Brain Training for Self-Care, Focus, and Productivity - Alex Doman
Jill Stowell: Would you like to feel less stressed, not only right now in the short term, but in general in your life? Retraining your brain to access a calmer, more relaxed and more focused state is possible. Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences. Jill Stowell: Have you ever noticed how music can impact your mood? Today we’re going to talk about how the fields of music, neuroscience and technology have come together to help teens and adults reduce stress and anxiety and increase focus and productivity. I’m your host Jill Stowell, Founder and Executive Director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone out of the Shoe: A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning and Attention Challenges. Today we have the pleasure of speaking with Alex Doman. Alex is a pioneer in the field of music, neuroscience and brain training. He is the cofounder and CEO of Advanced Brain Technologies,
a company dedicated to improving brain health and cognitive function through personalized music and brain training programs. Welcome back, Alex. Alex Doman: Great to be with you, Jill. Jill Stowell: Yeah. It’s so nice to have you here. So let’s start with just a little bit about your background and how you became interested in the use of music to improve brain function and just overall well-being. Alex Doman: Jill, I’ve been very fortunate to be part of a family that has been really dedicated to helping people achieve optimal human performance going on over 80 years now. Three generations starting with my grandfather who was a rehabilitation physician
and one of the pioneers of brain injury rehabilitation in early child development. My father Robert Doman is an educator and had been in the field for my life and I joined the family in the field 30 years ago this year. So it has been quite a journey and with all the work that I grew up around, I was very inspired about the impact, the different modalities that my father and grandfather and their colleagues used to help children, help teens and help adults from severe brain injury to highly gifted individuals.
What really resonated with me most was the application of music and specialized music designed to help improve brain performance. So I began studying that, studying different methods in Europe, training in them, using them with a very wide range in clientele and I found my happy place. I really found my niche in the field using music and sound as a way to well-being. Jill Stowell: And music really can help regulate our emotions and promote better sleep and there’s just so much that it can do, which is essential for our overall health and well-being. So I love the exploration that you’ve done in the field and all you’ve done with it. Alex Doman: It has been an honor and it has been a pleasure and I feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We’re just getting started. If we think about the application of music
in well-being, it’s one of our oldest, most ancient forms of healing in humanity. So we’re learning and starting to understand really how the brain functions and how it’s impacted by sound, music and all forms of sensory input. So while we’re learning more and more, I’ve watched this field change and the scientific awareness grow and we’re learning more that’s allowing us to do better, create better programs, more impactful programs. But just feel like we’re still scratching the surface of what’s possible. Jill Stowell: So thinking about all that you’re saying about the discoveries that are going on and what music can do for us, what is kind of the mechanism behind how we experience music and how our mood is so impacted by it? Alex Doman: Well, it’s interesting because there are multiple mechanisms within the nervous system that are involved with the processing of music and the benefits of music and in fact if you look at neural imaging studies, you come to understand that more areas of the brain are involved when experiencing music than any other input to the nervous system. So that tells us something of the importance
of music and sound and it’s working both from the bottom up from the autonomic functions of our body-brain connection which would be the autonomic nervous system that’s regulating our involuntary states and our conscious process and our cognitive function. So bottom up and top down impact in terms of mechanisms and it helps to regulate– music regulates different neurotransmitters, different hormones in the body related to stress management, relative to attention and reward mechanisms as well as sleep. So that’s one of the profound things about music is it impacts so many areas of the brain that there are just multitudes of explorations into the different neural networks that are engaged when we experience music and also the emotional states that we experience with music listening. Jill Stowell: When you mentioned that music kind of trains the brain top down and bottom up and at our learning centers, we’ve been using the Advanced Brain Technologies’ listening programs for, well, decades, I guess now. But we started out using that to stimulate
and tune up the auditory processing to really support reading and language and speaking and then as we learned more about what music really can do, we use it also with our Core Learning Skills Programs where we’re working really bottom up with the body and regulation and attention and just sort of physical and mental organization because it really does support all of that. Alex Doman: Well, and it’s interesting, Jill. We shared that journey together. When we created the Listening Program in the ‘90s, the idea was as a listening program to improve how we discriminate and respond to sound in the environment, especially with language and communication.
