The performance enhancer for your brain: How elite athletes are using EEG to get a mental edge

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Monday February 27th, 2017

The following is excerpted from HEAD IN THE GAME by Brandon Sneed. Copyright 2017 by Brandon Sneed. Used by permission of Dey Street Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

In 2008, Olympic beach volleyball superstar Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner, Misty May-Treanor, won gold at the Beijing Summer Olympics. That was Walsh Jennings’s second gold medal. But then, in 2009, she watched as, in her words, her life “fell apart.” She was married to a fellow volleyball player, and she was pregnant with their first child—but she was constantly on edge, or distracted, or otherwise not a good version of herself, and the result, she says, is that she and her husband were “on the verge of walking away from each other.”

Telling this story in late 2014, she said, “I had this beautiful life, and on paper, I had everything I ever wanted, but I wasn’t living my life, and I wasn’t enjoying it.”

A friend of hers told her about Mike Gervais, saying, “I called him for help with volleyball, but he helped me with my life.”

So Kerri called Gervais, and, she says, they worked hard for two years. “We did a lot of work,” she said. “And he . . . helped me find myself and get out of my own way, as an athlete, and as a woman.”

In 2011, about fifteen months before the 2012 summer games in London, Gervais said Kerri should try Neurotopia. “And anything Gervais says for me to do,” she said, “I will do until I die.” She got all hooked up in more or less the same way Dan Chartier hooked me up. “The gel actually improved my hair,” she said. “So I was grateful for that.”

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Then she did her assessment test, which for Neurotopia was a twenty-minute continuous performance test consisting of tapping a touch screen when a dot appeared. That’s it. The whole time she went through an entire range of emotions, everywhere from saying to herself I’m kicking butt! to I’m failing!

When she finished, she got her brain map, which Neurotopia produced differently from how Chartier did mine. Since they were trying to connect with athletes like her, instead of giving her several different views of a brain all lit up in reds and blues, she received a large hexagon-shaped graph with ten rings, resembling a target. Each point of the hexagon was labeled— Activation Baseline, Stress Regulation, Max Activation, Impulse Control, Focus Endurance, Focus Capacity—and scored on a scale of one to ten. The scores were indicated by a dot on the corresponding line of the ring, with better scores landing farther from center. A line connected each dot, creating a vivid picture of her brain.

Kerri’s reaction was, in her words: “Holy hell! This is so exciting!”

In some ways, Kerri’s EEG performance was amazing. For instance, the fastest a human brain should be able to process visual stimuli is about three hundred milliseconds, and yet Walsh Jennings’s average response times were even faster than that—and she made few errors. She was also great at focusing and then sustaining her focus.

However, one area of her map cratered inward, almost creating the appearance of a brain in collapse. “First of all,” Kerri said when she saw that, “am I gonna die? What is that? Why does my brain do that?”

Edward Linsmier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Her two problem areas were activation baseline and stress regulation. To explain, Gervais told her, “You’re a Ferrari . . . You go sixty to one-twenty. And you stay at one-twenty. You pull up to your house, pull into your garage, put it in park, and your foot is still on the gas, pedal to the metal, even in park.”

In other words, although her brain was excellent at focusing and working hard, this came from a constantly high level of brain activity that in turn worked against her when she needed to, say, go home and relax. A common problem for people striving for high performance.

“And I go, ‘Oh my God, that’s exactly how I feel every day,’” Walsh Jennings said. “I feel like I’m burning the candle at both ends. I feel like I’m going too fast, especially when I get in an uncomfortable situation.”

To see it on a screen like that snapped something in Walsh Jennings. She said, “My brain works this way because it thinks it’s working perfectly, but it’s not. I can change it. I can train it like it’s a muscle.”

Getting used to the training took some time. She sat in a chair with electrodes that were hooked into a computer attached to her head, looking at a big computer monitor, flying a ship through space with her mind. When she calmed her brain enough, the spaceship flew well. She felt like she was getting punked at first, but she committed to and trusted it.

At home, with her family, she learned to actually be there when she was there. Her relationship with her husband improved. Life began to feel as beautiful as it looked on paper.

The 2012 London Olympics came with Kerri facing her share of challenges. Not only was she thirty-three years old, entering that era of life when athletes’ bodies begin working against them rather than for them, and not only had she given birth to her first child about a year earlier—she was also five weeks pregnant.

