How to shape your mind
At Silicon Valley’s spiritual retreat, the stressed seek help for their brains in a new practice: neurosculpting.
March Mindfulness is our new series that examines the explosive growth in mindfulness and meditation technology — culminating in Mashable’s competitive meditation bracket contest. Because March shouldn’t be all madness.
Having sliced open my skull Hannibal Lecter style, I removed the familiar folded lump of still-pulsing pink matter — brains only turn gray when they die — and placed it on a wooden workbench. After massaging it for a while, I picked up a steak knife and started slicing neatly between the hemispheres like I’m on a cooking show. Wait, that couldn’t be good.
“Stop!” my sleeping mind screamed at the image. “What are you thinking?”
I woke, bolt upright. It was the night before my three-day workshop in a brain-training practice called neurosculpting — and my brain seemed to be taking the prospect very personally indeed.
Initially, I signed up for the workshop because I wanted to write about 1440 Multiversity, a fascinating place where modern-day hippies and techies meet. Founded in 2017, nestled in the Santa Cruz hills 30 miles south of Silicon Valley, 1440 Multiversity is every glorious Northern California cliché in one place. It was founded by a tech CEO. Google and Facebook and TED members hold retreats here, as do hundreds of less well-known organizations like the World Changing Women’s Summit and the Conscious Companies Leader Forum, in buildings that resemble the glass-and-wood architecture of Yosemite Valley.
There’s an infinity pool hot tub overlooking ancient redwoods; it doesn’t get more California than that. You can buy both hoodies and crystals in the gift shop. The name itself is a blend of motivational math (there are 1440 minutes in a day, what will you do with yours?) and new-age dippyness (we need more than a university, man!)
Old school California meditation centers (looking at you, Esalen) might frown on smartphone usage; 1440 imposes no such restrictions. You get three tasty organic locavore meals a day, but there’s also a coffee shop and good WiFi campus-wide, so you can still grab a cookie and check Twitter between meditation and yoga. What’s not to love?
“Neurosculpting to Manage Stress, Anxiety and Depression,” to give the workshop its full name, was one of the few 1440 courses based, as far as I could tell, on actual research. I’ve written extensively about various forms of brain hacking, including one of the most powerful forms science has investigated, meditation. I’m fascinated by neuroplasticity, a relatively new realm of research that proves we can literally grow and shrink parts of our brain based entirely on what we repeatedly bring to mind. In short: You are what you think.
But honestly, the course also just sounded like the least woo-woo thing on a menu that included such options such as “Animal Magic and Earth Medicine” and “Awakening Sacred Power Through Sound.”
I knew little of neurosculpting, though, and resolved to go in with an open mind. That’s when my brain tried to fill the gap in my knowledge with its ridiculously literal dream. Take a moment to unpack what happens when we dream like this: A 3 pound, gelatinous lump consisting of 86 billion cells screens a short horror movie for itself. A movie in which the lump itself is, unusually, both star and victim. And, as with many bad stories, its message to the audience is subtle as a brick: Whatever this neurosculpting thing is, don’t trust it! You might mess me up!
Only after the course did I realize the dream had mirrored the brain-hacking steps I was about to learn. The night terror engaged my primitive brainstem, which neurosculpting takes great pains to calm down first. The second part of the practice is to tickle the neocortex — those modern, rational frontal lobes — with absurd thoughts. Check.
Once your brain is firing on all cylinders, the next steps involve mentally editing a behavior you want to change or a thing you’re afraid of. Do this whole practice repeatedly, neurosculpting veterans say, and you can slowly turn around the supertanker of your habits.
In its dumb dream, my subconscious had offered a story that was, in its twisted way, meant to protect me. It wasn’t like I was about to cancel a $700 weekend workshop on the advice of a nightmare. But setting off for 1440 Multiversity the next day, I found myself more anxious about the course than I would otherwise have been.
“We’re all neurosculpting all the time anyway,” says Lisa Wimberger, founder of the Denver-based Neurosculpting Institute and teacher of the 1440 Multiversity workshop. “It’s either for you or against you.”