So we were working from the top down and together with you and our network of thousands of providers, we discovered that it appears – and I would say it appears that the impact is really starting bottom up and that perhaps this bottom up improvement in self-regulation is making the individual more available for attention, for concentration, for executive functions that allow us to execute daily activities and facilitate learning and communication. So that’s still the discovery that’s going on is how much is top down, how much is bottom up. But really it’s the relationship because anytime we try to segment the brain into pieces and parts and look at left hemisphere and right hemisphere, we have to understand this is a whole system or a whole – we’re a whole organism. So we’re affecting our overall being and in functions. So we have to take a step back and just keep that in
perspective as we get maybe too isolationist in terms of our approach of these things. Jill Stowell: Oh, and we absolutely see that with our students that everything we do, it’s so hard to separate out one thing that’s having the impact because it’s really addressing the whole person, the whole mind-body connection. So I want to talk about the new brain training technology - Vital Neuro - that’s really kind of just coming out now. Can you give us an overview of what Vital Neuro is and who it’s for? Alex Doman: Yeah, I would be happy to do that. So Vital Neuro is neuro performance training that harnesses the power of neural feedback combined with psycho-acoustically designed music that is personalized to change your state of mind in real time through the reading of the EEG, which is the electrical activity within the brain. We started Vital Neuro back in 2016, myself and
my first cofounder Dr. Kamran Fallahpour who’s our clinical psychologist and neuroscientist and our chief scientific officer because Kamran and I really wanted to build a solution for individuals that would help them find focus and balance in their life, really how to self-regulate and we wanted to bring the power of what we have been doing with psycho-acoustically designed music at Advanced Brain Technologies over the decades and what Kamran have been doing with neuromodulation therapies in his clinic in New York. So we combined these two and worked to create a mobile, scalable solution that would be accessible to the masses as opposed to technology that would be limited to clinical application only, which most of neurofeedback practice is today. So what we have today is a headphone and I can show this Jill, which is a proprietary Bluetooth headphone that has integrated sensors as you see here and also in the ear cuffs and these sensors read the electrical activity in the brain which are brainwaves and the brainwaves tell us what the current state of the brain is. Is the brain relaxed? Is it stressed? Is it
anxious? Is it asleep? Is it focused? So by putting on the headphones as we see here and connecting to the mobile app on an iPhone or on an iPad, we do a baseline EEG in under a minute, clinical grade on a mobile device. We read that EEG. We determine the current state of mind based on the brain waves. Again we’re not reading the mind. We don’t know what the mind is thinking but we know what that electrical activity, that signature the brain is telling us. Once we understand the baseline, we then play psycho-acoustically designed music that’s selected by the individual using Vital either to meditate, to relax, to focus or to optimize and activate our executive function. So based on the desired state of mind,
the music begins to entrain the brain to that state while we’re measuring the EEG in real time, sampling the brain activity every four milliseconds. Then the music is personalized in response to that brain state. As the brain learns to reach the target of its goal state, it’s rewarded through a paradigm called “operant conditioning”. So that’s a feedback. If you’re familiar with biofeedback, that’s how where operant conditioning is employed and in neurofeedback we use EEG to help activate that network and it’s a loop. So what Vital is doing through the app is giving the brain a mirror to watch itself through the EEG and to reward the brain when it’s achieving its goals. So if I’m trying to relax from a stressed state, we’re
monitoring that brainwave activity specifically. Once the brain begins to relax by reaching a target frequency, the brain is rewarded. The music is personalized and changes through a reward tone that the brain finds pleasing and the brain seeks out more of those rewards and it learns how to self-regulate and achieve relaxation. So you use Vital daily anywhere from five to thirty-minute sessions. So we love to see people do two 15-minute sessions a day. It’s a really nice routine to have and to make this a part of their daily lifestyle. You can use Vital
during transitions of the day, upon waking, getting prepared for school or doing work and preparing email or doing emails. On breaks during the day, it transitions back home when we need them from school and work as well as in the evening as part of a pre-sleep ritual. We have now lots of individuals that have been trialing Vital and using it during exercise, during yoga and treadmill use and their Peloton bike. So we’re seeing all kinds of applications that we hadn’t considered where Vital is really proving useful.
Jill Stowell: So when I think about all of the work that we do, whether it’s attention training or processing skills training or reading development, the first step in change is awareness and with Vital, I feel like that’s kind of what’s happening. It’s helping you to be aware, your brain to be aware of what it feels like to be in the desired state, whether it’s meditation or relaxation or a calm, relaxed focus or the more creative, executive, optimized program. What I noticed is in the whole process, with creating goals and customizing the program with our clients, just that beginning part starts to build awareness of what they need and what state they really want to operate in. Then as they get going with it, the brain starts to recognize what it feels like to be more relaxed or focused or really on a roll and then for myself personally and really what we always are working towards with our students is then to be able to access that anytime because you’ve learned how to make that shift.
