Sound and Light Machines: the arrival of an idea

IT WAS OBVIOUS THAT THESE SEPARATE DEVELOPMENTS, when considered together, had some fascinating implications. Since both flickering light and pulsating sound could, by themselves, entrain brain-wave activity and increase hemispheric synchronization, then perhaps, the thought occurred to a number of independent researchers almost simultaneously, by combining both sound and light stimulation at the same frequency the entrainment effects—and the resulting hemispheric synchronization—would be even more pronounced. Intrigued by these possibilities, these independent inventor-explorers set out to investigate the effects of combined sound and light stimulation, and to create new devices that would enable individuals to bombard their brains simultaneously with sound and light.

Clearly the creation and use of sound and light machines, or audiovisual integrators (AVI) was an idea whose time had come. As I mentioned earlier, humans had been interested in the effects of flickering lights for ages, and as technology advanced had even devised crude flicker-boxes, such as William Burroughs’ Dreammachine, that allowed them to experience hallucinatory flicker phenomena with some degree of control. The use of stroboscopic lights in combination with the psychedelic rock music of the 1960s (and often in combination with psychedelic drugs as well) had intensified the awareness of millions of people of the fascinating visual and mental (and in some cases even spiritual) effects of flickering light. This popular fascination with flicker was shared by scientists, as demonstrated by the outburst of scientific studies of photic driving that took place in the 1970s.

Similarly, humans had always been enthralled by the effects of rhythmic sounds, and had from earliest times been aware of the mind-altering and brain-wave entrainment effects of rhythmic noises, as evidenced for example by the sophisticated auditory-driving techniques developed over thousands of years by tribal medicine men or shamans. As anthropologist and shamanism authority Michael Harner point out, “Basic tools for entering the SSC (Shamanic State of Consciousness) are the drum and rattle. The shaman generally restricts use of his drum and rattle to evoking and maintaining the SSC. . . . The repetitive sound of the drum is usually fundamental to undertaking shamanic tasks in the SSC. With good reason, Siberian and other shamans sometimes refer to their drums as the ‘horse’ or ‘canoe’ that transports them into the Lowerworld or Upperworld. The steady, monotonous beat of the drum acts like a carrier wave, first to help the shaman enter the SSC, and then to sustain him on his journey.”

Researcher Andrew Neher investigated the effects of drumming on EEG patterns and found the rhythmic pounding dramatically altered brain-wave activity. Other researchers of shamanistic rituals, Harner observes, have “found that drum-beat frequencies in the theta wave EEG frequency range . . . predominated during initiation procedures.”

Humans have always been keenly appreciative of the mind expanding powers of music, which is of course a succession of rhythmic auditory signals, and for thousands of years musicians and composers have consciously and intentionally influenced the brain states of listeners by manipulating the frequency of the rhythms and tones of their music.

Humans have also long been intrigued by the possibilities for influencing mental functioning that emerge from combining both rhythmic light and rhythmic sound stimulation. For example, ancient rituals for entering trance states often involved both rhythmic sounds in the form of drumbeats, rattles, cymbals, clapping or chanting, and flickering lights produced by candles, torches, bonfires or long lines of human bodies rhythmically dancing, their forms passing before the campfire and chopping the light into mesmerizing rhythmic flashes. Some composers of the past, such as the visionary Scriabin, created music intended to be experienced in combination with rhythmic light displays.

Technological advances made possible even more powerful combinations of sound and light. Moving pictures developed soundtracks, and moviemakers quickly exploited the potentials of sound to enhance the power of the flickering images onscreen, so that movies like Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and others that followed became true audiovisual experiences in which the rhythmic soundtrack was fused with the flickering light and the rhythmic flickering of montage editing techniques to create alterations in the consciousness of the audience that would have been impossible using only sound or only light. The interplay of electronic musical instruments and amplified sound with stroboscopic “psychedelic light shows” that took place in the rock concerts of the 1960s could produce rapid and profound alterations in consciousness.

