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Time Flashes: a short history of sound and light technology

Edited by Michael Hutchison


                      by Michael Hutchison

	To those seeing them for the first time, sound and light
devices may seem bizarre, like something out of a science fiction
movie--the users seem laid back, out there somewhere, wired into
a small box listening through headphones to some unheard sounds
while eerie light pulsations flicker inside futuristic goggles. 
And to those encountering these devices from a background of
meditative practice, the idea that one can attain heightened or
meditative states of consciousness by using a machine, and the
sheer technical computerized hardware of the devices themselves,
must seem coldly materialistic. But while the hardware may seem
new, the techniques being used are ancient. 


	The knowledge that a flickering light can cause mysterious
visual hallucinations and alterations in consciousness is something
humans have known since the discovery of fire. It must have been
knowledge of great value to the ancient shamans and poets, who
learned how to use the images in the flames to enhance their magic.
Ancient scientists were also intrigued by this phenomenon, and
explored its practical applications. In 125 A.D. Apuleius
experimented with a flickering light stimulus produced by the
rotation of a potter's wheel, and found it could be used to reveal
a type of epilepsy. Around 200 A.D. Ptolemy noted that when he
placed a spinning spoked wheel between an observer and the sun, the
flickering of the sunlight through the spokes of the spinning wheel
could cause patterns and colors to appear before the eyes of the
observer and could produce a feeling of euphoria. 

	In the 17th century, a Belgian scientist, Plateau, used the
flickering of light through a strobe wheel to study the diagnostic
significance of the flicker fusion phenomenon. As he caused the
light flickers to come faster and faster, he found that at a
certain point the flickers seemed to "fuse" into a steady,
unflickering light pattern. Plateau discovered that healthy people
were able to see separate flashes of light at much higher flicker
speeds than were sick people. (In recent years, studies using light
sources such as a tachistoscope to provide rapid light flashes have
revealed that long-term meditators are able to see discrete flashes
of light at much higher flicker rates than non-meditators.) At the
turn of the century, French psychologist Pierre Janet noticed that
when patients at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris were exposed to
flickering lights they experienced reductions in hysteria and
increases in relaxation.


	Similarly, humans had always been enthralled by the effects
of rhythmic sounds, and 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 shamans and priests. As anthropologist and
shamanism authority Michael Harner, points 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 in the early 1960s 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." 

	And humans have always been keenly appreciative of the
consciousness-heightening powers of music, which is of course,
among other things, a succession of rhythmic auditory signals. 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. Ancient rituals for
entering trance states often involved both rhythmic sounds in the
form of drumbeats, clapping or chanting, and flickering lights
produced by candles, torches, bonfires or long lines of human
bodies rhythmically dancing, their forms passing before the fire
and chopping the light into mesmerizing rhythmic flashes. Some
composers of the past, such as the visionary Scriabin, actually
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 audio-visual 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.

	Modern scientific research into the effects of rhythmic light
and sound began in the mid-1930s when scientists discovered that
the electrical rhythms of the brain tended to assume the rhythm of
a flashing light stimulus, a process called entrainment. Research
shifted into high gear in the late 1940s when the great British
neuroscientist W. Gray Walter used an electronic strobe and
advanced EEG equipment to investigate what he called the "flicker
phenomenon."  He found that rhythmic flashing lights quickly
altered brainwave activity, producing trancelike states of profound
relaxation and vivid mental imagery. He was also startled to find
that the flickering seemed to alter the brain-wave activity of the
whole cortex instead of just the areas associated with vision. 
Wrote Walter: "The rhythmic series of flashes appear to be breaking
down some of the physiologic barriers between different regions of
the brain.  This means the stimulus of flicker received by the
visual projection area of the cortex was breakiing bounds--its
ripples were overflowing into other areas."  The subjective
experiences of those receiving the flashes were even more
intriguing: "Subjects reported lights like comets, ultra-unearthly
colors, mental colors, not deep visual ones."

	Walter's research aroused the attention of many artists,
including the American novelist William Burroughs, and they put
together a simple flicker device called the Dreammachine. As
Burroughs described it in the 1960s, "Subjects report dazzling
lights of unearthly brilliance and color. . . . Elaborate geometric
constructions of incredible intricacy build up from
multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs like the mandalas of
Eastern mysticism or resolve momentarily into apparently individual
images and powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored

	A flood of subsequent scientific research in the 1960s and 70s
revealed that such flicker effects at certain frequencies seemed
to have amazing powers. Various scientists discovered that such
photic stimulation could have a variety of beneficial effects, such
as increasing I.Q. scores, enhancing intellectual functioning and
producing greater synchronization between the two hemispheres of
the brain. Other researchers found that the addition of rhythmic
auditory signals dramatically increased the mind-enhancing effects.

