Subhasis has spent about 20 years developing cutting-edge technology, 5 years of practicing therapy, and 10 years in clinical research with varying degrees of success and failure. His diverse background led him to invent and commercialize the world’s first fully wearable, connected brain plasticity training tool that trains brain and body in one system.
SynPhNe is the outcome of his Ph.D. (Biomechatronics) study which he completed after recovering from a brain injury himself. He is passionate about neuroplasticity, movement analysis, learning mechanisms, and aging.
He has been a yoga and martial arts practitioner for the past 40 years and is currently living in Singapore. He makes friends easily with those who love food, traveling, and adventure.
This episode was made possible by the support of Arrow Electronics.
Visit SynPhNe’s Website: www.synphne.com
Additional reading: The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
Erik: Today's episode is brought to you by Arrow Electronics, as part of a series highlighting folks who are pioneering innovation and inclusive technology.
Dr Subhasis: Balance happens if you're relaxed. Power happens because you feel relaxed. Speed happens if you're relaxed. I realized, "Hey, with the last so many months, I've forgotten to use those relaxation techniques." Right? I am just pushing. And I went back to that. I didn't really put my willpower aside. I just redirected it towards doing less.
Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Eric Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a "no barriers life."
Erik : To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain, between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers. Speaker 4: Dr. Subhasis Banerji spends his time contemplating the power of the changing grain while trying to commercialize his technology invention, SynPhNe. A recovered brain injury patient himself, he runs a company that is helping people suffering from brain damage, regain their independence, livelihood, and passion.
Erik : Thank you for agreeing to be on this morning. Or this evening for you.
Dr Subhasis: My pleasure and honor, Eric. Great meeting you guys.
Erik : So neuroplasticity, it's this word that gets thrown out there a lot nowadays. It's really fascinating. Can you explain it to everyone? Because I bet you some people have no idea what neuroplasticity even means.
Dr Subhasis: The brain is always changing. If we adopt certain methods to actually take it in the right direction, there are amazing things that the brain can help you do. So just to give you a context, post my injury when I went for psychometric tests, and all the way up til three or four years post that injury, the doctors told me that my new IQ is 70. And as you know that's almost like a nonfunctional state, right?
Erik : Right.
Dr Subhasis: That was in 2006. By 2014 I had a PhD in Biomechatronics. And I'll tell you, it was a proof point for me the day I signed in for the PhD program, because I said, "I'm ready." And I don't believe the brain is the way we knew it 20 years ago. It's very different. So I always use that as a reminder whenever I'm faced with a barrier situation Eric, and that's my constant reminder if I am to be a no barriers guy, right?
Erik : Is that 70 IQ that they diagnosed you with because of the car accident that we'll talk about a little bit later.
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. Yeah.
Erik : There was a traumatic brain injury that you had, right?
Dr Subhasis: Yeah.
Erik : Right.
Dr Subhasis: So I couldn't really perform on those IQ tests. And it was a benchmark. I could have decided that that's who I want to be. It was very easy to do that. But deep inside, I knew that that's not me. That was somebody else, okay? And the challenge was to get the new me out there again. And very strangely, and this is the other side of neuroplasticity, the brain started to change when my movement started to change. So the reason we are physio neuro, and why we believe in that so much is that, my attention span, my short term memory, my depression started to change as I started to move better. Cognition and movement are one and the same thing. So with my IQ at that time, the only thing that made sense was, "Hey, this is very easy. I know Newton's laws of motion, which drive the physical body. So if the mind is just a subtle body, then they should also follow the same Newton's laws of motion." Right?
Erik : I heard you talk about subtle body Subhasis. So what does that mean exactly?
Dr Subhasis: So it is a body in many senses. For example, if you were to go the scientific route, we know that Newton has three laws of motion, right?
Erik : Right.