Throughout history technological advances, such as those in cinema, have quickly been seized upon to stimulate the human fascination with rhythmic sound and light. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, technological advances also made it possible for scientists to understand more fully how sounds and lights influenced the electrochemical activity of the brain. The result was the flood of studies mentioned above dealing with photic and auditory entrainment and hemispheric synchronization. In 1972, R. E. Townshe developed the first recorder device to use light-goggles rather than a separate flashing light source. At about the same time, brain-mind explorer Jack Schwarz began making and selling a similar variable-frequency light-goggle machine, which he called theISIS. In 1974, a scientist inNew York City, Seymour Charas, obtained the first patent on a combined sound and light machine, though it was never put into commercial production. By the early 1980s the time was right for a breakthrough in the combination of sound and light.

The catalyst was the revolution in microelectronics that was taking place at that time, a revolution that allowed home electronics buffs and garage inventors to put together astonishingly sophisticated and complex devices for producing and combining sound and light.

As with many goods ideas, it seemed to occur to many people at once. Over a short period of time a number of inventors began turning out a variety of audiovisual integrators (AVI). Though they differed in a number of significant ways, these AVIs shared certain characteristics. They made use of eyepieces (often they were simply modified ski masks or welders’ goggles) that contained miniaturized lights encircling each eye. These goggles were attached to a control console that allowed the user to adjust the intensity of the flashes, the pattern of the flashes, and to select any frequency from extremely high beta to very slow delta, simply by turning a knob.

In addition, the devices featured stereo headphones, also attached to the console, enabling the user to select or create an almost infinite variety of electronically synthesized sounds (clicks, heartbeats, surf, white noise, and a wide assortment of musical tones) at any desired intensity and frequency. Using sophisticated computer circuitry, the devices interlinked the auditory and visual pulsations into a synchronous relationship, so that as the flashes slowed down or speeded up, grew brighter or dimmer, the sounds kept pace. That is, as the lights stimulated the brain through the visual tract at a frequency of, say, 8 Hz, the sounds stimulated the brain through the auditory tract at exactly the same frequency, thus, according to the inventors, entraining or driving brain-wave activity in two separate ways.

The devices also expanded the potentials of the combination of photic driving and auditory driving by enabling the user to select a number of separate modes of delivering the signals to the brain: the pulses could be delivered simultaneously to both eyes and both ears, for example, or alternated between the eyes and ears (i.e., both eyes receive a flash, then both ears receive a noise), or alternated between the left eye and ear and the right eye and ear, or, finally, “cross woven,” by stimulating the right ear and left eye in alternation with the left ear and right eye. (Before the breakthroughs in microelectronic, such complex computerized devices would have been enormously expensive to build, and like the old UNIVAC vacuum-tube computers, their circuitry and components would have been huge and unwieldy. But these new audiovisual stimulators were relatively inexpensive, and small—some of the first models were about the size of a portable typewriter and soon models were made with consoles not much larger than a pack of cards.)

The scientific research with photic driving showed clear brainwave entrainment, and such associated effects as hemispheric synchronization; the research with auditory driving also showed entrainment. These new AVIs, hoped the experimenters who put them together, by combining both types of stimulation, should have had more pronounced effects. As they experimented with the devices, the users found that their effects exceeded their expectations–the combination of integrated sound and light at variable frequencies seemed to boost the powers of hemispheric synchronization and controlled EEG patterns into a whole new realm.

Subjects not only rapidly went into a state of deep whole body relaxation, but also reported that the machines induced a kaleidoscopic stream of brilliant and emotionally charged images—like the “flicker effects” described above by neuroscientist W. Gray Walker and William Burroughs, but even more intense and dramatic. Frequently users experienced vivid scenes with an extraordinary quality of “being there,” or visions that metamorphosed into a storylike string of connected scenes or images. Often the scenes were long forgotten childhood events; at times they were astonishing “mind movies.” Users also reported frequentEurekaevents and flashes of creativity. And in many cases, the relaxation and sense of being mentally energized lasted for several days after using the device.

