What would we see if we peer under the door of the world? A chaotic and confusing landscape where stability is craved by most and experienced by few? The human experience offers the conundrum that with progress comes inevitable adjustment. Sometimes it seems like progress streaks across our lives, leaving a sense of unsettledness. Yet, those pieces of acquired knowledge that comfort our lives hold incredible value to our existence.
2007 brought our planet the iPhone.
Little did the populous know the deep-seated impact of this rectangle window to the world. A novelty at first and a necessity now – the iPhone has completely changed the wiring of the human experience allowing moment-by-moment chronicling of our lives. If this device we treasure could change our behaviors, habits, and patterns of interactions, could we create another track to support our journey forward?
Technical heroes from the engineering and research domains are asking if that window to the world can look inward. Can we bring the rich oxygen of life to the 3 pounds within our heads to bring balance, calm, and a sense of ‘I’ve got this?’
The world doesn’t appear to be slowing down, and the technologists and medical fields are asking these questions to benefit all of us.
Brain health, while a relatively new concept among the masses, will, one day, be as common as attending to that rectangle in our palms. Dr. Lauren Silbert, Ph.D., a neuroscientist from Princeton University, believes that the question of brain health is about neurofeedback and the technology to deliver the information to consumers in the pursuit of agency over one’s experience.
Silbert notes that the industry and the public need to understand how to navigate through the science and that each of us starts at a different point in time. Some understand neurofeedback’s role on them, while others come to brain training from the periphery. “Each consumer starts at a different place,” she says. “To start with a plot of land, you must begin by building a foundation. If you start with a structure already in place, you build on top of that.”
She contends that neurofeedback brain training is akin to a fully built house primed to become a mansion. “The technology is solid, and the science is well-established,” notes Silbert. “The difference in consumer experience results from scientific education and societal understanding.”
The benefits of neurofeedback training continue to emergenoting positive impacts on mood regulation, issues of attention, and sleep patterns.
The challenge, to date, like so many technologies on the precipice of impact, is equitable access that isn’t just obtainable for the privileged and resourced but the masses. Brain training centers have dotted many cityscapes over the last decade, but they are costly, requiring both time and money to realize the full benefits of the technology.
Education and the schools that house young students are particularly at risk of failing to meet long-term solutions for their faithful consumers. Levels of anxiety in students across the world appear to be unrelenting, and out-of-school and high-cost solutions are less than realistic. The tenets of education, technology, and gaming might invite light to provide a solution.
Engineering Powers Opportunity
Rickard Eklof, an engineer by trade and an explorer fueled by curiosity, Wondered if there was a way to collapse technological and social barriers to put the power of neurofeedback brain training in the hands of more people.
Eklof’s efforts embrace the similarities to the iPhone but delineate from the catch-all device, believing that the technology isn’t the issue. Instead, he ascertains, it is a lack of consumer education related to the benefits that have historically stunted the adoption of the brain training technology industry. “The issue is that no one has been there to show people what the technology can do and how this sector can benefit their respective lives,” he says.
Eklof is the co-founder of Mendi, infusing the brain health revolution spurred initially by games structured to build and sustain memory structures. Eklof, and his team, took a slight ‘left’ turn and focused on portability and behavioral health technology that revealed an updated way of developing the sense of agency Silbert maintains is key to sustainable brain health practices.
Most consumer neurofeedback brain training is based on measuring electroencephalography (EEG) or brainwaves. However, functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) neurofeedback detects changes in the brain’s local blood flow and oxygenation in response to neural activation.
“The critical aspect of this [fNIRS] technology is that it measures the brain’s response to activation changes, allowing for much more efficient and precise neurofeedback training,” states Eklof. “We focused on what consumers have been accustomed to – portable devices, smartphones, apps, and gamified experiences.”
While the engineer turned explorer discovered a path to equitable opportunities for brain training outside of centers, he knew he needed an evangelist to translate the science into something tangible.
Moha Bensofia, an enigmatic lightning bolt of a personality, is known across the Nordics as an investor in people first and solutions second. Bensofia recalled the first time he experienced Mendi, claiming, “Even if I don’t understand 90% of what you’re presenting, this investment still makes sense.”
Bensofia became the first investor and immediate evangelist to communicate the opportunity throughout his network. It was clear to Eklof and the team that Mendi needed a ‘Bensofia’ to also partake in the day-to-day operations to deliver their ‘iPhone of brain training’ to market.
