February 17th, 2021

Episode #11


Improve Creativity, Learning & Flow with Neurostimulation with Dr. Balder Onarheimt

Laura Dawn speaks Dr. Balder Onarheim, Ph.D. in the neuroscience of creativity and founder of Plato Science, the developer of a neurostimulation device called Plato Work to help improve learning, concentration, and creative thinking.

Every time you use neurostimulation, you increase the effects of whatever task you are doing while you have it on, and that might be a microscopic change but what it does is it’s accelerating the learning you have.
Dr. Balder Onarheimt


About This Episode:

The narrative around creativity is drastically changing. Creative thinking is now being called the #1 most important skill set that you can learn to cultivate for thriving in these uncertain times. 

In this episode, Laura Dawn speaks with Dr. Balder Onarheim who has a Ph.D. in the neuroscience of creativity and is the founder of PlatoScience (the developer of a neurostimulation head device called Plato Work) about the importance of training your mind to think more creatively. 

We explore how you can learn to draw upon a variety of tools that all share similar neurological underpinnings that specifically support and enhance neuroplasticity, like cognitive practices that you can learn, with technological tools like neurostimulation, and even biotechnologies like psychedelics (and microdosing), all to help you learn more quickly, think more creatively, and concentrate more effectively. 

Core Themes

Explored in this episode:
  • The Creativity Battle
  • Neurostimulation
  • Convergent vs Divergent Thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Flow
  • Learning
  • Psychedelics

Links &

useful resources

Episode Transcript

Episode #11: Dr. Balder Onarheimt Psychedelic Leadership Podcast.

Duration: 01:16:27

Laura Dawn: Welcome, Dr. Balder Onarheim, I’ve been so looking forward to this conversation with you. Because it’s a little different than what I’ve done in the past, on the podcast. And we both share a passion for this complex and nuanced topic of creativity. Creative problem solving, creative thinking. Which is how I found you online. Because I’m fascinated by the neuroscience of creativity. And this just so happens to be what you have your Ph.D. in. Which I find so interesting. So, I’d like to invite you to make a case. For why this topic of creativity and creative thinking is so applicable to everyone. Why it’s so important for us to be talking about and educating about. Especially for leaders and entrepreneurs and the change-makers of our time.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yeah absolutely, so. Thanks so much for having me and I’m a big fan of your work. So, I’m very happy to be here. And I definitely think that creativity, as a concept has sort of, a bit of a funny reputation because a lot of people think of creativity as being quite fluffy, quite childish, quite hippy, intangible. But in reality, I see and a lot of other academics’ scientists. See creativity, as probably one of the more fundamental human cognitive skills. So, what sets us apart from a lot of the other animals to me. Is our ability to come up with new inventions, new solutions, new ways of tackling problems. And just the fact that you and I, I’m in Australia and we are recording this conversation. Is the result of ten thousand years of human creativity. So, we are here because of that. 

And to me, creativity is not about the arts, it’s not about marketing and fun and giggles and painting. It’s very specifically a cognitive skill. It’s the brain’s ability to create something that your brain has not done or seen before. And that to me is at the base of everything. Is at the base of defining yourself. IS at the base of learning. It’s at the base of any type of novel work. If you’re writing a text, even if you’re writing an important email. If you’re a lawyer in a lawsuit, making the fine statement. All these things are about how good are you. At creating something new, something novel, which fulfills whatever context or purpose you’re in. So, I think I call it the creativity battle, which is about, making it more commonly known. That creativity is a cognitive skill. That everyone needs, and it’s at the core of humanity. It’s not just some funny arts topic.

Laura Dawn: And what inspired you to pursue a Ph.D. in the neuroscience of creativity?

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yeah, it’s funny because I. So, my first education was actually from the [inaudible 03:30] army. And then I went on and did the master’s degree in medical equipment. When I started working as an engineer. I was very intrigued by working with the experts in the field. Because I think we all know the person who would be invited into the meeting if you’re stuck. And then this person comes in, you explain the problem and he or she says I’ll try XY and Z. And look at this, and the person leaves, and you sort of sit back and think. Why did we not think about that? And in the company, I used to work for back then. We have a couple of those. You know, creative geniuses. And I was so fascinated by that cognitive skill of theirs. So, my Ph.D. actually started. Trying to see how well do we understand, what that skill really is. And also, how can we train or improve that skill. And to me, if you don’t understand it, it’s very hard to do anything about it. So, it’s really understanding what it is and use that knowledge to improve it.

Laura Dawn: What was the name of the article you wrote in the journal. I Thinks that’s initially how I found you. And basically, the premise was that if you teach people the underlying neurological mechanisms of creative thinking that actually helps support creative thinking, is that right?

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes, exactly. I’m pretty sure it’s called applying the neuroscience of creativity for creative training. I’m pretty sure we have creativity at least twice [inaudible 05:16]. And it’s in the frontiers of human neuroscience. Which has a very good, very modern, journal. That’s a lot of very interesting groundbreaking stuff. So, everyone with an interest in the field. Should keep an eye on that journal. And as you said, our hypothesis was. So, I’ve been working a lot with a neurobiologist. And our sort of core, you read for a lot of our creativity training programs and training activities. Is that the better you understand creativity? Especially from a neurological perspective. The better you are able to prove your own creativity. 

