Vancouver Brain Lab Measures the Science of Happy

In preparation for this weekend's Superhuman Summit, we spoke to Hiroko Demichelis, founder of Vancouver Brain Lab about happiness, what's going on inside our brains, and the importance of breathing.

October 19, 2016

By Sally Michael White

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Hiroko Dimechelis: Hello! What can I answer for you? What are you curious about? What are your passions?

VanMag: Can you tell me about the Vancouver Brain Lab and the work you do there?

Vancouver Brain Lab is my practise as a clinical counsellor, which has a bit of a special angle to it. Mostly what I do in my clinic is measure people’s brain activity. I have equipment that measures EEG, (electroencephalography) like you would in a hospital. What we typically do is look at five locations of the brain. The brain, in a way, has certain rules it should follow. The back should present itself different from the front, just to give you an idea. It’s like a game of hockey, every part has to have its own defined role. We measure the back, front, left, right and the centre, so that we can get a better idea of how the brain is functioning. These markers tell us, is this brain functioning optimally or should we adjust, should we do some intervention? There are definite markers, for example, for depression. Scientific evidence shows that the brain of a depressed person looks different than the brain of someone who is not struggling with the disorder. It’s the same for poor sleep quality, or trauma. Then what I do is use a whole set of tools in my Italian bag of tricks. I work with neurofeedback, trauma therapy, eye movement therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), or brain entrainment, which uses light and sound stimulation. I try to alleviate the pain as quickly and effectively as I can. I am quite passionate about happiness and trying to help people.

What drew you to this specific area of the field?

I think most of us become therapists because of personal suffering. Sometimes life hurts, have you noticed? [Laughs] Sometimes we are anxious, we are sad, we are depressed, we are traumatized or hurt. From my personal experience, there is some mental illness in my family; my brother sadly suffers from schizophrenia. So through my own pain and my loved ones, I thought I should learn more about it, working for myself and then for other people. This approach of quantifiable data is something my dad taught me. He’s a famous sports psychologist. Many years ago he told me in his strong Italian accent, “Hiro, you can measure emotion,” and I was shocked. Of course, tell a passionate Italian woman that you can measure emotion and she will be shocked. But he was right. In a way, you can quantify and measure states or feelings, emotions.

Of course, tell a passionate Italian woman that you can measure emotion and she will be shocked. But he was right.

After I built my practice, I segued into my new project, Moment Meditation. At the lab I work with clinical patients, people that struggle, but I can only help one person at a time. In the practice lots of my tools are mindfulness-based. Getting people to sit with their pain, observe what hurts, quietly, in the brain. I thought, what if I can facilitate a bigger project where I help 10 or 20 people at a time? I came up with the idea of launching an initiative around meditation. We are creating a trailer that will travel around town and people can jump in and mediate. We currently have a pop-up studio in Gastown; it’s a very peaceful, delightful space. I’m adding those elements of measurability: measuring the brain before and after a couple of weeks of meditation, or measuring your heart rate variability, which is one of the topics I’ll be speaking about at the summit.

Vancouver has many wonderful meditation spaces—the Shambhala Centre, the Zen Centre—but they’re not dedicated spaces in the same way. Most of them have a religious aspect like Buddhism, or are associated with traditional practices. As far as I know this is the only single use meditation space, plus I believe the idea of measuring is still quite new, having sensors that can measure breathing, the brain, muscle tension—it’s quite unique.

Demichelis analyzes an EEG reading measuring the electrical activity of the brain. "The brain is always doing something."
Demichelis analyzes an EEG reading measuring the electrical activity of the brain. “The brain is always doing something.”

 

Can you tell us about your involvement with the Superhuman Summit and what your talk will be focused on?

The Summit was put together last year by Spencer and Fraser Coppin, who are incredible functional medicine experts. They thought, let’s get experts in the field of health together, people that have innovative ideas, people that know what it means to be superhuman. My speech, in a conference where everyone is going to be speaking about amazing things—being superhuman, anti-aging, brain implants and cyborgs—is going to be about non-doing. The science behind why we should learn to breathe, based on neuromapping and neurophysiological principles. Understanding what happens in the out breath is a crucial part of breathing; it’s very quieting for the heart and therefore for the brain.

Is that tied to your concept of the science of “letting go”?

Yes, exactly. The science of letting go is about inviting or allowing a branch of the autonomic nervous system, called the parasympathetic nervous system, to function. The sympathetic is about doing, the parasympathetic is about resting, digesting, healing. That happens during the out breath. I’m going to talk about my experience with top athletes when I worked with my father, and now my experience with my own patients and how it can all inform the practice of meditation. There are things we can learn about breathing that if we understand, we’re more likely to engage with those practises on a regular basis. It’s like when you take a vitamin and you know, this is going to help give me shiny hair, I’m going to take it every day.

Are there any speakers you’re particularly looking forward to seeing at the summit?

Yes! Especially the women. There’s an amazing Spanish woman I’m curious about named Moon Ribas who is part of the Cyborg Foundation. She’s a dancer and an artist and I’m really looking forward to meeting her. There’s also another speaker named Reuben Major, who’s a chef in Vancouver with a company called Vital Supply Co. He delivers delicious meals—they’re all very nutritious, gluten free, superhuman meals—and I was lucky enough that someone gifted me with 10 of his meals. I want to meet the person behind the delicious food. 

Superhuman Summit

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre
203 – 162 West 1st Avenue, Vancouver, B.C.

For tickets and full event info, visit superhvman.com.

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