Memory, Rhythm, Clapping: The Power of a Millisecond

Diane using the Interactive Metronome.

At a presentation last December, I confessed to the group: “I’ve done this hand clapping exercise over 48,000 times since the middle of summer.”  They looked shocked… maybe there was a trace of admiration or, perhaps it was fear.

Yes, it all started last summer.  

I was planning an event with a friend, and he said: “Well, as you know, my brain works much faster than yours…”  That was like a red flag waved in front of me.

Internal scream: “WHAT?!”

In life, you pride yourself on few things and for me, one is that my brain works pretty well. That matters. I worked hard in my recovery from having a brain injury. I was very lucky but also had countless sessions of neurofeedback, did meditation, carefully monitored my diet and more. And growing up, believing I was smart was one of the few positive things I knew about myself. I hung onto it.

“Also, my memory is much better,” the friend said.

That was the last straw.

I was shocked not because he said it, since he’s a little on the unfiltered side, but because he clearly believed it.

Limitations and Superpowers

After having a concussion in 2005 and post-concussive syndrome afterward, I know my limitations, and yet having had the benefit of modern science, I also feel sometimes like I have superpowers. Minimally, my friend was wrong. Then I started to think about it more:

  • How often do I need my notes to remember important things?

  • Do I forget my keys?

  • Though friendly, I always assume the guys at the Apple Store act that way to everyone when answering tech questions, like you’re not getting things as fast as they’d like. Hmm… maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s me?! I’m slow?!

So, I decided to try a brain training tool I had been wanting to learn for a long time. It’s called the Interactive Metronome® (IM).

IM was originally developed in 2006 for musicians to help sharpen their performance skills. Overall, it has a strong research base for improving focus, speech fluency, memory, motor coordination and cognitive processing speed. I sing in a choir and often wish my timing in hitting notes was more precise. It seemed, the IM training might help there, too.

The Long Path

Getting the IM equipment and beginning the training was a path of a million steps.

First, the equipment: I couldn’t buy it until I was certified. But I couldn’t get certified without using it. Also, I couldn’t find a professional in my area who would work with me. Not that many people know the IM and work with adults.

Finally, I remembered my friend Ann Richman at The Discovery Clinic in Glenview. She had the equipment and was willing to “lease” hers to me for a fee only a friend would ever charge. Ridiculously generous. If you live near Ann and have kids, she is one of the kindest, smartest brain training practitioners you will ever meet. Don’t hesitate to take your kids there.

Then I found another IM practitioner, Dana Yala in Oak Park, who is certified on IM. She said she’d be willing to test me to provide beginning scores or benchmarks but was confident I could teach myself.  She works in a school system and during the summer she’s on vacation. Still, she was willing to help me get started and became a mentor. 

I mention this path since I doubt anyone really understands what it takes to commit one’s life to learning non-medication methods to help yourself and clients become more capable and create new chapters in life. There is a lot of flash in the pan stuff out there easily ordered with instant delivery but sourcing, trying, training on and buying tools like the IM is a bit of a mad commitment.

Circle, Clap Sensor, Repeat

The basic task involves IM syncing your movement with a sound, executing with rhythmic timing.

With a sensor on one hand, you make a circle out with both hands to come together in a clap. The challenge is to tap the sensor at exactly the same moment as you hear the clang of a cowbell.  Sounds easy but it’s not.  It requires many parts of the brain to plan and execute this rhythmic moment with precision. You do this over and over.

The one compelling motivator is that every set you do (based on the number of repetitions of the cowbell and your movement) you get feedback on how well you do.  To start, Dana collected all my baseline performance measures as I clapped with both hands together, hit hand to hip on both sides, tapped my toes and heels, all to the cowbell beat. One of my clients refers to this all as “the spanking and slapping.” :)

I felt hopeless at it, incredibly awkward, unbalanced and fumble-y.

My arms got tired from the series of short tests, and then so did my toes. It turns out that the way I use my toes is on the “ballistic” side, which means I tapped way too hard. My toes were apparently going ballistic. ☹

After Dana averaged my scores from the various subtests, they were on the low side of average but a “good start.”

My friend Ann hadn’t been using her IM equipment and it turned out just the hand sensor worked well. So with Dana’s approval, I did all my training during the summer with only the hand clapping movement. Dana said if I could do 2,000 clapping repetitions in a row, my attention, memory, processing, and speech would improve.  

Dana has many success stories but her favorite occurred when she trained a Big 10 college football player with hopes of playing with a professional team. Reporters and players repeatedly commented  about his quickness and impeccable timing. This was not surprising because his  average score on the IM clapping exercise was 9!   That means that he averaged 9 milliseconds  from being in exact synchrony with the sound. Not only did his athletic performance improve, but he also got his best grades that semester in college. On top of that, he achieved his goal and was drafted into the NFL.

Meditation of Movement

I did the IM clapping after work when I got home, somewhere between 9 – 11:30 p.m. I’m like my clients and everyone else who is busy. There is little time to do some of the things we really want to do.  We have to make the time.

It’s not easy but I found myself looking forward to putting on the headphone, listening for the cowbell and watching the lights move across the screen showing me how close (in milliseconds) I could come to synchronizing my movement to hit the sensor at exactly at the same moment.  

It was a meditation of movement, sort of.

For the benefit of any client I ever train for the rest of my life, I now want to remember these moments:

  • I’m standing in front of computer screen listening for the sounds like a hunting dog on the prowl. Then no matter how hard I try, with every cell of my being, I hit the sensor at the wrong time… over and over and over.