If my brain was going to neurosculpt itself on the subject of neurosculpting, it was time to take charge of the process.
Wimberger was nothing like the kind of hippyish teacher I’d expected to find at 1440. Her Long Island Italian accent may be softened by years of living in Colorado, but it’s still very much in evidence. She’s calm but firm, poised but no-nonsense, as you’d expect from someone who teaches courses for first responders.
Within minutes of the class assembling, on ground-level meditation chairs drawn around a big red circle on the carpet, Wimberger was explaining the concept of mirror neurons — the bits of our brain designed to mimic the emotions of others — by reference to what she as a kid used to call her Sicilian grandma’s “smell-bad fart face.” After a while in grandma’s presence, Wimberger would end up adopting that same face, and feeling lousy for it.
“We get triggered when someone says ‘Oh, just smile,’ but it works!” she says. “Stick a pen in your teeth, you can actually change your mood.”
Her New York-style, rapid-fire delivery also means Wimberger, a lifelong educator whose seven-year-old small business now has 56 licensed teachers around the world, is pretty damn funny. She sees comedy as “alchemy,” she says, because it’s the only thing that simultaneously calms the lizard brain (neurosculpting step 1) and tickles the neocortex (neurosculpting step 2). “In my next life,” she told me, “I want to be a stand-up comedian.”
In this one, she’s devoted to sharing the good news on neuroplasticity, forming a “bridge” between the world of the lab, the world of more out-there wellness hot spots like 1440 Multiversity. She’s all about how freakin’ high the hurdle is for most of us to truly relax, to even get through step 1 of her process, especially when you’re dealing with trauma, not to mention your own impossible expectations. “We’re like, ‘I saw that meme on Instagram that said JUST LET GO, I should know this!” she says. “No! You can’t just let go!”
Wimberger was kind of dunking on meditation — or rather, on boring old directionless meditation classes that risk forever associating meditation in your brain with dullness. She slams the dull weekends she used to spend in an intensive Zen Buddhism center in Brooklyn — wanting to scream “you’re all fakers!” at the meditating monks on day 1, finally getting settled on day 2, blissed out on day 3, only to go back to work on Monday and get stressed out all over again.
“You don’t have to have an hour-long Zen meditation practice,” Wimberger says. “You can gargle for 10 seconds and shake for 30.”
Gargling, it turns out, is one of the activities that stimulates our vagus nerve — the longest nerve in the body, the one that interfaces with our heart, lungs, and gut. Researchers are just starting to probe the frontiers of vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and what it can do for us; currently a pacemaker-like version is used in the treatment of epileptic seizures, from which Wimberger used to suffer (she credits parts of her neurosculpting practice for the turnaround) and certain kinds of depression.
Humming, chanting, singing, even blowing raspberries are low-key means towards the same end. By soothing the vagus nerve — think of a cat’s purring — they help get us out of the classic three primitive fear-driven modes of behavior: flight, fight, or freeze. In our stressful workaday world, we enter these modes more than we know. Try to remember the last day in which you didn’t tense up, hunch up, get angry, avoid facing something, shut down or clam up in some way. I’ll wait.
Which is seriously fine, Wimberger says: that’s our survival mechanisms doing the job evolution designed them to do. Give them credit, they kept you alive thus far. Trouble is, neuroplasticity can’t kick in until we knock all that off. You can read all the self-help books in the world, but you can’t change a habit when you’re stressed. All other things being equal, brains are just naturally drawn to resisting change in everything, especially patterns of thinking.
That’s also the reason for the shaking, which is the first thing Wimberger makes us do after we share our names. We’re told to visualize a difficult moment in our lives, then to stand up and flail our limbs and torso as vigorously as possible.
As dorky as that sounds, it’s a thing. TRE, or Trauma Release Exercise, is a protocol based on a growing number of studies on the tremor reflex. Shaking is supposedly a signal to the body that the stressful event it was preparing for is now over. Shaking isn’t a sign of fear itself; it’s how we regulate the fear. Kids instinctively know this. Your dog knows this. When I arrived at 1440, I joined a class in the ancient Chinese exercise Qi Gong; that too, coincidentally, included a dog-mimicking shake.
