Sunday, December 10, 2006

Finding the Zone With Hemoencephalography

Slowly, a subfield of biofeedback, known as hemoencephalography, is gaining recognition as a method for developing the cognitive skills of focus and concentration. Hemoencephalography is the measurement of voluntarily-controlled regional blood flow in the brain. Research suggests that, with practice, people can learn to increase the relative blood flow to their prefrontal cortex, which is the brain's executive center. This is one way of creating the kind of brain fitness activity advocated by cognitive neuroscientist Elkonon Goldberg. It is also a way of enabling people to develop the capacity to access "the zone": that region of consciousness associated with peak performance. The zone, as it turns out, is actually a state of sustained concentration and frontal activation.

Unlike some other forms of biofeedback, which measure the body's level of arousal and hence assess whether someone is stressed or relaxed, hemoencephalography measures skin forehead temperature. The idea is that, with infrared detection, it is possible to identify when blood flow to the frontal areas is relatively high or low. A skin forehead temperature index is displayed continuously for the user, providing the feedback. The goal is to enhance concentration, not induce relaxation. The technique originally was utilized by Dr. Jeffrey Carmen to control migraine headaches and by Dr. Hershel Toomim to enhance cognitive functioning.

Above you can see my forehead temperature index readings while I was casually surfing the Web in a relaxed manner. The readings dipped over time, then stabilized (blue line). I immediately shifted to a cognitive imagery exercise that requires a high degree of concentration (red line). Note the steady rise in forehead skin temperature.

Now here's the fascinating part: After 12 minutes doing the imagery exercise, I immediately returned to casually surfing the Web. Now, however, I was doing so in a very alert, attentive state. Instead of my temperature dropping, it continued to rise. I was engaging the Web while in the zone; I was highly focused on what I was reading.

Subjectively, my surfing experience was quite different as well. Initially the material I was reading seemed routine and not especially interesting. After the imagery exercise, however, I found my reading material more engaging. My recall is better for the latter material as well.

This, of course, is far from a controlled laboratory experiment, but I believe it makes an important point: Our experience of the world is mediated by our states of consciousness. In one state, I have low concentration and process little of what I experience. In another state, the same material becomes more interesting, and I learn more of it.

Colin Wilson, following the Russian philosopher Gurdjieff, has pointed out that human beings habitually operate at a subnormal level of consciousness. In essence, we operate much of the time along the blue line, not the red one. With intentional exercise, however, we can more frequently engage the world with mental energy and alertness.

How might such capacity for sustained operation in the zone affect performance in trading and in all fields? Might we be less likely to make impulsive trading errors under conditions of heightened awareness? Could we accelerate our learning of trading patterns while maintaining elevated frontal blood flows?

Surely this is a worthy frontier for neuroeconomics. It won't be long before hemoencephalography units and similar devices become widely available to the public--as commonly used for self-development as fitness equipment. With such methods, we will increasingly become the executives of our own minds.