  • It’s summer, it’s hot, I’m sweating and I couldn’t try harder or better, I understand completely what my brain needs to do, but I’m still unable to do it in the “super right on” range – the range of between dead center and 15 milliseconds from it. We’re talking about milliseconds.

You learn things about yourself doing this. I learned:

  • how much I love a challenge

  • how much I hate being a beginner

  • how weak my arms were

  • how little upper body physical exercise I get, and

  • how it’s good to be humbled and also to look the screen right back in the eyes and try again and again.

After a session with 800 cowbells, I would sleep like a baby.

The Night

Something happened to my brain during the night. I had asked it over and over again to do something hard and different. I asked it to take different neuronal patterns as my body moved to make synchrony with the outside world that had nothing to do with the familiar thoughts that ordinarily shaped my brain.  While I slept, it was knitting itself together differently.

Another evening training, windows open, crickets, heat, sweat, cowbell over and over.

I never got better during a session. My low scores didn’t improve across the 30 minutes I trained. For the first 2 weeks, I didn’t see much improvement at all in making my body do what my brain understood and thought was so easy. Then one morning, like a cowgirl getting back on the horse, I decided to put in a little IM time before work.  I started and… could do it. I was better. What I couldn’t do last night, I could do. My hits were closer and took less effort.

Sticky Thinking and The Easy Button

My thinking is traditionally like a lot of people's -- I call it sticky. I tend to get stuck on task and don't easily shift. I can stay awake too long, on my computer longer than planned and not always be where I should be on time since I need "just 5 more minutes." I am "in the moment" and enjoy staying there. It doesn't show up everywhere but it can be a life struggle. 

Not far into the training, I found my brain miming the IM process by asking me quite politely,

Okay, we’re doing this but what’s next? What’s after this?

That query was a whole different mental pattern and pulled me out of the sticky immersion. It was a new pattern that just popped up and helped me get things started to change to the next task (like off my computer to leave for work). A totally fresh idea was popping into my thinking here and there.

I found myself creating a new sense of personal order.

I started to keep my earbuds in a case where I could find them so I wouldn’t have to search everywhere every time they’re needed. I started to list my clients for the entire week to give to reception all on Mondays versus worrying about whether I did it every single day.

I can hardly believe I made a list every single day (or worried about it) when now we just do it all at once at the beginning of the week. If the schedule changes, I just tell reception the changes. It was like hitting the Easy Button.

Fluid Speech and Tidying

My speech feels more fluid.  

Under stress, I can find myself in “word search” since I know the word I want to say and feel like it should be coming out of my mouth but it’s nowhere to be found.   I know many people who suffer similar frustration. I see positive changes for myself and people who know me well notice it too. It’s definitely better.  

I feel lucky to work in brain science.

Anyone could have lived with the subtle challenges I felt, or my friend pointed out, but as a project, practicing on the Interactive Metronome has made the world easier for me.  I am more engaged with life than before.  I can manage more things since they take less concentration. I feel more mentally clear and also more decisive.

The biggest change I experienced in my months of training culminated in the Tidy Project in September.  Briefly, for some reason, I started to read a book I had owned for months called “The Magic of Tidy,” which teaches the benefits of simplicity and minimalism. It caused me to go through every drawer in my office, our two closets and our whole file cabinet and reviewed, cleaned, archived and put everything in order. I did the same thing with major parts of my home. I hope to write more on that later but I see ability to tidy up as a direct result of the IM.

My brain works differently. I wanted different things around me, not things I don’t need, don’t like or that didn’t make sense. Keeping things in places they didn’t belong felt like a burr in my shoe, it had to go. I could more easily see and less easily tolerate the little spots on the rug in my office. I could make changes. Work that didn’t fit me, projects we had finished but never really declared done, were finished. I could see better who I can help and work with and how to best do this. In a sea of very small steps at a time, it changed everything.

My IM scores got better, little by little, and with two hands clapping on a good day I can score in the range of professional athletes.  I feel sharper.

New Brain, New Challenges

I passed the IM certification in October, 2017 and I purchased my own IM equipment. So now I can train using more exercises than the two hands clapping. These will help me improve my balance and timing with my whole body. I can’t wait to see what will happen to the rest of my life.

I see the training I’ve done as similar to cooking popcorn, or planting seeds since my brain continues to pop out new things here and there.  For example, putting away electrical cords that all snaked together in boxes, I find myself coiling them up neatly.  There’s a new sense of order I am more likely to create without even thinking about it.

My greatest challenge and joy now is helping my clients with the IM.  I am also training an intern who will assist with this in the practice. I use IM both with and without neurofeedback. Research shows it can be beneficial for athletes, executive development, ADD, AD/HD, Parkinson’s, dementia, stroke, and more.  I am building a collection of stories I hope to share with you.

Finally, my training total repetitions has now well exceeded 80,000 and I am excited about what each day brings for me and my clients.  I thank everyone who has helped along this journey so far including Ann, Dana and, especially, my unfiltered friend. ;) 

Remember: Life is our greatest teacher. 



Note: Interested in doing the IM but concerned about cost? We are donating 12 sessions with the Interactive Metronome® (IM) to one of my favorite non-profits as part of their online fund-raising auction. The One Earth Film Festival screens environmental documentaries at over 50 Chicagoland venues in early March.  Get your bid in on this offer by March 11th (yes, the date was extended to 11th) by clicking here. Help yourself while also helping the One Earth Film Festival!

Note: I can not share this without mentioning my sales rep at the Interactive Metronome company has been great to both Ann and me in getting us (re)started. Thanks, Keith Reeber.  We love you!!