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Rapper Dessa attempts to heal a broken heart by healing her brain with neuroscience

Dessa performing in Minneapolis. (Photo by Andy Witchger, CC Images)

Minneapolis-based rapper and singer, Dessa, struggled with a breakup for years. Ten years later and she still could not get over him.

“I had been dating a guy in my rap crew. When we broke up we remained musical collaborators and tour companions so it was important to both of us to still get along. But that made it difficult to get any space to heal up. So I found that this was one of the definitive struggles of my adult life.”

Frustrated, Dessa did what many of us do: she turned to the Internet for guidance.

“I saw a TED Talk by a woman named Dr. Helen Fisher. She had put subjects into an fMRI machine so that she could see how the brains of people in love worked. It turns out there’s this really definitive pattern that she noted. People in romantic love had this distinct pattern of cortical activity. It didn’t really occur to me that there was a place in the brain that might be responsible for this feeling, that might participate in this feeling in such a reliable way. And if I went and found my love in my brain, maybe it would allow me to take it out.”

The TED talk led Dessa to a therapy called neurofeedback.

“I worked with a team of researchers to try to run a little case study. So first I went to the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research at the University of Minnesota and I got into an fMRI machine, thought about my ex-boyfriend, and we were able to see this pattern of brain activity that was consistent with someone who was in love. Then I worked with a woman named Penijean Gracefire who has, for many years, worked in a technique called neurofeedback. So I hooked up my brain to 20-some electrodes that were sensitive enough to detect my brain waves through my scalp. So you sit in a chair with all these electrodes streaming out of your hair and you can see your brain working in real time on a screen. Through a series of lights and sounds, you try to slowly change the way that your brain is working. In my case, I was trying to promote healthy levels of activity in the parts of my brain that are most directly associated with romantic attachment.”

After three months of this treatment, they did an assessment.

“I went back into the fMRI machine to see if there was any difference in the way that my brain was behaving after having done these neurofeedback sessions. I don’t want to overstate anything because I am a sample size of one, so this is not how definitive science works, right? This was a case study and not an experiment. But I did feel different. It was exciting to see that my brain did seem to show this preferential activation for my ex before the neurofeedback and not in the same way afterward. I also felt a little different. I hadn’t erased memories of him. But I did feel more at peace and I didn’t feel so compulsed or obsessed or fixated on this dude.”

Neurofeedback isn’t just for the lovesick, in fact, specifically what Dessa did was specialized for her and not available to the general public. But neurofeedback is used to help people with ADHD, anxiety, trauma and many other brain related conditions change their patterns. There are a few places in Seattle that offer this therapy, just google “neurofeedback Seattle.”

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