And to me, I’d only use the metaphor of muscles. So, if you want to be strong and fit. If you know nothing about how your body works. How your muscles build, how to eat. You know, then it’s really hard to be fit. But if you start by learning and understanding your body, the processes, your muscles. Then becoming fit is much easier. And it is the same to me for the brain. And it doesn’t only go with creativity. But if you’re interested in improving a skill. If that’s your language, or mathematics, or creativity. Then to me first you have to understand what it is. And then you can train. 

So, in this article, we basically compare two groups of students. I’m pretty sure we have 120 students in total. Two times 60. And one group got traditional creativity training and the other got neurological based training. So, it was very focused on the student’s understanding of the neurological underpinnings of being creative. And we saw a very significant difference. After the course, the measured creativity of the students in the neuroscience group, compared to the non-neuroscience group.

Laura Dawn: Wow. Can we get into a little bit of what are some of the neurological underpinnings of creativity?

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes, absolutely. It’s my favorite topic. You have to stop me at some point.

Laura Dawn: No go for it.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Also, in essence, our brain is trying to save energy. It’s sort of so task, it’s not to consume energy. So, what our brain does is. Creating a lot of work around and creating a lot of simplifications, to save energy. And that’s in most instances the opposite of being creative. So, if you don’t, sort of manipulate your brain. Or if you don’t do any interventions, your brain is super lazy. And it will go with what it knows. By that understanding, your brain is trying to be in an uncreative state. So, the core of the neuroscience of creativity is actually to understand the key mechanism, that your brain does to save energy. Because you don’t have to trick them. So, you have to form the natural way your brain works. So, a very simple example is our brain works by associations. So, if I say apple, then your brain activates any information it has. That is closely related to apple.

Laura Dawn: Which I think immediately Almond Butter.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: SO funny. But that’s the thing. Because we all have, you know, different types of associations. But most of them will be quite similar. And, the apple you know, will trigger certain parts of your network. And your brain will sort of excluding everything else because that’s potentially not relevant. and then only give you access to what your brain has reasons to believe is relevant for you. But that’s actually the uncreative things. So, if I say, you know, in a brainstorming session. If I say an idea out loud. Then everyone else says a soul associative networks will sort of assume in and focus on whatever they have, which is very close to the idea, I just have. So, by basically talking to each other, we lock down the amount of information your brain has available. 

So, one very simple method for breaking out of that. Is to do some brainstorming. So instead of a brainstorm by talking together. You do iterations between, talking for two minutes. Then, silence individual brainstorming for two minutes. And then you talk to, do back and forth, because then you actually utilize. The fact that the brain, if it’s left to itself, can actually wander quite far. But if you talk to each other, you keep locking each other brain style. So that’s just one example of these no lacing mechanisms that our brain has and, which, you know, makes us function the rest of the time. So, the reason why you understand most of what I was saying is because the words I use activate the right associations in your brain.

Laura Dawn: Sometimes in the graduate. I mean this is, you know that I’m in graduate school, studying creativity studies and change leadership. And sometimes in the facilitation process, we use associations to try to come up with new ideas. Like if we’re in a creative problem-solving process. Well, the facilitator will bring in like a very different kind of image, that’s very unrelated. And to try to use leverage this, this natural mechanism of association. In a way that helps us think more outside the box. 

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes. Yeah, that’s a very good method. I actually use Wikipedia. Wikipedia has some random article button. So, if I’m stuck with something. I’ll go on Wikipedia, hit the random article button and then I get a piece of information which has nothing to do with what I’m actually working on. And then I read that article or skim it and try to force my brain to connect whatever I’m working on. To the material in the article, because the problem with, very often with inspiration. Inspiration is you choose the type of inspiration you think will help you in the project or the process. or in the process. And very often that’s just enforcing whatever close associations you have. So, having someone else, pick it as you said, or to do use basically random generator. Would then open up for unexpected things that you ask, creative, absolutely. Think of yourself. 

Laura Dawn: Yeah, I think it’s so interesting to also just highlight that most people who are adults in the workforce today. Are all products of an industrialized education system that focused on convergent over divergent thinking. And so, we’ve been conditioned to always look for the one solution. Maybe we can just define convergent versus divergent thinking. And a couple of tools cognitive tools to help people engage in more divergent thinking. And why that’s even important. Why that’s even an important skill set to have, or mindset to have.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yeah, I think it’s actually a very troublesome topic. Because, as you say, all adults, more or less, are the result of the type of education which goes back to the 1800s. Where the whole purpose of education was to make sure that the people wouldn’t revolt. You know that’s the conceptual starting point for our current teaching system. Is keeping people from writing. And that I believe has given a certain way of designing education. Which hasn’t changed really. So, you’re definitely right in that we teach students and give good grades for a certain type of thinking, which is definitely not novel. There are even studies showing that teachers dislike creative students. Because they ask more questions and they are you know the difficult people, for instance. Find loopholes in your rules. 

I’ve been a teacher for a lot of years myself. And I sometimes really have to control myself for not shutting down people who are actually just being really creative. If you have 60 students and you have too little time, then. A creative student can be quite disturbing for your teaching. While in reality, that’s actually the type of skill that you should foster. And I hope that we’ll see more of a shift towards there being a better balance between divergent and convergent thinking skills. And while the two concepts convergent-divergent are a bit outdated. I guess because our, our brains do both at the same time. All the time. But conceptually divergent thinking is about generating new alternatives. Convergent is about filtering and removing alternatives.