Dr Subhasis: And one of them is something continues with the same speed in one direction unless it is acted on by an external force, right? And so when you look at the human brain or the mind and you see how we are really, really habitual creatures, right? It's only when certain force like will or a thought process intersects with that, that things change. And one of the big things about bringing about neuroplastic change is this external force, right? In our field of work, when we say we can accelerate your recovery from brain damage, okay, it's that interplay of that force, right? Which means you're using the technology to understand what's going on inside and shifting a few things. And then shifting those things to scale, right? [inaudible 00:05:40] comes in-
Erik : So in 1998 you had a car accident that really injured you quite a bit, brain and body. And so you mentioned a few minutes ago that you weren't the person that was exhibiting on the outside. You weren't there. There was some kind of blockage. You were saying, "This isn't me." So the idea is that if you can create some kind of exercises, habits, thoughts, that you can sort of get closer to that person that you want to be. Through neuroplasticity, right?
Tom : Yeah.
Dr Subhasis: So I became a very nasty person post the injury, honestly. I was angry. I was mean and all those things and what used to happen... And then late at night when like I'm by myself, I think, "Hey, what just happened? What's this going on?"
Erik : Yeah. And that's typical, right? Because you get super frustrated, right?
Dr Subhasis: Any typical, very typical. And you then wonder, "Hey, what happened?" And then as the days passed, I realized that... And especially if you're a strong-willed person, right? You push, correct?
Erik : Yes.
Dr Subhasis: Because you want to get out of that. You push like hell. And unfortunately when you have something going on inside your head like that, that push doesn't work. I realized it that it's not really something that was helping. And then I had a moment of revelation. I had one therapist who I encountered and he said, "Subhasis, your chances of recovery are not that great. Your willpower is too strong." I mentioned this even in that small video, because that was like, "What are you talking about?" Right?
Erik : Yeah. So explain that Subhasis. Just because to me... Right, Tom? Doesn't that sound like of course a strong will is going to drive you through this process, but is it because your brain wasn't necessarily integrated with what your body was experiencing or I mean, that seems to fly in the face of all motivational advice.
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. Because when you are carrying any form of such challenges, you compensate. And the more you push, the more you compensate. Say for example, I have a weak bicep and I'm trying to do dumbbells. I almost invariably lift with the neck muscles, right? And if you're the guy who just wants to push, you're never going to get your biceps back. After some time the neck muscles hurt so much that you're flat out or you need medical attention. It's no different in the brain.
Dr Subhasis: Say for example, one side of the brain is injured. Everything that you try to do practically, the healthy side of the brain takes over. And after some time it reaches its limit. And there you are, then you're stuck. We call it a plateau. What you didn't realize was that you weren't sort of really driving neuroplasticity the way you thought. You were actually driving compensation. So when he said that and he went away and of course as usual I was really angry. I said, "This guy is talking nonsense." I mean, "I don't have anything else except my willpower at this point of time." And he just said that that's not going to work. So-
Erik : I mean, that would rock my world.
Tom : Yeah. [crosstalk 00:08:58].
Erik : I would be thinking, "Wait a second, this is the one thing I have to hang onto right now."
Tom : Right.
Dr Subhasis: I literally threw him out of the house. I was that upset.
Tom : Yeah. Well, I'm on the edge of my seat now. Because I mean, you say this, "Too much willpower." And this is, no pun intended, mind blowing stuff. What was it that you needed to do? Was it just sort of submit and sort of put your willpower aside?
Erik : Yeah, so counter-intuitive.
Dr Subhasis: Very counter-intuitive. So for whatever reason, I had this background in yoga and martial arts where we work a lot with relaxation, right? So in yoga you know how much we work with relaxation, but in martial arts, especially competitive martial arts, we work a lot. Because balance happens if you're relaxed, power happens, because you feel relaxed. Speed happens if you're relaxed. So in those one or two days after this guy sort of said this thing, I realized, "Hey, over the last so many months, I've forgotten to use those relaxation techniques, right? I am just pushing." And I went back to that. And so you're right. I didn't really put my willpower aside, Tom. I just redirected it towards doing less.
Tom : Wow. Okay.
Dr Subhasis: Okay? So what I did was I would do the same things, but for very short periods of time, okay? And then stop so that I don't go into the compensation mode. Say for example, I have a weak muscle and I try to move that muscle and I can do it five times. But from the sixth time, I sense that some other muscles have taken over. So I stop. So that the brain doesn't get confusing signals. It just gets one signal that this muscle needs to work, right?
