Twilight learning and childhood flashbacks by flickering lights

THE FIRST PERSON I SPOKE WITH WAS ONE OF THE FOREMOST biofeedback authorities in the world, Dr. Thomas Budzynski, who was then with Behavioral Medicine Associates clinic inDenver. Budzynski and several associates had issued a “report” on one of the AVIs in 1980, while he was with the Biofeedback Institute of Denver. According to the report, all of the staff members of the institute participated in at least five sessions using the device. “Results ranged from production of drowsy, hypnagogic-like states (with theta frequency used), to vivid, holograph-like images. At times, images from childhood were experienced.” When staff members began using the device with clients, the results were “quite encouraging.”

According to the report, the device was effective at producing “a sensation of detached relaxation.” The staff found that the machine was very useful as a “Hypnotic Facilitator,” and that “employing the 3-7 Hz range, we found that clients easily entered the hypnotic state.” Also striking was the way the machine acted as a “Facilitator of ‘Unconscious Retrieval.’ ” Staff members tape-recorded the clients’ intermittent verbal description of the imagery they were experiencing, and transcriptions of this material would be used by the therapist in the next session. According to the report, “Often this material provides valuable insight into unconscious processes relevant to the problem. The therapeutic process would appear to be accelerated by this procedure.” Perhaps most interesting was the staff’s use of the device to accelerate and enhance the user’s ability to learn and remember new material, a process the report calls “twilight learning.” Says the report: “Twilight learning implies that the client is presented with auditory material while in a twilight or hypnagogic [theta] state.” The report concluded that the AVI could “produce such a state after a period of 10 or 15 minutes.” Auditory material was then presented starting with very low level and slowly building to a comfortable listening volume. The material is absorbed in an uncritical fashion, thus circumventing certain resistances present in the fully conscious state.”

The report also noted that the lower frequencies (3-6 Hz) “seem to allow the subject to recall past childhood events with a high degree of ‘being there’ quality.” When they monitored the AVI patterns of subjects, they found that the AVI “drives the appropriate EEG frequencies after a 5-10 minute delay time.” Citing the need for serious scientific study of the machine, the report tentatively concludes that both “absorption of near-threshold verbal material” and the “Facilitation of Retrieval of Unconscious Material” may indeed be enhanced by use of the AVI.350

When I spoke to Budzynski over five years after this initial report, he emphasized that no really solid research had been done yet with the AVI, but he still remained impressed with the device. “What the machine can do,” he said, “is promote a brain-wave state which is one of relaxation, at the simplest level-people report that they feel pretty relaxed and pretty good. It seems to have a tranquilizing effect for individuals who are quite anxious and high-strung. It tends to quiet them down for three to four days after a session. And eventually, with perhaps ten or twelve sessions, it seems to produce a longer-lasting effect–they feel more peaceful, more calm. It may be accomplishing a sort of integration of sorts. People do report a lot of childhood visual flashes or scenes that come to mind. Then we integrate that with therapy. They talk about what they saw and experienced while using the AVI, and we weave that into our psychotherapy program, and it does seem to be very useful for getting at some of these early and forgotten memories.”

When asked whether any EEG tests showed that the subject’s brain waves became entrained to the rhythm of the AVI, he said there was evidence that “when you use the theta frequencies eventually there’s an increase in theta energy. So there probably is some entrainment taking place. Not in everyone, but in some individuals. It seems that some people are more willing to allow the machine to train their brain waves than are others. I suspect it’s because it produces a slight feeling of vulnerability as it tends to pull you toward a theta state. Some people resist that and some go along with it.”

What about the use of the machine for “Superlearning”? Budzynski agreed that this was one area where the device could be potentially quite effective. “We combine the machine with subliminal tapes and certain guided image tapes,” he said. “These tapes are then used to promote positive kinds of mental processes. The machine enhances the absorption of the material. I definitely would say the machine increases suggestibility.” Budzynski pointed out that his studies have shown that the theta state in combination with a strengthening of right-hemisphere functioning enormously increases the ability to learn. (Or, as he had said on another occasion, “Get access to the right hemispheres of individuals very quickly and keep them in that state, and that’s where a lot of work gets done very quickly.” In this theta, or twilight, state, he said, the brain “has these properties of uncritical acceptance of verbal material, or almost any material it can process.”)59 Since the AVI is a powerful tool for putting even anxious people into this receptive state, Budzynski suggested, it could, if used appropriately, dramatically boost one’s learning abilities.