	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 hemisperic synchronization. 

	In the early 1970s, Jack Schwarz, known for his feats of self-
healing and self-regulation, began selling a device known as the
ISIS, which used varible frequency lights mounted in goggles
combined with rhythmic  sounds to produce heighted mental states.
In 1973, scientist Richard Townsend published a description of his
research with a device using goggle-mounted lights for photic
entrainment. In 1974 a scientist at City College of New York,
Seymour Charas, obtained the first patent on a combined sound and
light stimulation device, though it was never put into commercial
production.  But 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--devices that could produce a rich
assortment of tones, chords and even beat frequencies; that
permitted the selection of a variety of light-flash patterns and
intensities; that enabled the user to select the mode of interplay
between lights and sound; that contained a number of preset
"programs" designed to produce specific states of consciousness,
ranging from sleep to meditation to extreme alertness, at the push
of a button; and that permitted the users to design and store in
the device's computerized memory a variety of their own programs.
Before the breakthroughs in microelectronics, 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 sound
and light stimulators were relatively small--some of the first
models were about the size of a portable typewriter, and soon
models were being made with consoles not much larger than a pack
of cards.

	As happened with personal computers, there seem to be new
advances, new machines, and new generations of older devices
appearing almost constantly; and as with PCs, the advances have
included smaller size, greater versatility and power, and steep
reductions in price. As this is written, there are well over 20
sound and light machines in commercial production around the world,
and we seem on the verge of an entirely new generation of devices
that combine sound and light stimulation with biofeedback
capabilities.  These new devices enable the machine to read the
user's dominant brainwave activity, and then provide the optimal
frequency of sound and light to entrain brainwave activity toward
the "target" frequency. One such device (the DreamWave) is already
on the market.

	Another significant development is the advent of a sound and
light system on a simple board that can be plugged into your
computer's expansion slot. One example currently on the market is
the Mind Gear XLR8R, a hardware-software combination that turns an
IBM PC XT/AT/386 or clone into a research laboratory grade audio-
visual synchronizer, permitting users to program hundreds of
sessions of almost any length and complexity, to program each eye
and ear independently (this permits extraordinary effects, such as
combining alpha and theta frequencies, or setting up visual "beat
frequencies"), create sounds, chords and beat frequencies on the
computer with a stereo synthesizer, and program thousands of time
ramps and sound-light levels into a single session.

	These developments point the way toward the future.  I believe
it will be only a short time until we have a fully computerized
integrated and interactive system that would allow the user to put
on a few electrodes that would monitor EEG as well as other
physiological indicators (muscle tension [EMG], skin potential,
heart rate, skin temperature, breathing, etc.) and display them on
the computer screen in real time; would use this information to
provide the optimal type of sound and light stimulation (as well
as cranial electrostimulation and appropriate digitized music
selections or preprogrammed audio suggestions, hypnotic inductions,
information for accelerated learning, etc.); and would permit the
storage of thousands of sessions, with individual users able to
select desired mind states or experiences with the ease of
selecting a channel on the TV, or play back or re-experience past
sessions. The technology for such a system is already available.


	It has been well established that these devices can rapidly
produce states of deep relaxation, and may increase suggestibility,
receptivity to new information, and enhance access to subconscious
material. New work into the effects of these devices being
undertaken around the world, and preliminary results suggest that
the machines may of being beneficial in the treatment of migraine
headaches and learning disorders, alleviation of pain, enhancement
of immune function, and much more. Here's a summary of some of the
most interesting work done in the last decade. 
	In one preliminary 1980 study of one of the sound and light
machines, Dr. Thomas Budzynski, then of the Behavioral Medicine
Associates clinic in Denver, found that "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."  This led Budzynski to speak of the
device as a "Hypnotic Facilitator," and a "Facilitator of
'Unconscious Retrieval," that could have therapeutic value, since
the device seemd "to allow the subject to recall past childhood
events with a high degree of 'being there' quality." He also
suggested that the device could be effective for accelerated
learning, since it seemed capable of putting users in the theta (or
"twilight state") of hypersuggestibility and heightened receptivity
to new information.