Alex Doman: Yeah, that’s really well-said. It is about bringing self-awareness to internal state. So Vital gives us that opportunity to go within while still being connected to the external environment and to subconsciously self-access, scan where are we and then the technology and the music is guiding us to where we desire to be. When we’re doing Vital, we talk about making the shift. We make the shift to the desired state during the session and that has an immediate benefit when we need to be in a certain place. Then we have a halo effect and that halo effect will carry on for hours after the session. But as
this becomes a habit and we employ this with the right frequency, intensity and duration using this in our daily life, that’s when the beauty of neuroplasticity comes and then the brain changes and the pathways are established to reinforce that allow us to carry that experience throughout everything that we do, so that ultimately we’re changing our state. So when we have a stressor, we have an appropriate response, right? And that response is yes to feel stressed but then to release this stress when the stressor is no longer coming at us whereas now, people often go into a fight and flight state and they don’t go through that recovery release process. Vital enables that, the ability to get focused when distractions are happening, to be aware of OK, these things are happening around me. But let’s get back and focus on task. So that awareness is really a keyword, Jill. I love that you shared that. Jill Stowell: And you kind of right in there alluded to – well, not alluded. You kind of explained what you would have kind of called episodic, like change in the moment as well as long term change with real neuroplasticity. So a changing of the connections and pathways
in the brain and I think that’s really important. I know we’ve been kind of learning different ways that we can use this and sometimes we have students that they come in and the day has been tough for them. So doing 10 or 15 minutes of Vital helps them to get into a more calm, relaxed, focused, available state in that moment. I know this for myself too that afternoon is my worst time for getting things done. So if I really need to, which I usually do, and I’m not very focused, I will put Vital on while I’m trying to start going through that email and different things. I find, wow, I was able to focus for another two hours. Not with Vital on the whole time but just doing a 15 or 20-minute session and then I was really good to go.
But it does take like with all of the brain training that we do, it takes frequency and consistency to really build that over time which is what we want. We want a better stress response. We want to more quickly get back to a calmer state when something has been upsetting or stressful. I just see this as an incredible tool to help teens and adults do that.
Alex Doman: Well, we agree and we’re really thrilled to see and the learning that we’ve been doing with you and your team at Stowell Learning Center, both with the team using it and using it with students. You touched on something really crucial and we call that a priming effect. So when we shift the state, we’re priming the brain. We’re priming the individual for the activity that they’re going to engage with. What’s interesting
is we use all sorts of aids in our life as a primer. I got a cup of coffee for caffeine, which is a primer to activation. We may use melatonin to help us go to sleep and shift our neurotransmitters so that we increase our sleep state and our sleep readiness. What we’re finding in a lot of the feedback is with Vital, that people are able to not use those aids as often. So we’re getting reports of people needing less caffeine to have their energy,
to do the things that they would normally do to focus and be attentive. They’re reducing and they’re finding using Vital as a pre-sleep ritual is providing what they need to get a good night’s rest and that sleep is really crucial as we know with brain plasticity because it is during deep rest as well as sleep that neuroplasticity takes place, that that consolidation of events of the day happened that we get – human growth hormone is produced. The cerebral spinal fluid is clearing out the neurotoxins in the brain and flushing the system. So it can be healthy and the brain is rewiring. Most in consolidating, it’s learning for the day. So helping to facilitate good sleep is one of the things Vital is proving to be really crucial for in terms of its benefits which then supporting everything that we’re doing.
Jill Stowell: Yeah, and I definitely see that with myself personally. But as we’ve been working with this, I’ve been seeing with anxiety and with sleep in particular, that people seem to get into patterns and they just can’t shift and so they get into a pattern of not being able to sleep or having these really high stress responses and anxious moments throughout the day and what I had found is that starting to use Vital, it helps them break that pattern and start to create a new pattern. So it has been really exciting to see. Alex Doman: Well, as we know, we get a lot of learned behaviors. These patterns for behaviors and it takes a while to have that behavior change take place and that’s what we in fact start to see. So you bring out an important point. I want to share a little bit of the research that’s going on at Vital, if we could take a couple of moments on that because we’re … Jill Stowell: That would be great.