Budzynski did add a cautionary note, saying he would be wary of recommending the machine for general use, because since the machine was such a powerful facilitator for the emergence of unconscious material, there was always a possibility that frightening or repressed material might emerge for which the user was not prepared. He also warned that anyone with a history of seizures could use the machine only under medical supervision.

I spoke next with Dr. Roman Chrucky, Medical Director of theNorthJerseyDevelopmentCenterinTotowa,New Jersey, who had been using a sound and light device extensively in his practice. His observations supported Budzynski’s: he too found that the machine had a very strong relaxing and calming effect (“It acts as a tranquilizer,” he said, “and the effect seems to last two or three days. Usually you see the maximum change a day or two after they use the machine”); he too noted that the device “enhances and speeds up hypnotic induction” and enhances suggestibility (“When the client is using the AVI he’s very receptive, so using it is a great way of introducing suggestions for changes the individual wants to go through, changing habits–stop overeating, quite smoking, and so on”).

But as we talked, Chrucky kept returning to one aspect of the AVI which he felt was most intriguing: enhanced creativity. “A lot of people spontaneously told me that they’ve felt much more creative when they’re using it,” he said. “I’ve found that using the theta frequency I get that kind of response on myself as well, increased creativity.”

Buffalo,New York, medical researcher Dr. Gene W. Brockopp, who has used an AVI extensively and been favorably impressed, finding it had dramatic effects on many subjects, set out to review the scientific literature for work that had been done in areas that were relevant to audiovisual stimulation devices, and summarized the research in a paper, “Review of Research on Multi-Modal Sensory Stimulation with Clinical Implication and Research Proposals.” Among the areas he examined were research on photic and auditory stimulation of the brain, on consciousness and hemispheric differentiation, on EEG patterns and personality variables, and on the behavioral effect of induced stimuli patterns. Using this available research and combining it with his own research and clinical experiences with the AVI, he then made a number of tentative conclusions about the effectiveness of the AVI.

One of his findings was that “coherence of the high-frequency EEG output of the hemispheres is apparently related to increased intellectual function or related to the quality of intellectual functioning.” Thus, if the AVI is in fact creating hemispheric coherence of high-frequency EEG output in users, it could very well lead to increased intellectual functioning. Another finding, that “when a brain-wave state is experienced, learned, and practiced over a period of time, it is resistant to habituation (weakening), at least in the short term,” could explain why the machine seems to have a cumulative effect, so that after a series of experiences with the AVI users seem to find it easier to enter the desired brainwave state at will.

Exploring the clinical implications of the available research, Brockopp surmises that the AVI “may not ‘energize’ the brain but actively induce a state of deactivation in which the brain is passive, but not asleep; awake, but not involved with the ‘clutter’ of an ongoing existence. If this is true, then it may be a state in which new cognitive strategies could be designed and developed.”

Citing studies indicating that children spend much of their time in a theta state, Brockopp speculates that the AVI, through its “entrainment of the theta wave . . . may result in the recovery of early childhood experiences. . . . Also, increasing theta decreases the ability of the person to be vigilant and therefore may result in the person expressing ideas without the monitor of the more thoughtful brain processes being active. Information obtained from their earlier state is then available for evaluation and understanding by those more thoughtful and cognitive brain processes and therefore.” This return to childhood thought patterns and increased access to previously unconscious ideas may explain why so many users of the AVI report that the device frequently triggers vivid childhood memories, and acts as what Budzynski calls a “facilitator of unconscious retrieval.” (And, like Budzynski, Brockopp points out that the theta state induced by the AVI may, for some people, “have the undesirable side effect of precipitating or enhancing early memory patterns that the person may not be able to integrate into their personality without professional assistance.” Further, Brockopp concludes, “Individuals who are tightly organized or compulsive and who need to maintain their sense of vigilance will respond to the energizer either by experiencing discomfort or by going to sleep and thereby by-passing the conflict.”)

Noting that “there is some correlation between functional brain-wave state and personality pattern,” Brockopp suggests, “If we can help a person to experience different brain-wave states consciously through driving them with external stimulation, we may facilitate the individuals’ ability to allow more variations in their functioning through breaking up patterns at the neural level. This may help them develop the ability to shift gears or ‘shuttle’ and move them away from habit patterns of behavior to become more flexible and creative, and to develop more elegant strategies of functioning.”56

This idea that breaking up patterns at the neural level can lead to more flexibility and creativity brings us back to Prigogine’s concept of dissipative structures. We can speculate that when the brain, a dissipative structure, is subjected to a high degree of stimulation by the AVI, its fluctuations or perturbations are too great to be handled by the existing structure (i.e., neural patterns), and it must abandon that structure and reorganize at a higher, more coherent, more flexible level, with a greater degree of communication between its neural components. Thus, the AVI may be forcing the brain to “escape to a higher order,” which would explain the frequent reports by users of enhanced creativity, intellectual functioning, and so on. In this sense, the AVI could be seen as a tool for forcing the brain to evolve and grow, much in the way that the enriched environment caused theBerkeleyrats of Rosenzweig experiments to grow in brain size and intelligence.