	Medical researcher Dr. Gene W. Brockopp of Buffalo, New York,
speculated 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."
Brockopp also suggested that "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 brreakup up
patterns at the neural level.  This may help them develop the
ability to shift gears or 'shuttle' and move them away from habigt
patterns of behavior to become more flexible and creative, and to
develop more elegant strategies of functioning." 

	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
audio/visual stimulation (using a DAVID device) 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 audio-visual stimulation,
for the same 15 minute period. Significantly, both the experimental
group and the control group were what the researchers called
"resistant" or "non-hypnotisable" subjects. While the control
subjects expressed a 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 sound and light
machine showed dramatic increases in relaxation, reaching profound
relaxation states that continued for long periods after the 15
minutes of audio-visual stimulation.  The researchers wrote: "It
is concluded that autosuggestion relaxation is not as effective as
audio-visually produced relaxation.  Electroencephalography shows
that a frequency following cortical response is evoked in the
audio-visually stimulated subjects.  It appears that audio-visual
stimulation offers a simple hypnotic device in otherwise resistant

	In 1988, anethesiologist Robert Cosgrove Jr., Ph.D., M.D.,
undertook preliminary studies of sound and light stimulation.  In
his initial evaluations, in which he used the Alpha-Pacer II
device, Cosgrove, an authority in pharmaceutics and biomedical
engineering, noted that audio-visual stimulation 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 [device] 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 (brainwave, EEG) effects . . . in both
volunteers and patients.  Our preliminary results show strong EEG

	The device, 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 device on
maintaining and improving cerebral performance throughout life and
possibly delaying for decades the deterioration of the brain
traditionally associated with aging is 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." 

	In 1989, another researcher, D.J. Anderson, used photic
stimulation using red LED goggles to treat seven sufferers of
migraine headaches--none of whom had been able to relieve their
migraines with drug treatments.  He found that out of 50 migraines
noted, 49 were rated by subjects as being "helped," and 36 sttopped
by the photic stimulation. Significantly, brighter lights were
found to be more effective.

	Further evidence of the potential therapeutic value of photic
stimulation has come from researcher Jill Ammon-Wexler, Ph.D., of
the Innerspace Biofeedback and Therapy Center in Los Gatos, CA,
using a device that uses a flickering light stimulus without an
accompanying sound stimulus.  The device, called a Lumatron, uses
a strobe light with color filters to provide rhythmic photic
stimulation in variable frequencies and in selected wavelength or
color bands [MEGABRAIN REPORT will devote a full-length article to
this device in a future issue]. Ammon-Wexler did a controlled study
of twenty subjects suffering from  phobias and found that
"remarkable resolution of the subjects' phobic systems had occurred
over the process of the 20 experimental sessions. There was also
'across the board' evidence for enhanced self-concept, and
clinically-significant reductions in both anxiety and depression."

Dr. Ammon-Wexler's findings about the potential medical benefits
of photic stimulation have been echoed recently by William Harris,
M.D., director of the Penwell Foundation, an organization for the
investigation, research and application of different modalities for
the treatment of those with AIDS/HIV. In preliminary work with a
number of AIDs sufferers he has experimented with the use of a
sound and light machine (the IM-1) and found it extremely
effective. He speculates it may boost immune function by producing
states of deep relaxation, by enhancing the patients' receptivity
to suggestions for healing, by improving patients' ability to
visualize and the clarity of their visualizations. "At this point
it's conjecture," says Harris, "But I think that this type of
machine may actually be stimulating . . . the body to produce its
own chemical substances," and that these natural substances may
enhance immune function and healing.

	In 1990 Bruce Harrah-Conforth, Ph.D., of Indiana 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."

	In a separate letter to MEGABRAIN REPORT, Harrah-Conforth
writes: "I have little doubt that 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 byproducts 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."

	California psychologist 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. Megabrain, Inc. is
providing assistance in this research by, among other things,
making available a number of devices. Isaacs and his colleagues are
using a 24 electrode color brainmapping 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 brainwave 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 (a
fact discussed by the machine manufacturers in the roundtable
discussion elsewhere in this issue). 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 brainwave 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.  

	The effect, that is, may be very much like that of the
ganzfeld, 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."

Further discussions of recent scientific research into the effects
of sound and light machines can be found in the "Sound and Light
Interviews," and in the separate discussionss of the "red LED
controversy" by Robert Austin and David Siever, elsewhere in this

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