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And yet, tall and dominant as ever, she and her partner, Misty May-Treanor, cruised to their third gold medal in as many Olympic appearances, losing just a single prelim set along the way. Kerri said, “I felt like I was a different athlete.”

Meanwhile, despite success stories like Kerri’s, Leslie Sherlin was realizing a fairly obvious problem: most of the world’s elite athletes do not, in fact, live in Mesa, Arizona, or Marina del Rey, or Santa Monica. They might come by the office if they happened to be in town or lived nearby, but Sherlin saw a need for something they could use on their own—and something less clinical and intimidating, too, while he was at it. He envisioned people popping something onto their heads that they could simply use with their smartphones and tablets.

That took a long time. Taking clinical-grade technology and converting it into a consumer-ready product was a laborious process, to say the least. The hardware took forever to figure out, then they had to find a way to integrate this into a comfortable headset and package it all into something that someone could just put right on and start using. “It was a shit show,” Sherlin says.

But Sherlin and Neurotopia pressed on, working on the design into 2012. The concept eventually evolved into a five-sensor EEG reader combined with Beats headphones that had EEG software built into them. They called it the BrainSport.

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One of their first clients was an organization you might not immediately think of when it comes to elite athletes, but do they ever have, and need, elite athletes: the United States Department of Defense. The military loved the device, or at least the promise of it, for all the same reasons athletes do now.

Sherlin and his team kept working, and in 2013, the company shifted focus. “We just weren’t getting the acceleration we wanted,” Sherlin says. Their emphasis turned almost exclusively to just ship a product. Sherlin says this was “a major shift.” “Before,” he says, “it was teams, organizations, Department of Defense. This was a new consumer model.”

They redesigned the BrainSport again by nixing the Beats headphones and creating their own, and they overhauled the hardware integrating the EEG. They also stopped shipping their clinical equipment to teams, and they pulled back from working with clients at Red Bull and in Gervais’s office in Southern California. They knew they could help athletes with their clinical grade equipment, which they didn’t stop using completely, but they channeled their energy into the product. If they could crack a good, reliable, user-friendly headset, it would be one of the most powerful innovations to come along in a long time—not only for the world’s elite athletes, but the world itself.

It took them until late 2013 to develop a workable prototype, which they kept fine-tuning throughout the year. Along the way, they rebranded and changed the company name from Neurotopia to SenseLabs, and the name of the product from BrainSport to Versus. You, versus your brain.

And finally, toward the end of 2013, they cracked it. They created something that worked. It has big, over-the-ear, gray headphones with a big neon-green headband—plus a second piece of headband that goes not side to side, but front to back. The headband has five sensors, each with fifteen small rubber prongs, and a clip dangling from the left earpiece. All of the EEG-reading hardware is built into the headset; the software comes from a downloadable app.

Sherlin and SenseLabs spent the first half of 2014 testing prototypes and fine-tuning some more before their consumer launch later that year. To celebrate, in November 2014, they held the SenseLabs Human Performance Council, inviting several athletes and leaders in sports psychology and neuroscience to discuss the future of performance training. Since 2011, numerous athletes at the top of their sports have begun training with SenseLabs and are now using Versus with success, in all different sports. To name a few: MLB all-star Carlos Quentin, NBA all-star Kyle Korver, sixtime Winter X Games gold medalist and world record holder Levi LaVallee, world number-one-ranked doubles tennis player and fifteen-time Grand Slam titleholder Mike Bryan, Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Eric Shanteau, and more in volleyball, golf, and various extreme sports.

Dr. Michael Gervais and Kerri Walsh Jennings went to the council, and at one point, Kerri took the stage before a crowd of about a hundred or so. She spoke in awestruck tones about what SenseLabs was doing. “I’m not paid to be here,” she said. “I’m just a fan. But this is a big deal to me.” She said another attendee had told her that athletes and other peak performers were trying to keep things like Versus hidden, but, she said, “I want to shout it from the mountaintops . . . I want you guys to know how life changing this can be.”

Then she told her personal story. She said, “I think we all think we’re stuck in this rut, and when we hit a rut, we’re stuck there, but that’s just nonsense. We need to take ownership of where we’re at . . . And this is gonna allow me to do that [and] to kick butt in life.”