When Brockopp wrote his summary in the mid 1980s there was little or no hard scientific research into the effects of actual combined audiovisual stimulation tools, since they were at that time only beginning to emerge onto the scene. But since then, with the development of advanced AVI devices with computerized controls that enable researchers to be sure that all of their subjects are receiving exactly the same type of stimulation, more and more mainstream scientists are eager to pursue research into audiovisual stimulation devices. Already, some of the results of this research are becoming known.

In a study of “The Effect of Repetitive Audio/Visual Stimulation on Skeletomotor and Vasomotor Activity,” performed by Dr. Norman Thomas and his associate David Siever, at the University of Alberta, a group of experimental subjects were given audiovisual stimulation from one of the AVIs, at a frequency of 10 Hz (in the alpha range) for 15 minutes while being monitored for muscle tension using an EMG and for finger temperature. A control group, similarly monitored, was simply asked to relax and to visualize a tranquil scene, without audiovisual stimulation, for the same 15-minute period. Significantly, both the experimental group and the control group were what the researchers called “resistant” or “non-hypnotizable” subjects. While the control subjects expressed as sense of relaxation, the EMG and finger temperature monitors showed that, quite to the contrary, they were actually experiencing increased amounts of muscle tension and decreases in finger temperature (associated with tension or stress). On the other hand, the group using the AVI showed dramatic increases in relaxation, reaching profound relaxation states that continued for long periods after the 15 minutes of audiovisual stimulation. The researchers wrote: “It is concluded that autosuggestion relaxation is not a effective as audiovisually produced relaxation. Electroencephalography shows that a frequency following cortical response is evoked in the audiovisually stimulated subjects. It appears that audiovisual stimulation offers a simple hypnotic device in otherwise resistant subjects.”

In 1988, Robert Cosgrove Jr., Ph.D., M.D., of the Department of Anesthesia of the Sanford University School of Medicine, began initial studies of another AVI. In his initial evaluations, Cosgrove, noted that the AVI was “clearly very powerful in its ability to cause deep relaxation in most subjects. Its effectiveness has been so great that we are very enthusiastic about the prospect of evaluating the [AVI] for its sedative properties in patients prior to, during, and immediately following surgery. We are also undertaking studies to prove [its] utility in chronic stress.”

“We are also,” Cosgrove continued, “quantitating the electroencephalographic (brain-wave, EEG) effects of the [AVI] in both volunteers and patients. Our preliminary results show strong EEG entrainment,” wrote Cosgrove.

The AVI, Cosgrove noted, “with appropriately selected stimulation protocols has been observed by us to be an excellent neuropathway exerciser. As such we believe it has great potential for use in promoting optimal cerebral performance. . . . Furthermore, the long-term effects of regular use of the [AVI] on maintaining and improving cerebral performance throughout life and possibly delaying for decades the deterioration of the brain traditionally associated with aging are very exciting. We plan to test this hypothesis in brain-injured patients where the degree of recovery has been proven to be related to sensory and cerebral stimulus, with the results having implications for long-term use in healthy normal brains.” Dr. Cosgrove concludes that the audiovisual stimulation device “exceeded my wildest expectations,” and voices his belief that audiovisual stimulation “may well revolutionize both neurosciences and medicine.”

As AVI technology advances, the prices on these devices have dropped dramatically in recent years. The old Synchro-Energizer sold by Denis Gorges, for example, had a price tag of over $8,000. Technologically superior AVIs now sell for only a few hundred dollars. This is still not cheap, and many individuals may find they can get a more limited but still striking auditory-visual stimulation effect at less cost by using a stroboscopic flash machine (several of these devices, which emit flashes at variable frequencies including alpha and theta, are available at relatively low cost from biofeedback-equipment dealers), or simply by making their own Dream-machine or “flicker box.” (One way to do this is to cut out a series of appropriately placed holes in a large piece of cardboard, tape the cardboard into a large cylinder, place the cylinder on end atop a record turntable, and hang a light bulb inside the cylinder; as the turntable spins, one then gazes at the cylinder, and the light is seen in flickers as each hole in the cardboard cylinder passes in front of one’s eyes. It is essential that the holes be spaced in such a way that the flicker occurs at the desired frequency; e.g. for alpha, on a turntable spinning at 33⅓ rpm, there would have to be about fifteen to twenty holes, for theta, about eight to twelve, evenly spaced around the cylinder.)

