From a very young age I was fascinated with the mind. I remember when I was still in primary school my father would take me to the library every Sunday. I would go into the children's section and borrow the maximum number of books I could each week. My father would browse the adults section, and I would come and find him when finished. I remember at one point when waiting in the adult section I found the non-fiction section. There were no computers in those days, you just scanned the shelves. I found the psychology section. Rows of books on Freud and Jung. I can't say I probably understood much in those early days but I was fascinated and intrigued. I went on to find books on philosophy; Descartes, Aristotle, Socrates, and Kant. I wouldn't have been able to tell you who was a philosopher or psychologist, to me it was all about people trying to understand the human mind and I was hooked. Early high school I discovered Eastern thought, Taoism, meditation, lucid dreaming, and hypnotism. We even had a little club at school where we would try and hypnotise each other. At some point I realised we had a school psychologist and would knock on her door for a chat about life, nothing massively serious, but still on the path to understanding myself and others.
When I finished school I had such a thirst for knowledge there were so many things I wanted to study. I knew I wanted to be a psychologist but I hated the idea of cutting myself off from all the other potential things I was fascinated with. I decided to do Advanced Science at UNSW, with a minor in philosophy and a major in psychology. After completing one subject in psychology, I knew my path, and immediately transferred into the psychology degree. During my undergraduate degree I fell in love with subjects like behavioural neuroscience, prompting me to complete my honours research, studying memory, under the supervision of Prof Rick Richardson. At the end of my supervision year I went to my supervisor for some career advise, asking abut PhDs and masters programs. I was told that I was never going to get into a PhD as I wasn't PhD material, and I was told I would never get into the neuropsychology masters program as there was only one in NSW and less than 10 positions. I have never been the sort of person to be told I couldn't do anything. By the end of that year (1997) I had secured one of only 8 positions in the state in the Masters of Clinical Neuropsychology at Macquarie University. By the end of my first year in the masters program (1998) I was offered a PhD project under full scholarship at the Clinical School at Sydney University (based at the Children's Hospital at Westmead).
The time spent completing my PhD under the supervision of Prof Kathryn North was one of the most fascinating periods of my life. I am extremely honoured to have worked under such am amazing woman, neurologist and researcher. I completed my PhD in Medicine (Paediatrics & Child Health) researching into brain abnormalities and cognitive deficits in children and adults with a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis (NF1). At the same time as completing my full-time PhD I was also completing my Masters part-time. With a gruelling schedule and very little sleep I completed my Masters in 2002, just before giving birth to my first daughter. The aim was of course to finish the PhD at the same time, but it unfortunately didn't happen, so I slogged on with my brand new baby in a sling. In 2003 I finally submitted my thesis, going on to start my post-doctoral research with a Young Investigator Award in 2003 from the National Neurofibromatosis Foundation. Shortly thereafter in 2005 I won another grant as part of a multi-centre international study from the US Army DOD. These were times of incredible growth and critical thought.
Whilst still finishing off my PhD I was introduced to Buddhism. I spent many years following this path under the guidance of many wonderful teachers, eventually teaching meditation myself. Whilst I feel psychology gave me a slice of understanding about the human mind from an objective scientific viewpoint, I felt that my experience with various types of meditation gave me the sort of insight you can only get through direct experience. I explored various states of consciousness I would not have thought possible, transforming my world from the mundane to into something so much more.
In the meantime I got the travel bug. Whilst I loved my work at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, and I was head of a Learning Disorders Clinic, I felt the need to spread my wings. My husband wanted to go study Kabbalah in Israel and I was ready for adventure. We headed off in April 2005 to go live with a Kabbalah group. Whilst in Israel I had the great fortune to work at the Schneider Children's Medical Centre of Israel, helping out with their research and even trying my hand at doing some neuropsychological assessment in Hebrew (not for the faint hearted). For many years neuropsychology had always been about assessments and giving recommendations, but never working one-on-one with patients. In Israel neuropsychology was classed under rehabilitation and I was required to become registered locally to retrain in therapeutic techniques. At this stage I retrained in various psychological therapies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. As I was living in one of the most amazing technology centres of the world, I decided to get more involved in the amazing technological progresses being made in cognitive remediation in Israel at the time. I worked at the University of Haifa as a researcher in the Laboratory for Innovations in Rehabilitation Technology as well as with the Dana Children's Hospital with a neurosurgeon, and I put together a collaborative research project looking at virtual reality and computerised cognitive training in children. I was awarded a New Investigator Award in 2006 again from the US Army to continue my research in this area. Unfortunately at this time war broke out with Lebanon and the University was bombed heavily. I fled down south for a while but after dragging my young 3 year old through some very traumatic times I decided it was time to return to Australia after 2 years away. With the family in tow we returned to Sydney.
After returning to Sydney I did not want to go back into a hospital job where I was only doing assessments. I wanted to use all the skills I had learned overseas in cognitive remediation in my practice. I decided to start my own private practice, the Sydney Cognitive Development Centre. Almost from the day I opened my doors I realised there was a massive demand for comprehensive assessment services. Whilst many psychologists offered IQ and academic testing, very few were able to offer complete cognitive testing in the fields of attention, memory, executive functioning, visual processing, auditory processing etc. I was inundated with calls, particularly from patients who had been diagnosed with ADHD who wanted a second opinion. I became quickly aware that the vast majority of people diagnosed with attention disorders were diagnosed with a checklist only, with no formal or objective assessment of attention. As I began to assess streams and streams of people with 'alleged' ADHD, I began to realise that at least half of the people I was assessing actually had normal attention issues, but had other forms of cognitive issues that appeared to present as an attention deficit (but wasn't). I started to gather around me a team of clinicians who could treat these other issues, and I found that the vast majority no longer met criteria for having any attention deficits once we had completed the training. I then set up a dedicated ADHD Clinic (for both children and adults) as I felt that at the time there were no good services to actually give not only comprehensive assessments, but also very holistic treatment programs. I was becoming very alarmed at the number of children I was seeing on ADHD medication whose attention skills were not being improved (or even whose cognitive skills were worse), yet the families still continue to medicate as they were given no other options. I have had the great fortune to have many wonderful colleagues and employees over the years, and a wonderful team of psychologists, neuropsychologists and other allied health practitioners who have joined me on this quest to help people.