So, it’s basically coming up with ideas and filtering ideas. That’s sort of open and close, open and close. And our brain does this simultaneously and constantly. It’s actually, me formulating a sentence. Most of the words I choose. This is my, not my first language obviously. So, a lot of the words will actually be the result of the microscopic divergent conversion process. Where I come up with a couple of potential words I could use. And then I pick them. And that happens quickly enough that the sentence will still flow. If you talk about divergent convergent teaching. There are very few examples in any modern school system, or you actually have courses, classes that are focused on teaching divergent thinking.

I think part of the problem to me with that is. Only classes where you only allow students to do better divergent thinking, like art classes. But again, I think that just enforces the idea that creativity, equals hearts, which it doesn’t. So, I think having whichever topic you teach. You should have a divergent thinking module. Even in mathematics. And its a, I’m a big fan of a scoring system called the Steiner schools. I think it’s called the [inaudible16:59] schools in the US. Which was founded by the German philosopher Rudolph Steiner back in the 30s. 

I went to that school system myself in Europe. And in learning mathematics in the Steiner school system. You start by asking the students, what is five. You wouldn’t say what is two plus three. You say what is five, then the students can come up with different alternatives that would result in five. And I think that’s such a beautiful tiny simple example. Of how you can actually teach the classical and creative topics, in a creative way. And it also allows students to perform on their level. So, a clever student will say it’s the root of 25. While, you know another student might say, four plus one.

Laura Dawn: Even just allowing people to recognize that there are cognitive tools that we can reach for. We’re going to get to technological tools in a moment. But just real cognitive practices that we can implement in our daily lives. And why this is so important for us. Is because it allows us to think differently. And for most people listening who aren’t in school, what are some practices, that people can implement.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: So, I would say there are two different approaches. And I’ll touch on both. I’m sure you can link it to my TED talk. Where I talk more about three very specific tools. But there are two directions. One of them is continuous, cognitive training. Meaning that you do small things all the time, to make your brain, more cognitively flexible. And that’s basically about trying to break patterns. So, if that’s putting on the other shoe first. Or if it’s cutting your nails on the other hand first. If it is brushing your teeth. So, it’s all these kinds of things. If you bike to work or walk to the subway. Can you take a different route, any tiny intervention, you can make in your life? If it’s private life, work-life. That just breaks a little habit.

And not just forming new habits but trying to keep your mind open. Because that trains your brain’s flexibility. And it makes it less rigid. Which means that it’s easier for your brain to accept. When you are trying to force it to be creative. The other part is using specific methods. So, I mentioned the Wikipedia random article one. You mention the one that your teacher would use. And there are books. There are hundreds and hundreds of them. But I would say, randomness. So, allowing for randomness, its one very important part. Another one is the silence. When you do, especially team-based creative work. If you even when I say creative work. I mean anything. 

So, if you’re a lawyer or a leader or working on a new company strategy. To accept the fact that working out loud, talking out loud, with the other people involved in the process. Is not necessarily the most effective way. So, these shifts between working individually and working as a team. And shifting back and forth is a very effective intervention. Another one that I’ve been using a lot with complex problem-solving. Is something we call constraint removal. And it’s actually, it’s a very funny exercise as well. So, if you are faced with a complex problem. And you struggle to find good solutions to it. You analyze the problem a bit and you try to figure it out. What is the most limiting rule? So, for instance it could be time, or it could be cost, or it could be staffing to have, you know. There are always some itchy parts of the problem you think if we could not have that rule. Then it would be easy.

And then you remove that rule for a little while. So, you say okay for the next three hours. Let’s work as if our problem was a little simple. And then you work on the problem, for the designated time. Afterward, then you have all these new ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of. You reintroduce the rule that you removed. And then you try to adopt your potential solutions, to fit the problem. And what you’ll find is a lot of the solutions that you came up with. Still work, you just might have to tweak them a little bit. But they would still be viable solutions. But most of them you would never have come up with them. If you were trying to tackle the whole problem at once. 

But again, there’s a great book called creative method or creative methods. Which basically has hundred different small exercise tools like this. In my TED talk. I talk about sleep, which is now the one that I really like. Using sleep as a method. Meditation, daydreaming, anything, any type of personal practice you can do. To make your brain sort of diverging from whatever you’re working on. If that’s even like a three-minute micro meditation. It’s another very effective method, that I also use a lot.

Laura Dawn: Sometimes I’ll encourage people to just pick an object and think about brainstorming a list of all the different ways. That that object can be used. I think that’s used in quite a lot of creativity studies and research. Like, the brick, you know, how many different ways can you use a brick. And then, one of the things I’m learning a lot about is. Just the simplicity of reminding people to defer judgment. You know that it’s so easy to be hypercritical. And to immediately say oh that’s not a good idea. But even just training the mind to defer judgment. And to you know go past the sort of low hanging fruit. And go further and see what wants to come past that. Those are great ways as well.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Definitely. We’ve been using a method a lot called negative brainstorming or reverse brainstorming. Where you quite early in the process, you would flip the problem around. So, you’re basically, instead of coming up with good solutions you try to come up with bad solutions. And it’s. Of course, fun, it really helps to sort of train people in not being afraid of saying something silly. And not being afraid of saying something that might be a bad idea. Because that’s, a lot of creative processes are hindered by different types of hierarchies. And, you know, if I say this out loud, how will that be for my manager and my colleague. You know and that might limit people. So, doing a bit of a negative brainstorming or a bad idea session. Is only a good way for everyone to remember that having a bad idea might actually eventually lead to a grand idea. So, it’s just part of the process and saying something stupid is sometimes actually very important.