In 1990 Bruce Harrah-Conforth, Ph.D., of Indian University, completed a controlled study of one of the computerized sound and light machines (the MindsEye Plus), the result of over two years of research into the field of brain entrainment, and found that compared to the control group, which listened to pink noise with eyes closed, the group receiving sound and light stimulation showed dramatic alterations in their EEG patterns responding to the frequency of the sound and light device, and also showed evidence of hemispheric synchronization. Participants in the study were asked to describe their experiences. According to Dr. Harrah-Conforth, “the subjects’ comments were such typical descriptions as ‘I lost all sense of my body,’ ‘I felt like I was flying,’ ‘I was deeply relaxed,’ ‘I felt like I was out of my body,’ etc.”

The report by Harrah-Conforth suggests that sound and light devices may cause simultaneous ergotropic arousal, or arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and the cerebral cortex, associated with “creative” and “ecstatic experiences,” and trophotropic arousal, or the arousal of the parasympathetic system, associated with deep relaxation and “the timeless, ‘oceanic’ mode of the mystic experience.” In humans, Dr. Harrah-Conforth concludes, “these two states may be interpreted as hyper- and hypo-arousal, or ecstasy and samadhi.”

The effect, that is, may be very much like that of the ganzfield, which uses a featureless and unvarying visual field to cause the “blank-out” effect. This theory brought to my mind the work of Dr. Gene Brockopp mentioned above, who suggested that sound and light stimulation could perhaps “actively induce a state of deactivation in which the brain is passive, but not asleep: awake, but not involved with the ‘clutter’ of an ongoing existence. If this is true, then it may be a state in which new cognitive strategies could be designed and developed.”

In other studies of sound and light machines, distinguished author, clinician and researcher C. Norman Shealy, head of the Shealy Institute for Comprehensive Health Care inSpringfield,Missouri, has revealed that the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of subjects using sound and light stimulation devices show dramatic increases in the levels of betaendorphins. His research has shown these devices to be effective not only in the treatment of pain and stress, but for the treatment of anxiety, depression, insomnia, jet lag, and other problems. Other scientists have used photic stimulation devices for the treatment of migraines and found them extremely successful. In one study of chronic migraine sufferers conducted in 1989, of a total of 50 migraines recorded, fully 49 of them were rated by the patient as being “helped” and 36 as being stopped by using the photic stimulation devices.

Another area in which there is growing scientific evidence that sound and light machines can have profound and rapid effects is in the treatment of learning disorders. This makes sense in the light of emerging evidence that learning disorders are frequently linked to abnormal brain-wave activity in specific areas of the brain: in many cases the brain-wave activity in these areas is too slow, functioning in theta or delta when it should be functioning in beta. This is why drugs such as Ritalin that act as “speed” on normal individuals actually help calm down “hyperactive” children: they are hyperactive because their brain-wave activity is too slow for them to be alert and focused; the drug actually speeds up activity in those parts of the brain that are functioning subnormally. If the photic stimulation can alter the brain-wave activity and speed it up to optimal frequencies, and there is much evidence that it can do so, then in can alleviate the root cause of the leading disorder, and it can do so without the need for drugs, with their potentially harmful side effects.

Dr. Harrah-Conforth writes me that: “I have little doubt than brain-entrainment technology is a highly effective means of inducing changes in consciousness.” He continues, “Brain entrainment, at least within my own research, has shown itself to be virtually foolproof and does indeed facilitate whole-brain experiences.” While pointing out that our current understanding of brain-entrainment technology is only in its infancy, he writes “there seems to be little doubt that this technology has a remarkable future. The evidence, my own and others, clearly indicates that brain-wave entrainment is produced by these machines. EMG tests have also made it quite clear that one of the by-products of this entrainment can be the relaxation response. And subjective reports range from heightened creativity, to beautiful visual trips, to increased alertness, and many other states.” He concludes that “the early indications are strong that this now-developing technology will profoundly revolutionize both our concepts of, and interaction with, our consciousness. . . .The evolution of human consciousness is a tangibly manipulable process. We can control our destiny. . . . It would appear as though brain entrainment will be among the technologies leading the way.”