After that, in August 2016, Walsh Jennings went to the Rio Summer Olympics. By then, she was thirty-seven years old, she’d had her third child, and her right shoulder was thoroughly taped—she’d dislocated it twice the summer before, and she had surgery in September 2015 to repair a torn labrum and capsule, the fifth surgery on that shoulder in her career. And she had a new partner, April Ross. And . . . they medaled all the same, taking home bronze.

About two weeks before I return to Chartier to get my EEG results—and learn what was so interesting about my brain—I get a delivery: my own SenseLabs Versus headset. (They were sold out, so Sherlin sent me an older prototype.) And because I’m impatient, instead of waiting for Chartier’s results, I immediately take Versus for a spin.

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The Versus app walks me through the necessary steps—charge the headphones, turn them on, hook them up.

The headset also comes with a small container of sensor gel, which goes on each sensor and the ear clip.

When I put the headset on, the app tells me how well each sensor is reading what it needs to read. Then the app starts my assessment. This is basic: a twelve-minute “game” that’s called a “continuous performance task.” This is, literally, nothing more than tapping the screen when a dot appears. That’s it. If this sounds tedious and boring and kind of exhausting, well, it really is.

As I play the game, the EEG sensors collect my brain waves, which the software records. When I’m finished, the app instantly gives me an EEG assessment.

On the iPhone, this appears as a bar graph breaking down six categories: activation baseline, focus capacity, impulse control, focus endurance, max activation, and stress regulation. (The iPad app displays these results as the spider graph that Kerri Walsh Jennings saw back in 2011.) This is the Versus version of what Sherlin might see as an EEG clinician, reframed for athletes: instead of saying, for instance, that your brain is generating too much beta in the occipital lobe, which can indicate anxiety and stress, the program says that you are struggling with stress regulation. Or, if you’re generating too much theta in the frontal lobe, you may have trouble with focus.

Of course, if an athlete, or anyone, has serious mental problems, they need clinical intervention—but for an athlete or whoever else wants a quick look at their brain and a way to shore up some weaker parts, this is astonishing, especially compared to what I went through in Chartier’s office. Andy Walshe says that when they do their clinical EEG assessments at Red Bull, they have to outsource the analysis to a third party because it’s so difficult to break down. And yet the Versus software does this instantly. Then it will, just as instantly, tell me where I need improvement—in focus or in stress. It automatically creates a training program, one twenty-minute session per day.

Working my way through the assessment, as I tap tap tap away at the flashing dots, that’s where my mind goes, drifting into all sorts of thoughts about the Versus. I’m excited because the promise of it is enormous. The Versus isn’t perfect—the sensors get painful after twenty minutes and leave indentions in your skin for more than a few minutes once you’re finished—and the software could be a little better explained, but those feel like quibbles compared to seeing my brain on my phone.

That said, I’m skeptical, and I keep wondering, How accurate can it be, really?

When I finish my assessment, the results Versus gives me do not allay my skepticism. I’m already pretty certain that because of my anxiety and OCD, the Versus should tell me that I have problems with stress regulation, and maybe impulse control, although I expect to be pretty good at activation baseline, max activation, and focus—but the Versus app tells me my problem isn’t stress at all. My problem is focus, and that’s the training program it gives me.

For training, I literally play video games that I control with my mind. I fly a hot-air balloon, then I fly a glider, then I race a car around a track, then I play golf. Five minutes each. In the lower left-hand corner are three small circles. The better I focus, the more the circles converge, and the higher the hot-air balloon goes, the better the glider flies, the faster the car goes, and the more accurate and strong my golf shots are. If—when—I have too much trouble, the circles fly apart, and the game pauses itself to offer guidance. Breathe like so, avoid thoughts like such, focus on this part of the game, etc.

It’s cool. And hard. When I’m done with my first twenty-minute session, I feel like I’ve finished a workout. But for several hours afterward, I feel more relaxed and, yeah, more focused. But this is strange. After all, I’ve been clinically diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. And the more I think about it—my OCD kicking in hard—the more it seems like maybe the Versus is too good to be true.

So, a couple weeks later when I’m back in Dr. Dan Chartier’s leather chair, I’m dying to know: “OK, what was so interesting?” “Well,” he says, “people have told you that you have problems

focusing before, correct?” Wait. What?

I laugh. “No, actually. I thought that was the opposite of my problem.”