Bensofia had not explored the idea of leading the Mendi team. He reached out to his close friend and business confidant, Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, for advice. Ek’s advised Bensofia to listen, be a constant learner, care about people and your employees, and squarely focus on the Mendi user.
Bensofia took the reins of the CEO position, determined to listen first and communicate with users to understand how the technology impacted them.
Several years before the glitz of opportunity in Stockholm, Bensofia found himself teaching grammar to young students in Libya before continued anxiety and stress altered his personal and professional course landing him back in Sweden. “It was easy to evangelize the power of the technology because I was finding relief from my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was a believer and saw the advancements from the inside.”
He set out speaking to numerous users of Mendi, hearing tangible reports of improvement from people of all ages struggling with depression, anxiety, and focus at home, school, and work.
The Mendi team is built to scale, servicing multiple markets and needs. The education sector, especially research institutions of higher learning, including Stanford, Princeton, the University of Gothenburg, and the University of North Dakota, have engaged in ongoing research with Mendi.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Human Research Program (HRP) is structured into five topic areas called Elements. One of the areas includes Human Factors and Behavioral Performance (HFBP). The HFBP Element focuses on managing various risks to astronaut cognitive performance. Mendi was brought in to play a central role in NASA’s research to understand better the impact space can have on the brain.
Terry E. Rector, Senior Project Leader, and Ph.D. Candidate with the Aerospace Corporation believes the research with Mendi has the potential to open a window into the capabilities of the mind.
“Research into neurofeedback performance training is particularly relevant for gaining new and renewed knowledge and developing cognitive training protocols to mitigate risk. It helps to analyze performance decrements and adverse health outcomes resulting from sleep loss, circadian desynchronization, and work overload (neuroplasticity),” states Rector.
Rector recognizes how Mendi’s portability is providing NASA the ability to examine the causes and contributing factors in changes in cognitive performance in space. “A decline in decision-making abilities and memory recall can significantly impact health outcomes for astronauts and missions.”
Gemma Fisher M.Ost, founder and director of the Formula Health Consultancy and a fixture on Netflix’s sensation Drive to Surviveworks with Formula 1 racers, asserting neurofeedback brain training is pivotal to the health and safety of the sport.
“We know that the prefrontal cortex is a crucial region of the brain for decision-making, planning, and attention; therefore, optimizing the function of this area is critical. Brain health is the key whether you are an athlete in high-performing sports, a ‘corporate’ athlete making high-stakes business decisions, or just trying to operate at your best.”
Bensofia is determined to speak with as many of the 20,000 users who currently train with Mendi better to understand the ‘why’ of brain training. “Every story I hear about a young person struggling with anxiety who finds personal control and agency through our efforts—that’s what it is all about.”
The CEO is measured when discussing the road ahead for a technology ushering in science to a curious user base. “We must continue to be curious, and we need to ask questions. If we can do these things, we put ourselves in a position to positively impact current and future astronauts, athletes, the young at heart, and those struggling with the chaotic pace of life.”
Bensofia becomes reflective when the question of impact is posed. “I used to think about investments as transactional and with an endpoint. Mendi’s result isn’t just professional; it is personal for me,” he says.
“I am still the guy who was teaching less fortunate children grammar in Libya. However, today my behavior and perspective have changed from the typical investor spending days ‘chasing’ deals to chasing innovation that can educate, improve life for others and that I can be proud of.”
A smile graces Bensofia’s face reflecting on Fisher’s charge that Mendi’s contributions are opening up opportunities for her famous clients and patients to build mental resilience. “If we can positively impact professions as the bounds of the human experience, think of what we can do for young people as they begin to take the reins of their lives,” exudes Bensofia.
NASA’s Dr. Alan Pope, Ph.D., believes that technologies like Mendi will be commonplace in due time, stating, “Some people might be skeptical now, but within ten years, no one will be.”
Bensofia realizes that the portability of Mendi and utilization of that rectangle window to the world position this accidental CEO on a path to create a long-lasting impact for the next generation. “Education about the power of neurofeedback creates the opportunity for brain health to transition from a novelty to a necessity,” he says.
The iPhone packaged the particulars of the human experience in a portable device. Now it’s Mendi’s turn to open the window to our minds inward, ushering in a new era of personal health and agency to combat the wondrous and sometimes unpredictable world we inhabit.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.