Any kind of uncontrolled energetic movement has the same effect; dancing works, yoga doesn’t. But a quick shake is the one thing you can do any time, before a meeting, or before a speech. “‘Shake it off’ is not a metaphor, it is neurological homework,” Wimberger says. “Do it every day, and it will start to subtly give you more control.”
In short, Taylor Swift is the neurosculpting genius of our age.
By this point, the class is rapt. These kinds of explainable, rational, memorable tips and tricks seem to be exactly what these 1440 Multiversity patrons have paid for. Most of them are in, or have just left, some kind of stressful job. There are two attorneys, two advertising executives, a psychologist, one developer who left Salesforce, another who quit Google. One guy is from Jordan; he flew in to see if neurosculpting could help him deal with his PTSD, his guilt about living and surviving in a war zone.
Cross-legged next to him is a slight, gray-haired guy who speaks so softly, in this room with ceiling panels designed to absorb sound, that I can hardly catch a word he says. This, we later discover, is Scott Kriens, chairman and former CEO of cybersecurity firm Juniper Networks, founder of 1440 Multiversity. Along with his wife Joanie, Kriens spent around $50 million buying and renovating a former seminary school into a home for the 1440 Foundation, a nonprofit that launched in 2010. (Bible college becomes spiritual center for stressed tech types: a very telling change in 21st century America.)
It’s hard not to be impressed by the couple’s handiwork, even if the packed schedule means you’re often appreciating it on the fly. It’s like being in a quiet, sparsely populated and particularly beautiful hive; there’s a constant low-level buzz of activity. The campus never feels crowded and strikes the right balance between spread-out and walkable. In addition to the infinity hot tub and coffee shop, 1440 has a spa, 3 miles of redwood trails, two outdoor amphitheaters, a building solely for cooking lessons, a labyrinth for walking meditation (etched on the ground in stone and moss), a common dining hall with a large fireplace, and five fire pits surrounded by benches and chairs for relaxed night-time decompressing.
The courses and accommodations aren’t cheap, but you can get a “pod” — a classy, curtained-off, wood-lined bunk bed in an 8-bed dorm, complete with all the USB outlets your devices can eat — for $160 a night. You’re not likely to be in your pod much (I shared my pod room with two others and barely saw them). Even if you’re not taking a course, you can still participate in other one-off classes, which seem to be bursting out everywhere. After dinner on the second night, looking for the singing group (gotta keep soothing that vagus nerve!) and stumbling into the wrong room, I found myself accidentally joining an improv class held for TED’s social team.
At the same time, maddeningly, you’re never far from the woo-woo element. Some groups were attending workshops that assumed the existence of psychic powers. I met a number of folks in the dining hall with whom I struggled to keep a straight face and an open mind. It was the same weekend John Oliver released his segment on “cold-reading” TV psychics that profit from gullibility and grief, to which I can only say: this.
Wimberger herself is not immune to the woo-woo, as she freely admits. Her book on neurosculpting contains descriptions of meeting a meaningful figure she calls “Zahara, the mother” during her seizures. Such spiritualist leanings don’t show up in the class at all. But just knowing Wimberger is that way inclined trips alarms in my professional skeptic brain, and I resolved to fact-check the research she based the class on.
It passed the test, largely because of the fact that she’s naming her sources and giving frequent caveats. She’s upfront about times when she’s simplifying something: “Now this would make neuroscientists go a little twitchy,” she says at one point.
Besides, this part of the workshop is just preparation for the hands-on segment. After the gargling, the shaking, the comedy and the face-training, neurosculpting comes down to a series of 20-minute guided meditations where we’re invited to close our eyes and lie on the floor.
This being tech-friendly 1440 Multiversity, we are encouraged to record the meditation for later practice. A circle of sleepers — literally, in the case of a woman who just flew back from India and has jetlag — is joined by an intersecting circle of smartphones.