Tom : Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr Subhasis: So I went into relaxation, I waited for the pain to subside to a level which was say two out of 10. And then I started trying to move, okay? And when I moved, I would just do four, five repetitions of that movement and stop. Okay? And then try it again 10 or 15 minutes later. And after I had relaxed back again. Now one of the things I realized is when we go hammer and tongs using our willpower, we give too many confusing signals to the brain, right?
Dr Subhasis: Because in the first part of your session, you're telling the brain, "Hey, I want to use this muscle." And then for the next 40 minutes, you're telling the brain, "I want to use this six other muscles." And when I cut it down and I said, "Okay, relax." So that there is enough oxygen and blood supply going to the brain. And when I move, I just do those four or five and then stop. So that throughout the [inaudible 00:11:50] , the brain is getting a consistent signal.
Dr Subhasis: Later on in my PhD study, the lessons that I wanted to verify in neuroscience didn't come from neuroscience. It came from what we call developmental biology, which is how babies grow in the first six or seven months after they're born, right? So if you see babies don't make a hundred repetitions before they start walking, right? One fine day they get up, they try a few times and they are on their feet, right?
Tom : Yeah.
Dr Subhasis: And I'm sure there are some great principles of how growth and development takes place which we can plop into adult life, taking some of those principles. So when I redirected my so-called willpower, right, towards that, then that's where it needed to be. And I just placed it wrongly that's all. And it was a big wake-up call.
Erik : And by the way, this has worked its way into exercise physiology because I had this trainer about a year ago and he said, "This is the form I want you to do, say, when you do pull ups. And if you get tired and your form breaks down, stop".
Dr Subhasis: Yes. Absolutely. Yes.
Erik : Because you're going to continue to do it, but you're going to be compensating. And I never understood that until right now, when I made that connection to what you're saying.
Dr Subhasis: And you can understand, because I also came from a sports background, this made perfect sense, right? Exactly what you're saying. Yeah. Makes perfect sense. Because in sports we know that. And especially in high-performance sports and in contact sports, we know that.
Tom : Yeah.
Dr Subhasis: And just really, really lucky that I had some previous experience which made me connect the dots. The other thing that I realized was relaxation is far more powerful than even what I had experienced in my training before the accident.
Tom : Wow.
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. So that, that was unbelievable. The force and the power to drive neuroplasticity through relaxation is just unbelievable.
Tom : It seems like what you're saying is it was a process that you sort of needed to sort of take everything that you learned from your own background and yoga and martial arts, and then test it in this new moment.
Erik : What I'm hearing in my mind right now is that there's a little bit of this sort of Western, Eastern opposition, because the Western mind would be like, "Just hammer until you get it right. Just keep driving. It doesn't matter how you feel." And you're saying, "Relax, meditate, work on breathing, work on all these other things that are much more quiet and still."
Dr Subhasis: Yeah.
Erik : And so was that a resistance at first because maybe the medical profession said, "Wait a second, that's a little hokey?"
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. So in 2009, 2008, the wisdom was high repetition, high intensity practice, right?
Tom : Right.
Dr Subhasis: And I was saying that's counterproductive. Because after the first 10 minutes you'll compensate. Then they said, "Okay, show us evidence." And I didn't have the evidence. The only evidence was me. And that was just not good enough, right?
Tom : Yeah.
Erik : You're like, "I have to go through the PhD program to gain the evidence."
Tom : Right.
Dr Subhasis: No and I'll tell you very simply and this is funny, but in some ways, not funny. So one day I remember me and John, we were sitting in the canteen of the university and we were saying, "What the hell do we need to do to get doctors to listen to us?" And he said, "Hey, I wish I had a doctor in front of my name." And so John goes, "Oh, why don't you enroll into a PhD program?"
Tom : So you did. Yeah.