Californiapsychologist Julian Isaacs, Ph.D., working with a private research group called “The Other 90 Percent,” is now engaged in an ongoing study of the brain-wave effects of sound and light as well as other mind-altering devices. Isaacs and his colleagues are using a twenty-four-electrode color brain-mapping EEG, with newly developed software that permits extremely precise and sensitive measurement and statistical analysis of whole-brain electrical activity. In a discussion of his preliminary findings, he told me that there was “very clear evidence of brain-wave driving” using sound and light. He also said he’d found a very strong correlation between the intensity of the lights used (whether red LEDs or incandescent bulbs) and the brain entrainment: the brighter the lights, the more entrainment. He mentioned one device he had tested that used dim lights, and found it had “no brain-driving capacity at all.”

However, Isaacs pointed out that it was easiest to entrain brain-wave activity in the alpha range, while it seems much more difficult to drive the slower brain frequencies, such as theta. However, the EEG evidence was quite clear that people using the devices did indeed spend much of their sessions in theta. Often, however, their dominant theta frequency was very different from the theta frequency being flashed by the sound and light machine. How to explain this? Isaacs suggested the possibility that while the devices can clearly and quickly entrain brain-wave activity into the low alpha range, what happens next is that the brain becomes habituated to the repetitive stimulus and the Reticular Activating System–the volume control and attention-directing part of the brain—simply tires of the repetitive stimulus and ignores it, or “blanks out” the conscious perception of the lights. As a result, the brain drops into the theta state.

As the prices of the AVIs have dropped, the technological sophistication has increased. Most devices now available include 10 to 20 computerized preprogrammed “sessions,” so that simply by pressing a button a user may select a program of sound and light combinations that are specifically configured to produce the optical audiovisual stimulation for sleep, accelerated learning, visualization, self-suggestion, creativity, and so on. Many of the devices also enable the user to program or design any sequence of sound and light stimulation desired, or simply to experiment and explore, and to store a large selection of self-created program sequences in the machine’s computer memory, to be recalled and replayed at any time with the press of a single button. Many of the devices feature powerful sound synthesizer systems that include not only preprogrammed sounds, but the capacity to change the pitch and tone color of each preset sound, and to create an infinite variety of sounds by raising and lowering pitch, selecting low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filters, by selecting and/or combining specific sound waveforms, such as sawtooth, triangle, pulse, or white noise, in combination with external stereo input. Some of these devices are packaged as portable, battery-powered units smaller than a Walkman, while others are available as simple electronic components or cards that can be inserted in your own PC, allowing you to use your own home computer to design and store your own repertoire of personalized sound and light experiences, to be combined with music of your choice played through your home stereo system.

And with these advances, the use of AVIs has increased enormously, with thousands of individuals now using such devices at home, at work, for entertainment and relaxation, and in clinical settings. Front-page articles and features about AVIs are now sprouting up everywhere, from The New York Times to People magazine to the Wall Street Journal to Time magazine, they are being sold by the thousands through such catalogs as Sharper Image andHammecher Schlemmer, and it seems as if these flashy little gizmos could soon burst into the cultural mainstream, the next step beyond portable cassette players–personal, portable pacemakers for the brain. I can see it now: The city streets are jammed, with thousands of people strutting along and smiling, jogging in the parks, eating hot dogs, making love, with little sound and light units bleeping and blinking on their faces, eyes encircled by flickering lights, placidly synchronizing their brains. Public AVIs everywhere–bars, doctors’ waiting rooms, airports, office and factory lounges, public toilets–like miniature jukeboxes for the mind. Put on the goggles and phones, and tune up a ten-minute program, maybe a blast of creativity, some down-home tranquility, a bit of jazzy dendritic growth, a classical transcendence opus, or an action-packed mind-movie thriller. And perhaps, now and then, gazing into the computerized high-tech flicker, someone will have an odd sensation of déjà vu, a dizzying feeling of being sucked back a half million years, and catch a momentary glimpse of hulking apelike shadows dancing against the wall of a cave, an image of woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, the glittering eyes of the other members of the clan gathered around and gazing into the mysteries of the flickering fire.


  1. Norman Thomas says:

    Thank you for a copy of your “The Technicolor Symphony :Orchestrating your Brain with light and Sound ” On page 6 of the paper you make reference to Dr Norman Thomas and David Siever from a study undertaken in 1989. Your writings I continue to find inspiring .Thanks for all your efforts Norman Thomas

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