To start, Wimberger asks us to choose a habit or behavior we want to change, a fear we want to remove, or a story that we keep telling ourselves about our lives that we’d like to edit. Perhaps, she suggests, you want to quiet the little critical voice that pops up at the back of all brains from time to time, the one that tells you you’re worthless. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of that little liar? (Calling them out as a liar is a pretty good start.) Her meditation takes us through five steps:
1. Calm the primitive brain and its flight, fight, or freeze mechanism. Recognize that it’s really hard! Reassure yourself that you are comfortable, safe, in familiar surroundings; your needs are met. Wimberger lingers on this step longer than the others, even going so far as to remind us that bottles of water are at our side, the bathroom is steps away, and gravity is still working.
The guy from Jordan is too tense to get past this step. He has a moment that reflects the concerns of some researchers that mindfulness can sometimes backfire, bringing us closer to our trauma instead of dissipating it. My colleague Rebecca Ruiz took a lengthier look at this topic; the bottom line is that trauma sufferers need to choose mindfulness practice with care.
2. If you can get this far, stimulate the prefrontal cortex. Wimberger suggests a series of strange ideas to visualize: If you have a third leg, how would you walk? If you had 12 toes, what would your shoes look like? Humor, novelty, wonder, awe: all these things our clever front brain adores. They give it something to work with instead of grumbling about meditation. “The analytical brain’s like, ‘Hey, I’m invited to the party!’” says Wimberger.
3. Only once you’re past the first two steps, start to visualize the thing you want to change, while “toggling” across the left and right brains. Wimberger interjects with requests to mentally spell out words, to think about various numbers, colors, textures and smells. Choose new ones to associate with a positive version of whatever you’re working on. “Don’t ever go back to a traumatic thought the same way twice,” she says. “Neurosculpting is about keeping you safe from that kind of reinforcement.”
4. Do an inventory of your body in relation to the subject in question. Where do you seem to be holding any tension when thinking about it — your shoulders? Your gut? Touch that spot. When you’re affected by the problem in the future, touch the same spot and see if it helps remind you of the new association.
5. To keep the rational brain happy, come up with new names and descriptions. In my mind, for example, I had found the low-key fear I was experimentally sculpting away — the fear of writer’s block, the fear of an empty page — was represented by a jumble of jagged blue lines. I turned them into a smooth wooden globe.
A single meditation like this, Wimberger says, is just a light pencil sketch. To build new habits, new thought patterns and feelings, you have to keep going over the sketch. So long as the “bottom up” reassurances of step 1 is firmly in place before the “top-down” steps 2 through 5, any kind of mental change you want, within reason, is in your grasp, over time.
I’d already gotten into the habit of a 20-minute-a-day meditation practice, so it was easy to slot neurosculpting into my day by listening to the recordings instead. Does it work? Hard to tell, given that, at time of writing, it’s been fewer than three days since the workshop. With that caveat, however, I have found I have more energy and focus for writing; I’m more receptive to exercise, and it became easier to nudge myself into a new diet I’ve been meaning to start.
Placebo effect? Possibly. Regardless, the participants in the 1440 workshop all gave neurosculpting enthusiastic thumbs up. The anxious faces that walked in on Friday had turned into smiles by Sunday, though a few were bathed in tears. Facing your deepest fears and darkest critical voices in the arena of your mind is no joke. As the 17th century poet John Milton put it in Paradise Lost, that gelatinous lump of ours is capable of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Class dismissed, we stepped outside into the redwoods on a crisp, sunny California winter Sunday. It may not have felt like hell-free heaven for all of us. But to a pupil, our desire for further study was piqued. “I’m just so fascinated by my brain,” said the no-longer-jet-lagged traveler, “that I really wish I could be present at my own autopsy.”
I agreed, and promptly flashed back to my weird, self-slicing dream. Again I heard the anguished internal cry of that movie’s audience. I considered shaking it off, but then I realized it was also the constant question of the present moment, the question that sits at the heart of 1440 Multiversity, the heart of neurosculpting, and indeed all mindfulness practice:
What are you thinking?