Alex Doman: We currently have completed some or in process in initiating a total of 20 pilot studies in the United States with different populations of the individual. For reference, today is April 11th. Last Friday, 2023, we had just completed a six-week study with flight attendants from two of our major airlines and they were recommended to use Vital three times a week for at least 15 minutes a day and we are just starting to analyze the post study data. We did a baseline. We did midpoint and then post-evaluations with a number of standardized assessments and I just wanted to touch on the anxiety and sleep in particular because we did measure those Jill and just midpoint after three weeks, we had seen a 40 percent symptom reduction in anxiety in these flight attendants. We know how hard it is for flight attendants with all the
travel they’re doing and all the customers that they’re keeping safe and supporting. It's an incredibly stressful job that they have and sleep is a big issue as they’re crossing time zones and have a lot of shift changes. We saw a 31 percent improvement in their sleep as well as the 41 or the 40 percent reduction in anxiety as well as a number of other measures. As we’ve started to look at some of the post data, what we have seen is that trend has continued in improvement gain as we go through the study. So currently we’re now working with nurses, mainly critical care nurses that work in hospitals that have extremely stressful jobs and are now just on the – in the beginning stage of working with enrollment on first responders, police officers, fire fighters, paramedics.
So we’re looking at different impacted populations where there’s a lot of stress, anxiety, sleep issues, mental health challenges and so far really, really pleased with what we’re seeing. Jill Stowell: Wow, that’s really exciting and I’m so glad that you’re being able to do studies with these different populations. I feel like this could just change the world. I feel like our whole world is operating in such a high level of uncertainty and anxiety and boy, I just see tons of potential with Vital for our students and our staff but just for adults in general. Alex Doman: Well, we agree Jill. You know, as a society, it’s like our ability to be our best is under attack. If we think about midline is normal and on the far left is severe mental health challenges and on the right is high performance. That middle of the curve has shifted left.
So we’re left of normal with more mental health challenges and farther away from our optimal potential. So really what we’re trying to do at Vital is move us not just back to center but slightly right, so that it’s a society we’re really helping everyone to shift to where they need to be. That’s why we started Vital. I really believe that we have a solution that can do that and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to hear your experiences and learnings that we’re getting from you and using that same perspective. Deeply value your experience with helping students for so many decades now. You’ve seen so much
come and go and it has been thrilling to watch you embrace what we’re doing here. Jill Stowell: Well, I am thrilled that our learning centers have gotten to be early adopters with Vital and as I said with my own personal use, I’ve seen much better sleep. We’ve seen increased motivation and focus with students and a number of our staff members have shared that using Vital before leaving the center to go home has really helped them shift gears from work to home, which I think is great. People today really are more aware of anxiety and the need for self-care. But what to do about it has been really difficult and so I just
think Vital is very timely, a very much needed avenue for reducing anxiety and improving that sense of well-being that we all want. Alex Doman: Yeah, we all want, we all need and I love hearing that transition from work to home. It’s so often hard to maybe compartmentalize our lives and take. The work that your teachers are doing is quite intensive in that there’s incredible one-to-one focus of the student and the intention is fully put into that student. So what I know in speaking with teachers at
your facility that are working with your students is that they’re giving everything they have just as a therapist that’s working with a patient or a physician, a first responder that’s attending to somebody in crisis, the flight attendant on the airline or the nurse taking care of patients. We’re giving of ourselves and we’re focused on another and we have to refill our tank. Vital is a way to step back, reset, refill the tank. Even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, that 10 minutes of self-care has massive impact on the rest of the day and our interactions with our loved ones, with our family and if we don’t do it for ourselves, if we do it for our family, to focus on those transitions. If we won’t do it, to put ourselves first. At least we’re
seeing people do that and it's OK to put ourselves first, to practice in self-care. It’s like when we’re flying on a plane and you’re told to put on the oxygen mask before you help another. It’s because we need the oxygen in Vital. That helps provide that. Jill Stowell: Yeah, and I have to say it is really easy and convenient to use because it really is the headset and an app on your phone. I want to make sure people have a good sense about like the different options that they can work with. So can you just talk about that programming just a little bit? Alex Doman: You bet. So there are programs that help to downregulate the brain or to calm it
and there are programs that upregulate the brain or to activate it as well as programs that help us achieve that midline of balance. So it’s really shifting between states and emotions. So starting at, say, the bottom up, we have meditation. So meditation allows us to access very deep meditative states that are ideal for really calming the nervous system, helping the autonomic nervous system get out of fight or flight response, so from sympathetic to parasympathetic recovery. Very good for pre-sleep, to help with sleep onset and sleep maintenance. Now when we discuss the impact of sleep maintenance, we’re in these studies with individuals that have biometric devices like Whoop and Oura, Apple Watches. We’re monitoring heart rate variability. We’re monitoring sleep quality and we’re seeing improved deep sleep and REM sleep in response to Vital use. So meditation is very
