading into the prefrontal cortex), it’s time to get to the meat of the session.
- You think about something specific that stressed you out recently—it could anything from your car needing a pricey repair to the fact that your partner refuses to help clean the bathroom.
- Then you give that stressful moment a physical representation: a color, a texture, a temperature, or a sound. So that note from your boss is symbolized by the color red. You also come up with a few words to sum up how it made you feel (embarrassed, self-conscious, etc.). “By describing the stressful event in these two ways, you end up using both your right brain and left brain,” says Wimberger. “Crossing back and forth between your two hemispheres like that enhances the plasticity of your brain (a.k.a. your ability to create new pathways and thought processes).”
- Next, imagine where your body is holding the symbol of that stressful event; maybe it feels like that red color is in the back of your throat or your stomach.
- Lastly, imagine the symbolism moving from where it is in your body to a vessel outside of yourself. The red color could pour into a hole in the ground or a big steel box. You then make sure it stays in that vessel, so imagine dirt pouring into the hole or the steel box slamming shut for good. (This was my favorite part. There’s something incredibly freeing about watching something that caused me stress leaving my body.)
The session wraps up with two smaller tasks: Take your non-dominant hand and tap wherever on your body you feel lighter and give the experience a one- or two-word name. “You want to give yourself a way to recall that moment when you released the negativity,” Wimberger says. “If you do the neurosculpting exercise regularly, you’ll be able to just tap that area of your body or think of the words and you’ll instantly feel calm and free.”
Does it Hold Up?
While Wimberger has a lot of solid-sounding reasoning behind neurosculpting, she’s not a neuroscientist or a licensed clinical psychologist. Plus, there haven’t been any studies on the process to back up her claims. To find out more, I talked to David Victorson, Ph.D., an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and associate director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in Chicago. “I see elements of mindfulness, hypnosis, visualization, guided imagery, reconditioning all integrated together, so it sounds like she’s come up with a new way to package some pretty standard practices,” he says. “And that’s not necessarily bad! If you put a fancy label on plain old water and it gets people to drink more, that’s still a good thing.”
Wimberger’s reasoning is also based on solid research. “You can absolutely retrain your brain and create new neural pathways,” says Victorson. “Our brains are plastic and training in mindfulness and meditation can have a profound effect on the way you think.” Even the tapping part—which is when I felt the oddest—has a purpose. “That is something done a lot in hypnosis,” says Victorson. “It gives you a cue that can instantly take you back to how you felt during your session.”
Did I finally become the daily meditator of my dreams? Not exactly. But I have managed to do this a few times a week and I’ve noticed something interesting. I’ve become a lot more aware of how much control I have over my reactions to stress. It’s as if a speed bump has gone in so that when something bad happens, I don’t automatically feel panic and loss-of-control.
One morning I received an email from an editor full of last-minute interviews I needed to conduct urgently. When I started getting that pit in my stomach about how I was going to squeeze it all into my already-packed day, I took a deep breath and imagined the pit in my stomach flowing out of my body into my magical steel box. I really felt lighter and was able to calmly start contacting sources for that story. It’s not that I can will myself into instant Zen, but with practice, it might happen even for me. So if you see me on the subway tapping on my stomach, you’ll know I’m really training my brain.