One of the most surprising and exciting changes in my career was when one day I asked one one my interns to research the latest therapeutic techniques in ADHD. She came back to me with some information on neurofeedback, and even though I had heard of neurofeedback I arrogantly waved it away saying I wasn't trained at university in this area so it must be garbage. She persisted, telling me it was rated at the highest level of efficacy now by the American Academy of Paediatrics. This got me to look twice and I thought as an expert in ADHD I should investigate. I made my way down to Melbourne to train with Dr Moshe Perl. In my ignorance and arrogance I was not expecting to find anything helpful, so when we practiced training on ourselves I decided to 'double the dosage' of training. That night I certainly paid for this arrogance as I did an activation protocol on myself and was completely over-aroused, elated, hyperactive and unable to sleep. Whilst it was a fun night, I walked back into the training session very humbled, and exhausted. After 5 minutes of training to reverse the affects, a quick 30 minute nap, I was back to normal and feeling great. This certainly made a believer out of me, and I realised I had stumbled across one of the most powerful methods to alter attention skills, mood and arousal levels. Since 2015, my passion still remains in cognitive remediation, but more in the form of neuromodulation and neurofeedback, which I have seen is currently one of the most powerful ways of changing your life. I have seen patients who have undergone years of therapy and medication with no success, but have their lives transformed in a matter of months, and achieving things even they didn't think possible.
Neurofeedback and neuromodulation are still in their infancy in Australia, but growing rapidly. The technologically astute and forward thinkers are trialling this type of therapy with great success, and I think most of us who have worked with this modality stand in awe of being able to treat people and the brain level of functioning and to make such profound changes in peoples lives. I encounter many naysayers, especially older doctors who have never bothered looking at the research, or trialled it for themselves. I am always shocked at how closed-minded some people are, until I remember my own arrogance and close-mindedness. The world is advancing at a rapid rate, and just because we never learnt something at university doesn't mean it isn't scientific. That way of thinking cannot be sustained in today's day and age with such massive leaps in technology. These are exciting times and I am moving away from the mindset of 'treating patients', more to the mindset that we can all maximise our own cognitive potential and brain functioning. I have started using neurofeedback experimentally on patients who have been given up by other medical specialists: people with intellectual disability, people with epilepsy that doesn't respond to medication, people with brain injury (TBI & stroke) that is not improving, and people with Tourettes Disorder. We have had such great success in improving mood and cognition in these people who the rest of the medical field had either given up on, or who had nothing to offer in the first place. It gives me such great hope for the future about where we can go. I have also treated doctors, lawyers and top executives who want to have their performance enhanced, and certainly I have used neurofeedback on myself when I have needed a boost. I know that neurofeedback is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to neuromodulation. TMS and TACS are growing in recognition and new research is coming out everyday. I hear people like Elon Musk talking about Neuralink, whispers of the Building 8 project, and exciting research into the field of optogenetics. I can't wait to see where this field goes and I only hope I can contribute in some small way into this wave of moving away from medication and band-aid treatments, into the area of regulating the brain in the long term and treating directly the cause of cognitive and mood issues.
As a personal footnote I now have two beautiful daughters aged 10 and 15 years. A wonderful husband who has been by my side the whole way through my journey. I am grateful for the Art of Living and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who I have had the fortune to train with and learn their yoga, pranayama and meditation. I love this group for the strong research behind their techniques, especially their EEG brain scans. I can't recommend the Sudarshan Kriya enough. I am a complete workaholic which lead to adrenal fatigue and 6 months of being very ill, and it was only this daily technique which could get me back to health. To relax I love my yoga, mediation and pranayama, although ironically I also love my martial arts and have been doing various martial arts for the past 20 years. My current love is Taekwon-do, and whilst I am very lousy at it, I think it is a beautiful looking martial art with its elegant jumping and spinning kicks. On my bucket list is to get my blackbelt and I am crawling my way towards it... very slowly. I am a complete self-proclaimed neuro-geek and techno-geek, who reads anything to do with neuroscience for fun, and jumps up and down with excitement at any new technology (don't talk to me the day of a new Apple announcement).
To conclude, I think we all have a purpose in this world. One of my earliest memories is lying in bed thinking and wondering what would happen if I could be aware of the spaces between my thoughts. I would have been around 7 and would never have heard of meditation. Ultimately, whilst I have committed my life work to finding ways to maximise cognitive potential and brain functioning, I realise that this is not an end in of itself, merely a pathway to the goal we all seek: happiness, meaning and fulfilment. With an unruly mind, the peace and serenity we seek becomes elusive. I believe that true happiness can only be achieved with a peaceful mind, without racing thoughts & without brain-fog, but with a clear mind that can find those spaces between the gaps and know your true self is not your thoughts (which are fleeting), but so much more. I am truly blessed by the people who let me into their lives and explore this journey with them.