Laura Dawn: Yeah, and that’s the complex nuance that I really appreciate, especially when it comes to facilitating complex problem-solving. That it’s so much more than cognitive. It’s emotional, people’s egos are involved. People are facing their own fears of, you know, sharing or give. Putting out a bad idea or someone making a comment about someone else’s idea. So, it’s actually like facilitating a whole group flow process and managing relationships and egos and all the things it’s actually really. It’s so fascinating and so complex.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: It’s so fascinating and so complex. I used to teach a course on the facilitation of CO creation. At the technical [inaudible25:40] in Denmark. And, you know, we would have about a hundred students and training them to become facilitators. And I think one of the things that I took away from that course myself. Was just, it’s so personality-based. It’s probably one of the most, sort of, personal skill space. Because it’s, it’s more than being in couples therapy at therapists. That’s easy compared to making a group of 8 professionals. Work well together in the creative process, that’s magic. And some people just have that, some people just walk into a room. And they make it happen. For other people, they can do it for years and years and never really get good at it. So, it’s very fascinating and very, very tricky and extremely complicated.

Laura Dawn: So, we are speaking of personality. I mean, of course, you know that I’m so interested in the overlap between psychedelics and creative thinking and creativity. Now research shows that even one psilocybin journey can change someone’s personality trait of openness. Which is directly correlated to creative problem solving and creative thinking. Have you been reading into that? I mean, what’s your, do you have any curiosity, around the overlap between creative thinking and psychedelics. And you don’t have to share any personal experiences if you don’t want to. But I’m just curious and we could leave this in or not. But I just wanted to ask you.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yeah. No, I find it absolutely fascinating. And I think, to me, it’s really the frontier of a lot of fields, obviously. That’s also therapy, depression treatment, anxiety treatments. But on the healthy side, I think, the use of psychedelics is probably one of the most underestimated methods. And there are a lot of very interesting things happening now. As we’ve been speaking about before, around the world. Where there are movements to remove some of the super negative connotations from the 70s and ’80s. From the [inaudible27:53] movement and focus on the therapeutical aspects. And I do have the first-hand experience. I also have a lot of second-hand experience. With people I know who are, you know, very professional. And using psychedelics for a number of purposes. 

And for creativity openness to experience seeing new solutions. I think anyone who has ever been, even you know, try micro-dosing. Would know how much even a small amount of psychedelic can open up to your acceptance for novelty. So, you know, you might see things you might know, there are not there. But you accept them, and you sort of say I know that object is not moving. From a rational perspective. But I see that it’s something and I accept that there is sort of a discrepancy between my technical knowledge and my experience. 

I accept that and I’m fine with it. And I think that’s a very healthy, very sort of positive practice, of your cognitive flexibility. As I spoke about earlier. To learn that things not seeming right or things seemingly being incorrect. Is not a negative thing. All these things around us are just constructs. That we have decided. That I’m talking to you now. That’s my brain. It’s in that hallucination of some type right now. And that is a chosen reality that I can also manipulate. And knowing that, I think has a huge impact on a lot of things. And also, your creativity, definitely.

Laura Dawn: And in your own experience would you say that you are able to have some level of meta-awareness. Working with these substances. Where you’re like Oh my, my mind is more fluid right now. You know, post experienced. Did you directly notice more windows of mental flexibility?

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes, definitely I think to me, sort of, any type of psychedelic experience. Again, even a tiny, tiny disruption and on the way to full out trick. I would say is mostly an experience of novelty. It’s your brain experiencing things that are unknown. And to learn to accept them. And I think, the whole notion about tricks is having negative experiences. Comes from not being able to let that go. So, a good trick, you accept that things are different. You accept that things look, feel different. You accept the other type of thoughts and inspirations you might get. Yeah, so to me, in terms of the cogniflex ability openness to experience. I would say that’s the essence of psychedelics. That’s what it does to you. 

It forces your brain to have experiences that are outside of what your brain would normally do. And like to do and sort of again this, as we spoke about in the beginning. This very confined energy-saving mode. That the brain is on 99.9% of the time. And I think, from a more scientific. I’m definitely reading up and following all of the current developments in the field. And I would say, one of the very interesting things. I remember, we have spoken about this before. But in classical neurological status of creativity. The default network has always been sort of the holy grail and it’s always been, you know, an understanding of an increase in default network activity.  So, I’m sure all your listeners are familiar with this. 

But I will repeat it, just for the sake of it. So, in operating its region. Which is sort of always-on, and it’s called the default network. Which is most of the back of our heads. And that’s the regions where a lot of subconscious processing is happening. It’s where our dreams take place. And in classical creativity theory. The high creative performance will have increased activity. So, a lot of people when they are concentrating on the task, they will deactivate the default network. People who have high scores on the creativity test. They do the opposite. So, when you sit down and concentrate on a task. Instead of turning down the background noise in your default network. You turn it up. Which fits well with idea that your associations are the control mechanisms for your creativity. And by having more activity in the default network. 

