Discovering the Twilight Zone

Almost unnoticed amid the hoopla surrounding the alpha state was a series of EEG studies by Japanese scientists of Zen monks going into deep meditative states. They found that as monks went into meditation, they did indeed go into alpha, but the most skilled meditators sank right through alpha and began producing the slower theta waves. And, intriguingly, even in the depths of theta—for most people the gateway to sleep—the monks were not asleep but extremely alert mentally.

Interestingly, the more meditative experience monks had, the more theta they generated. And the only ones who were able to get into this deep theta state quickly and at will were those monks who had more than twenty years of meditative experience.

Excited by this work, biofeedback researchers Elmer and Alyce Green of the Menninger Foundation decided to explore the effects of theta. They designed a biofeedback device that enabled them to train subjects to enter theta. The Greens described their observations of many people experiencing theta in their seminal book Beyond Biofeedback as “associated with a deeply internalized state and with a quieting of the body, emotions, and thoughts, thus allowing usually ‘unheard or unseen things’ to come to the consciousness in the form of hypnagogic memory.”

The Greens next designed a study in which one group learned to enter theta for a period of time every day, while another group—simply became very relaxed. They discovered that the theta subjects frequently reported vivid memories of long-forgotten childhood events: “They were not like going through a memory in one’s mind, but rather like an experience, a reliving.” The Greens also found that those producing theta waves frequently became highly creative, and had “new and valid ideas or syntheses of ideas.”

The Greens were surprised to discover that the subjects they taught to enter the theta state reported that they had life-altering insights, or what the researchers called “integrative experiences leading to feelings of psychological well-being.” They fell in love, discovered new talents, decided to change jobs and strike out in new, more satisfying directions. In essence, these people felt their lives had been transformed. On psychological tests, the Greens discovered that the theta subjects were “psychologically healthier, had more social poise, were less rigid and conforming, and were more self-accepting and creative” than the control group.

Finally, and most astonishingly, the Greens were surprised to note that those taught to enter the theta state became very healthy. While members of the control group (who were not producing theta waves) continued to have a normal number of illnesses, members of the theta group had almost no illness whatsoever.

The Greens felt they had stumbled onto something unprecedented. They reported that the theta state caused people to “experience a new kind of body consciousness very much related to their total well-being.” Physiologically the theta state seemed to bring “physical healing, physical regeneration.” In the emotional domain, the theta state was “manifested in improved relationships with other people as well as greater tolerance, understanding, and love of oneself and of one’s world.” In the mental domain, the theta state produced “new and valid ideas of syntheses of ideas, not primarily by deduction, but springing by intuition from unconscious sources.” All in all, it seemed as if there was something magic about the theta state.

Working independently, biofeedback researcher and psychologist Dr. Thomas Budzynski, then employed at the University of Colorado Medical Center, also sensed something magic about the theta state. He conducted extensive research into the properties of theta, which he dubbed the “twilight state.” People in theta, he found, were hypersuggestible, as if in a hypnotic trance. They are also able to learn enormous amounts very quickly. Theta, Budzynski suggested, is the state in which “superlearning” takes place—when in theta, people are able to learn new languages, accept suggestions for changes in behaviors and attitudes, memorize vast amounts of information. Said Budzynski, “the hypnagogic state, the twilight state, between waking and sleep, has the properties of uncritical acceptance of verbal material, or almost any material it can process.”

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