Dr Subhasis: So we did, I mean, you do what it takes, right? And I said, "John, its five years." So he said, "You want the doctor or not?" Then I went home and after a couple of days, I said, "I have to go through this anyway so might as well." Then I landed up with a full-time PhD program. So it was pretty much like, I don't know, 80 hours a week or something like that for five years.
Tom : Well, I appreciate you kind of mapping out the timetable there because it seems like there was... This has been a journey. This has been quite the journey. You were a successful mechanical engineer in business. I believe you had just had your first child?
Dr Subhasis: Yeah.
Tom : So the whole world was in front of you, both your growth for your career and as a parent, and then this accident happens and you seem to enter this dark period. Tell me about how long a time it took from that period until you say that sort of revelation took place? And then what took place after that?
Dr Subhasis: So the shift I made maybe somewhere in the second year or towards the end of the second year I think, if I remember right. That was in 2000, right? Like I said, I had tried to go back to work, but it wasn't working. I used to do a full day at work and then really take very long to recover and it was extremely painful. And so I didn't feel I was healing. So I felt that I needed to move out of that. So I shut down that business. Then I said, "Okay, I have to give myself time to heal." And I started doing my own work and that's the time I started working also with other patients along with the psychotherapist, right?
Tom : Right.
Dr Subhasis: So that was 2001, okay?
Tom : Okay. So that's a few years time period, right?
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. Yeah.
Tom : I think oftentimes people think it's like the light bulb goes off and there's this immediate switch, but it sounds like there was a period of muddling, a period of struggle. And, to use your own words, a period where you touch some dark spaces where you were depressed. Right?
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. So I realized that there is psychology and then there is brain, right? A lot of time when people are depressed, we say also psychological problem. Sometimes it's chemical and structural. They may come to us saying that they are clinically diagnosed as depressive. Clinically this, clinically that. But I'm looking at a different set of metrics. Like my IQ story, right? Sometimes you're not who others see you as, right? And that window opens and closes, right? So, on some of the good days that window opens and you see yourself very clearly, "Hey, I'm still there inside somewhere." And then it closes, it closes and you're somebody else. And one of the big things of working with relaxation and breathing is that when that window opens, you can keep it open longer. Right? I mean, I'm sure all of you would have experienced that. That's our everyday experience. And once you have that window open longer, you have a window to work on yourself.
Tom : Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Erik : Subhasis, can you monitor or figure out a way to measure that window?
Dr Subhasis: Yes.
Erik : So that's the basis of your device.
Dr Subhasis: Yes. Yes. If you go to any hospital with a brain injury, they would pretty much say that in that one year window, whatever you recover is pretty much what you're going to ever recover. Okay? And this is still existing wisdom. We are turning that on its head. So the longest that we've put people back to full function... And I remember this case because we put a musician back to playing the guitar on stage 15 years after the event, after his stroke.
Tom : Wow. So what I'm really curious about, this is fascinating stuff, is when a patient comes to you, are they someone that has been sort of disregarded by, we'll call conventional medicine, or are you basically that sort of last stop for them to make sure that they have that hope to get back to playing the guitar, to get back to that normal activity that they want in their life?
Dr Subhasis: So see, I took about eight years, right? Till I considered myself cured, which means I was completely cognitively clear and physically pain-free, okay? Now, with this device, we can cover that gap in one to one and a half years. Okay?
Tom : Wow. Okay.
Dr Subhasis: Okay? So that's where we are. And because I came out of long-term rehab, most of our research has been in that long-term space. So if you have had any kind of injury set at two years or more before, and if there are no other options out there except maintenance, then come to us. That's where we started. So it's coming together so that you are able to work on your physio and neurosystem. It's a self-administered kind of thing, which actually replicates whatever I administered on myself, but in a much more scientifically mature way now, measurable way. And it allows the daily dose. Right?
Tom : Sure.
Dr Subhasis: And because it's connected, it allows a doctor to stay in touch if that's what's needed. So as a solution, it has these four components, the hardware sensing, which we wear, the software that goes with it, the data that reaches over the cloud to the person who's trying to help this person navigate, right? He will always have a lot of people who may help him navigate. It could be a therapist, but it also could be a fellow patient and so on and so forth. So this connected art of the technology actually enables that guy to take these inputs from his community. People who have recovered before him and also therapists who've been down this road before with using relaxation and it's combination to drive neuroplasticity.