Your brain has more material to work with. It has more remote associations. It’s funny that we say to them something in the back of your head back. Or the back of your mind. Because it’s literally where it is. But in psychedelic it actually the opposite. So, your default network is deactivated. It’s in [inaudinle33:35], its mode is turned off. And still, there is this strong relationship with creativity. So, you know what I hope that will become wiser at is. Is it actually the regulation of the default network? Which is the creative skill. So, it’s not about it being more activated or less activated. It’s actually about the control of the formal activation which is creativity.

Meaning that if you’re a professional creative, then you will regulate or deregulate your default network. In accordance with the task. So, you can reach, more exploding type, overactivity in the default Network. But you can also turn it down. So as Michael Pollan I think refers to it as turning off the conductor, for your Symphony. Yeah, so I find it very interesting that those two theories are more or less complete opposites.

Laura Dawn: That’s so interesting. During the psychedelic experience, it’s almost like an opening of the reduction valve influences the thalamus so we’re exposed to more data, we’re able to process more data. It’s interesting that juxtaposition and actually I go way deeper into this specific conversation with Mennesker in episode five. He’s a psychedelic neuroscientist and he’s also very interested in creativity. And he’s been looking at these correlations and patterns as well. And this is really what I want to be doing. With the next retreats. And I’ve been running retreats for about 10 years now. And after post-COVID time. 

We’ll see when and what that actually looks like. But I really want to leverage these experiences to work with teams specifically. And then leverage those windows of mental flexibility, post-experience, and teaching people these creative cognitive tools. To think bigger, and I’m really excited about where that’s going. And putting all the content together for that. Because it’s so interesting. I just think it’s so untapped. This conversation is barely being discussed. In the psychedelic space. And I’m very passionate about holding space for this conversation. And really being at the forefront of this topic.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes. Yeah, I think the idea of the concept of combining the type of work that I’ve been doing. So cognitive training, complexity builder training, and cognitive methods training. With psychedelics experiences. I would say maybe not so much, combining them with a peak experience. But combining them with, you know, optical or micro-dosing so you sort of balance, the amount of complexity with learning. I think that super procrastinating trajectory. And just remember to mention it. We have an e-book through my company protoscience about. I think it’s called 8 days to creativity. Where we sort of have done this 8 day in a row. To improve your creativity, and make sure that it becomes available to your listeners. Because for anyone dabbling a bit in psychedelic especially micro-dosing. I think, do some micro-dosing and follow those 8 days. I think that would be very interesting. Yeah, recommendation.

Laura Dawn: That’s amazing. Totally. I’m definitely going to include that in the show notes. And I’m actually in the middle of creating a 30-day micro-dosing program. That’s focused on teaching people cognitive tools. During the micro-dosing. Which brings me into flow states. Which is one of my favorite topics ever. And you know I just love getting to know you and all the things that you’re working on. And I’m so happy to have received this transcranial stimulation device. Playdough works. Maybe before we get into flow states. I’d love for you to just talk about it.  How did you get into this? know that I know you also have a background in engineering. It makes a little more sense. But it’s really amazing and I want to know about some of the research. That you’ve been doing, with this device. And what’s inspired you to launch this company and this product. That I’ve had the privilege to experiment with. That I love really.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: I’m very happy to hear that. That’s of course the most important thing. So, as I said, I started this journey of training people’s creativity together with a neurologist. And what we found in our studies was that yes cognitive training has an effect. It works and, it also affects the problem is retention. So, everyone who has ever tried to do any type of behavioral change for themselves. If that’s starting to run, starting to read more. Whatever that new year’s wish is. Know how hard it is to retain new habits. We definitely saw that in our own works. That the brain laziness. The brain’s uncreativeness is such a strong thing. And we all have 20, 30,40 years of training your brain to be uncreative, convergent training. 

And what we wanted to do was to try to use technology. To both improve the effect of the learning, but also to improve retention. So, to make sure that people actually manage to maintain whatever post of habits that the course, like the program has been developing. How it could induce. And we looked at a lot of different technologies and there are a lot of cool technologies out there. For influencing a body. I would probably say, brain and body. And our choice fell on a technology called TDCS. So that’s Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Which is, in the family of transcranial stimulation. Which in essence you send weak electrical currents through the brain. That’s sort of the essence. 

And of course, our brain works, in a combination of chemicals and electrical signals. Humans have almost 50,000 years of experience of messing with the chemicals in the brain. Through smoking, rhythms, all these things we’ve done. To influence the chemical system in our brain. About 3000 years ago, humans started using electricity. It’s actually quite fascinating. The Egyptians would use Torpedo fish. To treat migraines. So, for people who have severe migraines, they would basically sort of giving you a torpedo fish in your head. That will give you a discharge, which equals what we today would call full electroshock. So already 3000 years ago. Humans understood that this electrical power that the fish and the eels have. 