good for that as is relaxation. So just slightly different frequencies in the brain that we’re working with to achieve a more relaxed state, to feel less anxious, to feel less stressed. So we have meditation. We have relax, and then
focus. Focus allows us to concentrate, to stay on task, to avoid distraction and to access what we call flow state in our lives. Then optimize would be the most activating that are going to help charge the brain, give it the energy, allow it to engage in creative activities and the executive functions where we plan and organize the things in our life. With optimize, there are three different music selections as well as with focus and relax and currently two in meditation and we’re building new music programs now and we should add that each music program has a companion of visual. So there are very beautiful, abstract visuals that play on the screen along with the music when you’re doing your Vital Neuro training. So you can do just auditory entrainment and feedback or combine auditory-visual entrainment and feedback when we’re using Vital. Then they each have different time options, 5,
10, 15 minutes, then 20 or 30 minutes, so on the longer sessions. So there’s a lot of variety for individuals to choose, to pick their favorite sessions within the collections or just to experiment and see what the experience of different ones are like. Jill Stowell: Great. Vital is really for teens and adults. It really has been researched for that population. Is that right? Alex Doman: Yes, but we are working with children and moving to younger and younger children. So we started with teens and adults and children are also a
group that we really want to impact, Jill. So the protocols are working very nicely with the kids that are using it but most of our experience thus far would be teens, late junior high and high school, college students, through the adult population. Jill Stowell: And I can see how it would be really beneficial for children. I was thinking perhaps the headphones were too large for a child’s head or something. But I can see that but I can also see with teens and adults, there’s just more awareness of the changes that they’re making. So I think that is helpful as well. Just as they
become aware of what they notice as they’re doing Vital and after and in the long term. Alex Doman: Isn’t it exciting to see our teenagers be present, to be self-aware and to do something with a screen and a device that’s positive? There’s a time we can have screentime and phone time or tablet time. It’s totally OK and some of the gamification components of Vital we’re finding that teens really respond to very well because they like to see if they can in fact game the system because you learn as you try to direct the feedback coming to you, that if you do certain things, because it is real time, you get a different result. So it has been interesting to watch the teenagers turn this into a bit of a gaming experience but quite a positive one. Jill Stowell: Well, to our audience, if you are listening and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get a hold of Vital for myself, for my family,” you can visit StowellCenter.com to get in contact with us. Alex, where can people learn more about Advanced Brain Technologies and Vital Neuro?
Alex Doman: Yeah. So Advanced Brain Technologies would be AdvancedBrain.com and Vital Neuro is VitalNeuro.com and both companies are on all social media platforms. So you can follow up and keep up-to-date on what’s happening with these organizations in our research, social or on the websites. But for those of you that are working with Stowell Learning Center, really encourage you to be in contact with them. We had selected Stowell as one of the first learning centers in the world to have access to Vital Neuro and very, very few clinicians currently have access. So
Vital has been in research mode, has been available to select populations with our very long-standing relationship with Jill Stowell and her team. We had invited them to participate and have been so happy that we have Jill and we’re able to see your continued work with it. Jill Stowell: I’m so honored that we have and I just see tons of potential there with it. So Alex, what have I missed? I just want people to have a really, really good sense about this and because I think it’s truly life-changing and world-changing. So I just don’t want to leave anything out. If there’s anything …
Alex Doman: You know Jill, there’s so much we could go into. You can go so deep. I think we’ve covered a lot today and it’s easy to get into the weeds. I can geek out on the science and the technology and we’re going to have an audience that’s going to love that and others are going to say, “Is it going to help me? Is it going to help my child and is it safe?” It is safe. This is validated science. Neurofeedback has over 100,000 published studies. This is an existing science with new technology, mobile, clinical grade with a mobile phone and a wireless headphone. This is something that’s first of its kind. So it doesn’t put anything into the brain. All we’re doing is reading the electrical activity. All that
we’re providing the brain is music and visuals to watch. So it’s safe. It’s non-invasive. It’s incredibly effective and it’s accessible. We’ve really created this to be something that the general public and the masses can have access to. So Vital today is available again through limited partners today in different organizations. We’re working with some veterans groups and military groups and the different occupational categories that we shared and large companies and then later this year, it will become far more widely available.
So we’re excited for that but I think the main takeaway is it’s something that each of us can use. It’s a stressful world out there. It’s hard to be present and Vital is something that can make us present, make us aware, find our happy place and live a much better, more fulfilling life. Jill Stowell: Well, thank you so much Alex for being with us again today, for sharing all of this and for your dedication to helping people live their best life. Alex Doman: Yes. Thanks so much, Jill. Yeah, I really appreciate you.
Jill Stowell: At Stowell Learning Centers, we help children and adults eliminate struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences. We know that this is a challenging journey for a parent and we want to make it easier for you. So connect with us on social media and on our website StowellCenter.com for information and free resources. If you found this episode valuable, please share it. The struggles associated with dyslexia and
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