Rogue Waves: The Ocean of the Brain

I originally published this article back in 2007, but I came across a great blog post from The Squiggle Sense that  further talks about how rogue waves occur and their connection to the brain — The Complementary Nature is Linear~Nonlinear — and it seemed a natural idea to re-post this article along with the link to the new info. The Squiggle post can be a little heavy going, but hang in there! Hope you enjoy both! — KS


I came across a wonderful article that shows what happens in the ocean when rogue “monster” waves appear and capsize ships. What makes it wonderful and why am I writing about it here — on a blog about the brain?

You may not see a connection between rogue waves on the ocean and what happens in the brain — or why that matters for our lives.

Good question. I hope by the end of my article you’ll see why I was so delighted to come across this story as a teaching tool about how the brain and neurofeedback can work.

First things first.

The article is from BBC – Science and Nature and is titled The Freak Wave.

Let’s look at a few clips from the article to set the stage — I’ve highlighted the most important bits:

The world’s oceans claim on average one ship a week, often in mysterious circumstances. With little evidence to go on, investigators usually point at human error or poor maintenance but an alarming series of disappearances and near-sinkings, including world-class vessels with unblemished track records, has prompted the search for a more sinister cause and renewed belief in a maritime myth: the wall of water. Waves the height of an office block. Waves twice as large as any that ships are designed to ride over.

These are not tsunamis or tidal waves, but huge breaking walls of water that come out of the blue. …

Freak waves are the stuff of legend. They aren’t just rare, according to traditional views of the sea, they shouldn’t exist at all. Oceanographers and meteorologists have long used a mathematical system called the linear model to predict wave height. This assumes that waves vary in a regular way around the average (so-called ‘significant’) wave height. In a storm sea with a significant wave height of 12m, the model suggests there will hardly ever be a wave higher than 15m. One of 30m could indeed happen – but only once in ten thousand years.

Except they do happen with startling frequency. Since 1990, 20 vessels have been struck by waves off the South African coast that defy the linear model’s predictions. …

What could cause such extreme waves? Curious about the spate of South African incidents, oceanographer Marten Grundlingh plotted the strikes on thermal sea surface maps. All the ships had been at the edge of the Agulhas Current, the meeting point of two opposing flows mixing warm Indian Ocean water with a colder Atlantic flow. Radar surveillance by satellite confirmed that wave height at the edge of this current could grow well beyond the linear model’s predictions, especially if the wind direction opposed the current flow. …

But there were some incidents that couldn’t be explained by this linear model. Other boats went down in parts of the Atlantic that weren’t at the transition between two currents.

No current could have created such huge waves. There is none in that part of the Atlantic. Clearly, there was another effect investigators needed to find. Except someone already had: it existed (on paper at least) in the world of quantum physics.

Al Osborne is a wave mathematician with 30 years experience devising equations to describe open ocean wave patterns. Quantum physics has at its heart a concept called the Schroedinger Equation, a way of expressing the probability of something happening that is far more complex than the simple linear model. Al’s theory is based on the notion that in certain unstable conditions, waves can steal energy from their neighbours. Adjacent waves shrink while the one at the focus can grow to an enormous size. His modified Schroedinger Equation had been rejected in the past as implausible, but with research attention centred on analysing these rogue waves – including global satellite radar surveillance by the new European Remote Sensing Satellite – data began to emerge backing his case.

Al’s work – if correct – suggests that there are two kinds of waves out on the high seas; the classical undulating type described by the linear model and an unstable non-linear monster – a wave that at any time can start sucking up energy from waves around it to become a towering freak.

Ok, now back to the brain.

Oceans and brains are both are filled with waves. And waves — light waves, ocean waves, brain waves, all respond in similar ways to similar kinds of events.

So I’m going to ask you to temporarily consider the brain as one small ocean.

If we apply the findings in this story, that suggests a couple of things:

1) We have at least a couple of different types of brain waves —

a) the smooth, “linear” type we usually see in EEG images and think of when we imagine brain waves — the sine wave-looking undulating waves. These are ones we think of when people talk about delta, theta, alpha, beta, gamma, etc. (Don’t know what these are? Pop over to my website at Brain and Health and read about them.)

b) the nonlinear “rogue” waves that are unexpected.

2) These rogue brain waves can happen in two ways:

a) They can be created from the meeting of two different “flows of activity”. In the ocean, this means currents; in the brain, it means information processing. More specifically, if the transition between different content and/or ways of processing aren’t stable and smooth, we can get these “rogue waves”.

We can see this in the kind of neurofeedback software I use. Sometimes when people go from having their eyes open to having their eyes closed, the transition between these states isn’t smooth and we can see big bursts of wave activity in the moment.

b) Or they can happen in certain unstable conditions. These “rogue” waves “steal energy from their neighbours. Adjacent waves shrink while the one at the focus can grow to an enormous size.”

Again, we can see this  during brain training using the CARE model. During CARE training,  we let your brain know when it produces these large bursts of activity by brief interruptions in music you are listening to.

By giving your brain this information, it uses its own self-regulatory  skills to  dampen the size and how often rogue waves happen.

That means that more energy is left for your other brain activity to do what it needs to do, in the way it needs to do it.

Let’s look at one more element of the training and why targeting the monster waves works to enhance the way your brain works and therefore your life — and even your personal evolution.

You may not see the connection between listening to interrupted music and unfolding new elements of yourself, but in the CARE model, this is the core to changing your brain activity to create new ways of being.

When you have some kind of symptom that doesn’t go away on its own, it means that your brain is tending to repeat a pattern of activity associated with this symptom over and over and over – and the rogue waves are typically connected with this inefficient activity.

This repeating is like the horrible screeching feedback you get from a microphone when you get too close to the microphone’s sound source. This “feedback” sound is actually produced by what is called “positive feedback” – when a system gets positive feedback, it does more of whatever it is doing.

Negative feedback” does the opposite – it reduces whatever is happening.

Systems depend on a balance of positive feedback (to keep going) and negative feedback (to not go too far in that direction).

So – health symptoms are generally the result of a positive feedback loop in the brain – like the microphone feedback. When you listen to music during neurofeedback training, the tiny interruptions act as negative feedback which decreases the “rogue waves” and the repeating pattern of the symptoms.

When you can break out of that positive feedback loop, there is the opportunity to expend your energies differently and you start to feel the emergence of new freedom of movement, new choices, new perspectives – a new way of being — and a much smoother sail on the ocean of your brain. 😉