It’s the same as happens here, which I find very fascinating. And, but since 3000 years ago we’ve gotten way more specific. And today, most transcranial stimulation methods use very weak current, very controlled currents. And the effect, those currents have on the brain is not strong enough to force an effect. So, they make your brain do anything. But what they do is, modulate the natural electrical activity in the brain. So, they make it easier or harder for the brain to work in a given manner. So previously we spoke about the activation, activation of the default network. The back of the head. And using TDCS, the technology we use. You can selectively make it easier or harder to have activation of the default network. And at the same time make it easier or harder to have full activity.

And that’s exactly what we do in our product paperwork. Is manipulating the potential electrical activity. In three main networks of the brain. So, the left and right frontal lobe, and the default mode network. And by balancing the activity in those three areas. You can sort of make certain cognitive processes and states easier. And what Martin the neurologist and I wanted to do was, you know. This technology has been around for more than 25 years. It’s been used by the militaries. It’s been used in a lot of research labs, for a lot of sketchy purposes as well. But what we wanted to do was to democratize it. To say that the technology is completely proven, it’s safe, we know what it does. And we know it cannot be hurtful. If sort of done in the right way. So why shouldn’t everyone have access to it? 

So that was our starting point. And the hardware startups are very hard, I must admit. So, it took us five years to have a solid product in the market. But now we do. And we are launching a second product now in April. For a different purpose, that’s for eSports or more for a very specific aim. While Plato Work our current product is for any type of knowledge work. So, you mention flow states. But also, things like learning. We have a mold in the head that’s called rethink. 

Laura Dawn: I wanted to ask you about that actually. And what’s the difference between the Create and rethink and just for people listening to this. This headset comes with an app and there are four main settings. Create, rethink, learn, and concentrate. And I noticed that, for example, concentrate, shows that there is more of an electrical current from the back. To the front left. That which is different than the Create or the rethink. So, I’m curious to ask you about that and I’m also curious about what the difference is specifically between the create one and the rethink.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yeah. So, thanks for mentioning all four. And I guess they concentrate and the learn makes a lot of sense. The create and rethink it’s really funny because, you know, what’s done with the headset is taken years and years of research. Our own and others. And try to simplify the messaging. Because there are a lot of people out there who do DIY brain stimulation. But that requires a lot of knowledge. So, what we’ve tried to do is just make it easier, not requiring too many prerequisites. And the Create and rethink. I find a very good example of how that being tricky sometimes. Because when you create it normally in arts, the understanding of it. It’s you build something more or less from scratch. So, you sit down. Let’s say you work on a theme for a book.

Or you’re starting a process of designing your 30-day course, micro-dosing program. And you basically have a lot of building blocks and you’re starting to put them together, and the process is focused on creating something. While rethink is more in the situations where you’re stuck. You sort of after you’ve been working on your 30-day course. You might run into some problems. You might sort of feel. I keep getting back to the same. I’m sort of stuck in the creative loop here. And I feel that it’s not going anywhere. Then what the rethink program is. It’s turning down the systematic structuring part. So that’s the front left. And then it boosts your default network. So, it’s basically opening up or saying, forget about all the things that you’ve already designed and thought about. Here’s a bunch of inspiration do didn’t ask for. And the aim is to try to break out of that cycle so you might think, oh, wait a minute, I can actually do something completely different. That wasn’t in my original scope.

Laura Dawn: So is there a direction of the current. Does that make a difference?

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes. So, the sort of simplified way of assigning TDCS. If you send the current in through one area, and you pick it back out. So, you create a circuit, an electrical circuit through the brain. And in the area where the current enters, you have heightened potential. And when you take it back out, you have lower potential. So, if we send the current in through the front left. Then the front left will have a higher potential for activity. And if we pick it up from the default network. It will be harder for you to naturally activate the default network. And that’s actually the concentrated mode. 

Laura Dawn: I really like that mode actually. I really like it. I really feel it. It puts me in multiple hours of deep focus.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: That’s so good. I’m very happy to hear that. To me, it’s sometimes almost scary. How because you, you know, the idea of tunnel vision. And that’s sort of, you know, boosting the potential for activity in the front left. And limiting any type of background noise. Because a lot of times when working are focused especially with tasks that just need to be done. So, you know editing text. Proofreading is a great example. Your brain will start wandering and your default network will start thinking about dinner. It will start making a to-do list. It will start coming up with ideas for a book. You know all these other things that are completely irrelevant to the task at hand. So, in the concentrated mode. That’s what we limit the amount of background noise. When you don’t need it. 

Laura Dawn: What are the differences between the left and the right prefrontal cortex? Like simplified.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Everything and nothing. Yeah, it’s a very good question. And they are both involved in a lot of the same operations, but they normally have sort of slightly different type of tasks. For instance, in learning processes. The left side will gather the knowledge and the right side will structure it. Oh, they’re always both involved whenever you do any type of higher cognitive tasks. But they have most of the time two different aspects of the job and. As you know, and hopefully your listeners. The whole left-right brain myth is completely bogus. Our brain is one system and it’s not that our creativity is on one side and the logical on the other side at all. But some of it comes from, a bit from the sort of division between tasks in the frontal lobe. That’s also the difference between our create mode and our learn mode. Which are technical opposites, more or less. Is the direction between the frontal lobes on, left, right, and right, left depend on whether you want to get new things in. Or whether you want to use what you have to create something new. That actually is the complete opposite direction of the curve. 