Erik : I was just wondering Subhasis, have you used the SynPhNe on yourself a lot? Kind of like the Iron Man superhero? Where you're kind of testing it and making discoveries by using it on yourself.
Dr Subhasis: So, yeah. So that's it. And I try to correlate what the technology senses with what I am sensing. Okay?
Tom : Right.
Dr Subhasis: And that's simply because, even before the accident, but even after the accident, I worked a lot on internal sensing. So I consider myself somebody who is very high performance when it comes to sensing internally. And I try to maintain that through my practice, right? Whether it's [inaudible 00:22:21], it keeps that sensitivity really, really fine tuned. And every time I am using it on myself, I try to say, "Which one is better? Which is sensing it better? Am I sensing better? Or this guy's sensing it better?" And sometimes it's that. And sometimes it's this, right? So I can't say that at this point, we are able to replace the sensing system, but there are some very strong areas where the technology senses faster and more accurate than what I am sensing.
Erik : And Subhasis you've covered this again, but just to make sure, it seems that a real difficult part of this therapy is distinguishing between compensation and true neuroplasticity, right? Really finding a new pathway and just beating your head against the wall. So your SynPhNe device, how exactly does it know the difference between the two?
Dr Subhasis: Right. Excellent question. So usually in a stroke, one side will get affected. So the left side gets affected, your right side doesn't work, right? Your right limbs and all are sort of paralyzed. Right? And so when we actually start getting the person to follow a particular movement, our sensors can actually make out whether the damaged hemisphere is actually beginning to reassert itself, right? So that the left and the right start working in synergy. So that's one thing we do. The other thing we can sense is whether the attention metrics that I mentioned, right, are actually appearing in the front of the brain, right? Because if the attention appears in the frontal lobe, you can actually use it to execute something in the external world.
Dr Subhasis: So sometimes what happens is given a task, the frontal lobe will shutdown. Okay? Even if it is a simple thing. And then very quickly we know this is not the starting point for this patient. And then we give him four or five things till we see the frontal lobe become active. And so we stay with that exercise for some time, right? So that's one way in the head. In the arm, we have always two sets of muscles, which help us to move, right? One is what we call the agonist, which is the muscle that needs to contract. But then there is an opposing muscle group which needs to let go, right? For that movement to occur, right? So for example, if I'm extending my wrist, this must contract, but this must let go, right? The flexor side should let go. And our arm sensor senses that as well. A lot of times when people try to move, they are actually engaging the wrong muscle or they are engaging the opposing muscle group rather than the one which actually needs to contract.
Dr Subhasis: And all this becomes visible on the computer screen for the patient. And the patient says, "Oh, really? I didn't know that. I have been doing my exercise for the last three years every day. I didn't know I was actually engaging a wrong muscle." Right? And once they just get that insight, things start actually moving very quickly because then they can test their movement with something that's on a computer screen, which is telling them, "Yeah, you got it this time." And then say, what we were discussing earlier, that if we do it five times, by the fifth time he sees that that muscle is no longer being recruited, something else is happening. And you stop. So he understands when to stop. He understands when to push. He knows exactly whether the compensation is reducing or is going the reverse direction.
Dr Subhasis: And he gets to see this at a muscle level. He gets to see this at a brain level. And so once you have that picture, I mean, we've used it on somebody with primary school education, you get it.
Tom : Wow.
Dr Subhasis: Right? You don't have to be a scientist. You get it. You say, "Oh, this is me. This I should not do. This I should do. This exercise, if I do, although I love this exercise, if I do it, I'm compensating. There's this other exercise that I really get bored with, but it is really helping me." So you start with that, right? And it's the same mentally. We tell somebody to read and they say, "Yeah, I like reading, but don't ask me to write." Correct? But then when we give them something to write, they see in front of them, "Wow, look at what writing is doing. It's not only helping me process language, but it's also synergizing it with my muscle function." Then they say, "Okay, even if it is something I don't like..." They buy in. Right? And so these kinds of conversations actually help people separate out what is behavioral compensation and what is actual recovery.