He chuckles with me, being nice, but clearly confused. “Okay, then. Well, look at this.”

On his computer, Chartier pulls up his brain-mapping program and opens my files. Several circles appear on the screen, most of them swathed in an array of pinks and oranges and reds. Not all of them. Some are clear. Healthy. But some also remind me of the planet Mars, others of Jupiter.

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The good news, Chartier tells me, is that none of the blows to my head over the years seem to have done any permanent damage. The other news is, boy, do I have stuff to work on.

My theta waves (the lower-end ones associated with sleepiness and daydreaming and the like) were way stronger than they need to be. Same for my alpha waves (a level higher than theta) and my beta waves (the level above alpha) during tasks that require concentration and thought. Chartier explains that pretty much whatever is going on, I’m thinking about it all way harder than “normal”—hence the too-high beta waves. This could explain my anxiety and OCD. However, he seems even more concerned about how frequently my brain waves suggest that I drift into thinking about other things, too—he sees that because of the heightened theta. In other words, he says, I have a hyperactive imagination and daydream way too much.

For instance, my maps show enormous amounts of theta activity during a task involving math. Chartier says, “It’s like your brain goes, ‘Oh s***. MATH. Let me go think about something else.’” Same for a really boring, tedious reading sample written in ancient Queen’s English. “Your brain found other ways to use its energy.”

As we talk about all of this, we inevitably fall down the rabbit hole of my past. What previous therapy and research have taught me about my mind lines up with what Chartier is showing me on the screen, in regard not only to baseball, but to life. Everything we experience, particularly as children, shapes how our brains process information. In my case, I coped with stress by letting my imagination run wild with ways to make the stress could go away, in ways sometimes pragmatic and sometimes fantastical. “If we want to put it in a more positive way,” Chartier says, “you’re a ‘creative’ person. And your ability to think outside the box is very important to you. You could think of your enormous theta waves as thinking well outside of the box—where, really, you’re probably more like, What box?”

“There is no box!”

“Right. In a highly theta-driven brain, there is no box.”

There’s no question I have anxiety and OCD, Chartier says. But what this EEG assessment means is that many times, they are made worse by all of that outside-the-box thinking. It’s great when I need to write or otherwise think creative thoughts, but a huge drag for everyday life. This plays out in different ways for people with OCD, and for me, I involuntarily imagine a million possible futures. In particular—when I was playing baseball, for instance—I constantly saw all the ways my life would be ruined by a mistaken decision. All that imagining exacerbates anxiety and obsessiveness.

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​Chartier hooks me back up to the computer. We don’t have to use the whole cap now, and there is no abrading. He uses two sensors—one for the front of my skull, another for the back.

He pulls up a video game, a flyover of what looks like cinematic western scenery. Canyons, rivers, forests, that sort of stuff. When I concentrate—when I suppress my theta waves—I fly along. When I get bored and start to daydream—which happens, like, every two seconds—I slow down or stop completely. I do best when I put myself in a mind-set of relaxed control—not straining, but working, feeling zoned in but calm, thinking only of moving forward.

We do five sessions of five minutes each. And by the end of it, I am beat.

Chartier tells me that since the Versus’s results were accurate, I can use it for training, and maybe check in with him every month or so if I want. That’s the plan moving forward.

“And look, that’s all we really promise,” Chartier says. “There’s nothing magical or mystical about this. This is no silver bullet. But what it can be is a road map—it’s a GPS for your consciousness. It’s not going to drive you where you want to go, but it’s telling you, are you driving in the right direction?”

Afterward, I feel good. Focused without trying to be. On the drive home, I still feel normal pressures of life—work deadlines, frustration over wanting to spend more time with my family and friends, all that—and then someone cuts me off in traffic . . . but I’m calm. Normally, I probably cuss into the windshield, but today I just go, “Duuuuuuude, come on.”

The days go by and that feeling fades. This is normal. Most people need at least thirty sessions to get lasting effects from EEG training. Some, even more. And even then, a tune-up every now and then. At first, I think I’ll just bang those thirty out on the Versus in a month and see where I’m at. That’s not quite what happens. Over the next few months, I train when I can, sometimes on the Versus, sometimes on other tools that we will get to soon, sometimes with Chartier. And it is work. That might be another reason why EEG training hasn’t caught on. It’s easy to pop a pill and see what happens, but EEG training feels almost like going to the gym.

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