Laura Dawn: Interesting. And then what about timing. Are you recommending that people put on the head device, while they’re engaged in creative thinking for example? Or do you recommend it? Every morning, and then we could get into frequency, or is this an everyday thing that you recommend. I mean I really have about a million questions for you, so. 

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes, it’s two separate topics. So, in terms of when to use it. It’s definitely something you use when you need it. So, for me, I’ve had long periods where I would have just a routine for doing it at the same point. But for me, and also what we recommend to our users, is to do it when you need it. So, I would normally, you know, start the task that I’m working on. And then, when I sort of feel that I’m getting started, even if it’s not great, you know. We all know the feeling of sitting down with a task and you feel your brain is just not there at all. Not helping you. That’s when the product has the best, sort of the best potential is to help you to get into a state. That you know you’re, you know you can, but it’s hard to get there. So that’s, to me, the best point is to use during the task. 

Laura Dawn: So, for example, if I’m learning the guitar. Would I want to put it on while I’m learning and hit the learn option? And 30 minutes is a good time to practice the guitar. So actually, having it on while I’m practicing.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes. And it, without mentioning names.  There are other products out there that would have different framings for it. There is a term that you might have heard neuro priming. Which, what the idea is, you use brain stimulation before you actually need it. And in our findings and I would say, generally in the field of neurostimulation studies. That’s not a very supportive claim. Its effect is definitely strongest while you use it. And then, yes, there’s a tail effect as you said. If you have a strong cognitive sensation. During the simulation, you mention concentrate. And the tail effect can actually go on for hours. Six hours of Afterburn where you sort of still feel the heightened state of cognition.

But all of this being said also think it’s very important to emphasize that the technology is a neural modulation technology. So, it can only support, natural activity. So, I’m sure you’ve also tried sitting down, you’re going to do something concrete. You put the headset on. You pick a mode. And still, it doesn’t get you where you need to be. And that’s you know, we don’t sell quick fix, if anyone would ever offer you a quick fix is normally not the case. So, I think it’s very important to say it’s, can’t do magic. If your brain is not there or a brain doesn’t want to do whatever you ask it to do. Them modulating it, will not sort of force it anywhere else. So that brings me to the second part of the use and the usage pattern is. Every time you use neurostimulation. You increase the effect of whatever task you’re doing while you have it on.

That might be a microscopic change. But what it does is, accelerating the learning you have. So, the basic idea of neuroplasticity is every time you do tasks, it becomes easier for you to do the task again. And that’s sort of the basis of how the brain is learning. And if you then apply neurostimulation, then that effect gets a little stronger. So, it’s basically increasing neuroplasticity. And it’s making whatever learning we have, happening a little faster. Which means that if you use it systematically over time. Then you will have stronger long-term effects on neuroplasticity. And on your cognitive flexibility, your brain will be more able to change because you changed it faster. So, it’s, that’s the more sort of micro-dosing.

I actually like to think of electrical brain stimulation, as sort of a form of psychedelic intervention. So, you know, you can do it in small doses every day, and that has a very positive effect on the way your brain works in the long term. But you can also do sessions where you have a very strong. Where you sort of have to sit down for half an hour afterward. And just say wow. And that difference I guess between the psychedelic experiences and the electrical ones is less intrusive. So, we can’t yet. We work on that but that’s another story. But we can’t yet fully control, which of the two you’ll get. So, it’s sometimes you get a bigger experience. Sometimes it’s just part of the micro-dosing logic. That has a lot to do with what your brain is naturally doing. 

Laura Dawn: Right. I mean and so I also study the science of flow states. And one of the things that I really learned and through my own experience. But also, through the research is that it’s like we have these knobs and levers. Like you’re talking about modulators and I love combining this device. That I’ve received from you guys with micro-dosing. So, my flow is that I have the micro-dosing morning routine that I absolutely love. It really just opens up my creative channel. I purposely implement practices that helped me pull the different knobs and levers in my brain. That helped me get into that that space you know I’m a content creator. I’m an entrepreneur, I need to show up with a very clear mind every day. 

And so, after my morning routine and after my meditation practice and I’ve done my breathwork and my movement. And once I sit down at the computer. That’s when I put on the Plato work device. And I find it really effective, and when I start my day, it depends like sometimes part of my morning micro-dosing routine. It’s actually Mind Mapping. And so, I’ll put it on the Create. Where I’m doing a sort of higher-level strategic visioning for either program. Content I’m creating. My business in general. And then sometimes I’m sitting down to write 10 pages of content. I’ll put on the concentrate one, and I notice it, so much. You’re right, it goes into hours of focus and what’s really interesting about the flow researcher, is that flow follows focus. I’m curious how this device could potentially help us drop into these flow states. 

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes, absolutely. It sounds like you’re using it in an optimal way. Because I think it’s very important to see neurostimulation, as one of a number of interventions. None of them work very well by themselves alone. So, if you have a bad morning, you’re not focused. You’ve not been eating well, not been sleeping well, you’re unhappy. Sitting down putting on the headset and asking it to fix that, is a lot to ask. So, I think, seeing it more as a piece in healthy habits. And, you know, preparing yourself for whatever type of work you want your brain to help you with. And then apply the headset. When you’ve set yourself up well? And I think that’s one of the recommendations we really try to force to our users is, you know. Make sure to set yourself up well. Before using the headset. Because if you go into it with a sort of, I have to do this, I don’t want to do this. I’m not in the place to do this. Put the headset on, there’s this chance that it will have a huge effect.

