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As technology races ahead and we come ever closer to an era where virtual reality devices become a commonplace, it is worth noting that there already exists a whole range of technology designed to encourage altered states of consciousness – the “mind machines” or audio-visual stimulation (AVS) devices. These are doubtless going to become far more sophisticated with the pace of technological progress, but they have been in existence for over twenty years and make some pretty strong claims about their ability to train our brains.
The core component behind a lot of these devices is the audio stimulation of the brain stem using binaural beats. These are two different rhythmic frequencies played over headphones to our two ears, designed to encourage a variety of different brainwave states.
The principle is that while the difference in frequencies is usually consciously imperceptible, the “gap” in frequencies is supposed to generate a brainwave of the order of the size of the gap – as measured in hertz. The idea is that binaural beats can stimulate alpha, beta, gamma and theta brainwaves which are thought to correspond to different states of consciousness, including ordinary alertness, meditative focus and even deep sleep.
The science backing up such claims is a little thin on the ground though. There have been some scientific studies, but most of these have not effectively dealt with the chance of placebo effect with properly designed double or triple blind controls. One study of some interest was a triple-blind study into the use of binaural beats specifically for reducing anxiety in pre-operative patients going in for a general anaesthetic and medical procedure.
The study found that those given the binaural beats prior to surgery showed decreased anxiety on the order of 19-33%, whereas those given a control audio input with no binaural beat content showed reduced anxiety of just 0-7%. Of course this study is merely focused on anxiety and does not test the wider claims made by the designers of such technology, such as its potential to encourage deep states of meditation.
Some of these claims certainly seem outlandish if not unreasonable. Even if these devices can encourage meditative states, claims such as one tagline used by Holosync that it lets you “meditate more deeply than an experienced Zen monk at the touch of a button” seem to this author almost flippant, and a bit of a dismissal of the years of training and self-improvement which accompany any disciplined program of meditation.
That said, I am not a purist either – and I certainly believe that tools well-used can aid our development as meditators. Many of these devices are simply with an audio input, but the ones which really drew my attention were the ones supplying a set of electronic sunglasses along with the audio input. Plug the sunglasses in to the device, close your eyes and let the built-in LEDs flash coloured lights over your closed eyelids.
These are a fascinating experiment in multi-sensory input, although strictly not suitable for anyone with a history of seizures! The manufacturers acknowledge that there have been a small number of grand mal episodes as a result of their use, and they are also not suitable for children as they have a higher risk of undiagnosed epilepsy.
The experience is certainly an intriguing one – the flashing lights can be unsettlingly intense but once I turned the brightness settings down they were quite transporting – I felt like I was watching waves of light washing across my field of vision, and accompanied by soothing music with binaural beats underlying the sound.
I cannot say I achieved a profoundly altered state of consciousness in my first experiments with the tech, but I did have a set of experiences which stayed with me, and which took me somewhere. Perhaps not somewhere I could not have arrived at by other means, but there was certainly a noticeable effect.
There were clear moments of bliss and a feeling of being suspended in the present tense, and the visual component was very appealing. The tech I experimented with is called Kasia: Mind Machine and costs around $400 retail.
Personally I can’t wait for a more external visual machine to be created. I am waiting for full-vision smart glasses which will play me wrap-around fractals along to music, while not encouraging my inner vision as much perhaps, I can imagine this being incredibly immersive, and I’m sure it won’t be many years before such kits are on the market.
Padmanabhan, R., Hildreth, A., & Laws, D. (2005). A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and pre-operative anxiety in patients undergoing general anaesthesia for day case surgery Anaesthesia, 60 (9), 874-877 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2044.2005.04287.x
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