The individuals who had put these devices together were excited by the results, and, by the mid-1980s, they began to market the AVIs to health professionals, educators, and private individuals around the world. In some cases, the manufacturers or inventors made claims that were based more on their enthusiasm or their desire for a quick buck than on solid scientific evidence. One manufacturer and salesman for an early device called the Syncho-Energizer, a self-proclaimed “pioneer or science” named Denis Gorges, grandiosely told me that his machine was capable of increasing intelligence, sharpening perceptions, intensifying visualizations, improving both short-term and long-term memory, accelerating learning, increasing creativity, stimulating holistic problem solving, reducing the effects of childhood-formed inhibitions, curing drug and alcohol addictions and “permanently enhancing the efficiency of one’s brain.” “This thing,” Gorges grandly proclaimed, “is absolutely the most significant application of modern technology to increasing the abilities and functions of the human mind.”

Well now. Earlier I mentioned that many of the mind-machine makers, while keeping one foot in the scientific arena, also have their other foot firmly planted in the marketplace. In the past, the tensions between these two world have led to outright conflict and even suppression (as in the suppression of electro medicine by the medical mainstream after the 1910 Flexner Report). Gorges seemed to many to be an example of someone with both feet in the marketplace while clad in the costume of a scientist. Gorges, who one writer described as “a real-life portrayal of the mad scientist in a Saturday matinee movie,” and who reminded me more of the fast-talking snake-oil salesman with the traveling medicine show in that other Saturday matinee movie, claimed to have a Ph.D. as well as an M.D. and to be a psychiatrist, too. But his scientific credentials seemed hard to verify. As a writer for The New York Times observed, “Although the device is said to improve memory, Mr. Gorges could not recall the location of theNew Jersey institution he said awarded him a Ph.D. after he completed a course in psychology through the mail.”

Many inventors and other researchers who were enthusiastic about the enormous potentials of AVIs were critical of Gorges remembering the more than half-century suppression of electromedicine that came in part from the exaggerated claims of unscrupulous pitchmen for electrical apparatuses, believing his questionable claims about his own medical degrees and his unsupported claims about the powers of audiovisual stimulation cast a bad light on the entire field. These other inventors had created AVIs that were far more sophisticated than the one being touted by Gorges, technologically advanced devices with names like the D.A.V.I.D. (Digital Audio Visual Integration Device), the MindsEye, the InnerQuest, the Dreamwave, the Mind Gear and the Shaman. The inventors of these devices were aware of the need for rigorous research into the machines’ effects.

I could understand their enthusiasm about the devices. After all I had seen a number of people, laughing up their sleeves, sit down in crowded and noisy rooms and put on the goggles and headphones, and quickly slip into deep trances or states of glowing euphoria. One hardheaded skeptic at a convention I attended donned an AVI and went into a twenty-minute trance so deep that when he came out of it he claimed that only a minute had passed and absolutely nothing had happened to him! And nothing would convince him otherwise until the operator of the AVI produced a Polaroid photo of him sitting slumped over in the chair, wearing the AVI and a blissful smile. I have seen the harried editor I mentioned in chapter 1 put on the machine and immediately begin hearing chanting monks, angelic choirs, and strange boogaloo blasting on his mental radio waves, and I remembered his first words after coming out of his trance and taking off the googles: “I’ve got to have one of these things for myself!” And I had had my own experiences of extraordinary visions, waking dreamstates and peaceful ecstasy, while staring into the flashing lights of an AVI.

So I could understand the excitement that the inventors and users of AVIs had. There was no doubt that these gizmos could do something extraordinary. The question was, what were they doing? I decided to consult a few scientists and health professionals who had more experience in using these devices.


  1. Dana says:

    Did Michael ever recommend any specific companies as producers of safe, reliable mind machines of whatever type(s)? Or is there a site where users &/or practitioners review &/or discuss various companies?

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