Erik : And how does it work with Parkinson's, Subhasis? Because I have a friend whose left foot shakes and his hand shakes, and he has to take medication to even sleep at night time because his hand is just shaking so much.
Dr Subhasis: Right.
Erik : Is there promise with Parkinson's?
Dr Subhasis: There is promise. So here also we work in the same way. Usually somebody who's moving all the time has forgotten in his head what a relaxed limb feels like. Okay?
Erik : Right.
Dr Subhasis: So the Parkinson's we've worked with, we said, "We're not going to train your movement. We are going to train stillness." Okay?
Tom : Wow. Yeah.
Dr Subhasis: "And stillness looks like this. Which means right now you're generating, I don't know, 50 millivolts of muscle activity and all. You have to target it in the downward direction. We have to reach ten, okay?" And so we start working in the reverse direction and that's where the changes happen. That's where the changes start happening. So just to give you a [inaudible 00:27:58], a similar kind of thing, right?
Dr Subhasis: Say we worked with a 20 year old whose reading age was at the age of five. Okay? So quite severely under developed. And so this person has been pushing for the last 15 years trying to cope. And has coped to some extent, but not coped to some extent. And so we take them back to grade three grade four reading. Okay?
Tom : Right.
Dr Subhasis: And just practice a more open cognitive window at that point. Okay? And as the cognitive window opens, we put 10% to grade six, grade seven, grade eight reading. So we are not actually training reading. We are just training a self-regulation where, "I keep my cognitive window open longer." Or in layman's terms, you can call it attention span, but it's a little more than that, right? And I can keep it in a relaxed fashion. So because we have these metrics of relaxation and attention that the person is able to regulate while doing that reading. And we have had people catch up four or five years within the space of about three months.
Erik : So this is where it's helping people with learning disabilities as well, right?
Dr Subhasis: Yes. Yes. And you will see that people with learning disability always have motor issues, right? They are clumsy. They drop things. They hold a pen in a funny way. So like I said again, they are one and the same thing. If you see one, chances that the other will be there. And so even with Parkinson's, we know that it's something that's emerging in the brain, right? As a condition. But we see when we work on muscle in the direction of relaxation, then some shifts start to happen. For example, the spine becomes more still. And when the spine becomes more still, because the arm is still, the cognitive windows become longer in the human brain because the spine is still. In meditation we try and sit rock still, right? So the spine goes still, you're able to focus better.
Dr Subhasis: And once this kind of training becomes the norm, because now after doing it for two or three months, it's become your second nature, then how you function is also different. No snake oil, no magic. Just something very straightforward which all of us do. I mean, all of you who are high-performing people, we do that all the time. We do that all the time. Yeah.
Tom : This is also incredibly hopeful. And I just want to thank you Dr. Subhasis Banerji for all of your wisdom and your time, and for joining our No Barriers community. This is just some incredible revelations for us that you're sharing.
Dr Subhasis: Thank you so much for having me.
Tom : I'd say what's most powerful to me is just knowing that all of this was born out of your own experience of struggle. Finding and pioneering a way forward for not just yourself, but for thousands. And I wanted to give you the final word on how people can learn more about your work and hopefully benefit from it because obviously your business is in Singapore and Mumbai and obviously we're in the United States, but we'd love to support you. And we'd love to benefit too from this.
Erik : Yeah. When will we be able to get our hands on a SynPhNe?
Tom : Yeah, exactly.
Dr Subhasis: Well, it's in New Jersey, it's there.
Erik : Alright I'll just head over to New Jersey.
Dr Subhasis: Yeah. So guys, it's been amazing and just very simply a great honor for me to meet both of you. So thank you very much for your time. And it's just been fantastic talking to you guys.
Erik : Cool.
Tom : Thank you. Take care. Have a wonderful rest of your day and so great to have you on the podcast.
Dr Subhasis: You guys too. Take care, Eric, thanks. Tom, thank you so much. And Pauline.
Tom : All right. Thank you. No Barriers.
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