Laura Dawn: I love that you said sleep earlier. And that it’s one piece of a larger habit. I have my Ora ring too. I love listening. And I tell people, you know you can’t expect to run low on sleep. And just show up and do your best mental work. You just can’t.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes, it’s a very important point. And I think we’re often accused of being sort of, maybe a bit technologist in saying. Hey, we have a headset. And you can buy it. You use an app. And then you, you can control the brain. And that’s, we really tried to convey, a richer message and speak. No, our product is just a piece of the puzzle. And sleep, meditation, physical activity, you know the sun, diet. All these other things are equally important. And without the rest, then our product will be very lonely and very naked. So, I think that’s the first part. When it comes to flow, our understanding of flow states is that it’s a very sort of intangible concept still. There’s a lot of research on flow. And it’s the famous [inaudible1:00:41] book flow from the ’80s. 

Which is a beautiful book. But I would say that the type of flow state that we are interested in are very hard to study. I use HRV mapping myself. So same as our recent technology. I think there are measurable factors that can indicate the flow state. But I think the important thing for me and for us, is people will never be in doubt if they have been inflow. So, for me, the best metric, for flow state is asking. Do you experience flow? Have you experienced flow? So, to me, it’s one of those things that, it’s safer to actually ask people to self-report. Rather than, trying to measure it. Because it’s, there are too many factors. And it’s actually one of my favorite cognitive measures. Is the measure for arrogance. This is completely random. I just really love it.

So, after years and years of psychologists trying to find a good way of measuring arrogance. They figured out that the best measure is self-reporting. Because people who are super arrogant will, wouldn’t see that as negative. So, people would just say, I’m a 10 of 10. Anyways, so self-reporting, should not be underestimated. And I think flow is one of the factors. That people are very good at knowing. And if you’ve never been inflow. You would say, I’m not sure if I know what flow is. And if you have had flow. You can say, this is. I have my sexual flow, I have my workflow, I have my natural flow. You know, if you experienced it you would also be able to be very detailed about it. And in our internal research. We do self-reporting. So, we have been doing, especially in the early days, where we would do a lot of pre-post measures.

Where we would ask people. How do you feel, what are you about to do? How well did that go before and after? And just sort of looked across that. And I think one of the biggest findings from that. Was a self-report drop in stress? Which I see as a very important part of being in a good flow set. Is the feeling that I have less stress. I’m still doing the exact same thing as I did half an hour ago. But I feel different about it.

Laura Dawn: Yeah, and I just think the emphasis is that it’s one tool amongst many. And applying all the tools that we have access to. Plant medicines for me are also a powerful tool. All the ways movement, you know, Yoga practice, working out, movement. Meditation is such a powerful tool. And I love having this head device as a part of the mix. For me, definitely, I feel like it’s really fun, to be at the forefront of exploring my own mind in this way. And how we can modulate it, in different ways. So yeah, just the whole conversation is so fascinating. And I just really appreciate all the work that you are doing so much.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Thanks, and likewise. I’m really looking forwards to talk more. Maybe offer a good combination of our device micro-dosing and systematic training of the time. Because I think that’s, such a powerful combination. 

Laura Dawn: Yeah. Yeah, I’m really interested in exploring this as much as I can. So, I look forward to more conversations. Before we wrap up, is there anything else that you want to share? And the website for people to find the Plato work device. 

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Yes. So, the company is called Plato Science. It’s inspired by Plato of course, the philosopher. And taking a scientific approach to improving our minds. So platoscience.com. The product is called Plato work. And we’re launching a gaming version in April. For presale, so we’re not going to ship them. So probably around mid-year. And I think if you’re interested in more of our work. Send me an email. I think I’m still able to answer requests from people. And I really like hearing from people with similar projects. Just as you reached out to me. So, to anyone listening who has something in mind. Just drop me an email.

Laura Dawn: Yeah, and I’ll add your email in the show notes, and on the website page. So yeah, such a pleasure dropping in with you Balder. I really, really appreciate you so much.

Dr. Balder Onarheim: Thanks, and likewise

Dr. Balder Onarheimt


Balder Onarheim is the founder and CEO of PlatoScience, a Copenhagen based neurostimulation company that gives everyone access to safe and simple neurostimulation. Balder has a PhD in creativity, writing ‘Creativity under Constraints’ in collaboration with the Danish medical company Coloplast, which focused on developing strategies for sustaining creativity in over-constrained domains. Following his PhD, Balder has been an associate professor at the Technical University of Denmark, and an external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School. Balder’s expertise lies within a neurologically based understanding of creativity, and methods to use this understanding to make people better problem solvers. He is a regular conference and university public speaker, most notably presenting the “3 Tools To Become More Creative’ TedX Talk in 2015.

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About Laura Dawn

Through her signature Mastermind Programs and Plant Medicine Retreats, Laura Dawn weaves together science with ancient wisdom. She teaches business and thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals how to mindfully explore psychedelics and sacred plant medicines as powerful visionary tools for inner transformation, fostering emotional resiliency and unlocking new depths to our creative potential.