Mind Gym: Exercise for the Brain
Adam Danikiewicz, a tall and thin Hollywood gardener whose hobbies are art and yoga, sits upright in an ordinary chair with a headband connecting five electrodes to his skull and observes a small screen before him on the table. A shifting pattern of red lights reveals the instantaneous changes in the electrical activity of Danikiewicz’s brain.
“High, erratic beta,” the guide says, meaning Danikiewicz’s brain is showing normal waking-state activity. “No alpha or theta, a little delta,” he adds, referring to the other brain frequencies flickering on the screen.
Danikiewicz loosens the electrodes and marches off to the other room to spend one hour in a flotation tank, a soundproof, lightproof, weightless environment--all for the sake of science.
“When he returns from the flotation tank, I expect to see less beta, more alpha, maybe some theta,” says Larry Hughes, who has converted three adjoining apartments into a Disneyland for the mind, a float center and “mind gym” for people interested in creating and exploring new mental environments.
Like several other mind gyms around the country, including Tranquility Center in New York City and Space-Time in Chicago, Altered States here offers a wide range of devices for reducing stress and inducing meditative states of mind.
“These technologies act like a brain tune-up,” Hughes said. “Most people know that stress is a major cause of physical symptoms but they don’t think that machines can have a calming effect. Whatever other effects will be proven in the future, these machines beyond a doubt are relaxing.”
In the next room, Danikiewicz lies on his back in a plastic, rectangular tank, 8 feet long by 4 feet high, floating in 10 inches of water containing 800 pounds of salt. Flotation tanks, or isolation tanks as they also are called, were devised in 1954 by inner explorer John Lilly, in an effort to observe what would happen to the human brain without stimulation.
Lilly discovered, to his surprise, that the brain created its own internal stimuli. He reported on his creative hallucinations and states of euphoria in a number of books.
Hughes discovered floating several years ago when he worked at a local Nautilus club. At that time, Jeff Labno, now his partner at Altered States, told Hughes that floating was an easy way to achieve a meditative awareness. In 1980, the two bought a tank, left their jobs and began to charge others for float time. In 1986, they began to buy brain-boosting devices and expanded to fill three full apartments in their West Hollywood building complex.
“Most people come basically for relaxation,” Labno said in a telephone interview. “The second common reason is self-exploration. And some don’t really know quite why they’re there, but they say they love it.”
An hour later, Danikiewicz returns, reporting that he feels rejuvenated and curious to see his brain-wave activity. With the electrodes once again connected to his skull, Danikiewicz views the “Mind Mirror.” Hughes interprets: “There’s less beta, some alpha and delta, and slight movement in theta. There’s also more balance between the hemispheres (or two sides of the brain).”
Hughes explains the meaning of this shift in brain activity. “Less beta means that with lowered stimulation in the tank, your ordinary mental activity slowed down. The alpha and delta indicate a meditative state. And the balance between hemispheres means more coherence or order in your brain.”
Until recently, avid floaters had no confirmation of their subjective experiences. Hughes installed the Mind Mirror in October. The biofeedback device was invented by C. Maxwell Cade, a British physicist and psychologist who aimed to help people gain more control over their brain states.
Hughes explains: “First, you close your eyes and use some technique, a relaxation or meditation practice. Then you freeze the screen display with a finger lever and open your eyes to check your brain activity. In this way, you can learn to associate certain ways of breathing or imaging with the patterns they produce and compare them with patterns of different brain-wave activity.”
In another part of the apartment complex, Barbara McRae, who works at a Hollywood clinic doing laser acupuncture and pain control, lies for 30 minutes on a rotating cot that generates an electromagnetic field. The Graham Potentializer, invented by Canadian electrical engineer David Graham, was originally designed to be a “spiritual healing device.”
Graham explains by phone from his home in Phoenix: “I had studied Christian mysticism and meditation and I wanted to induce altered states. But what I’ve found is that the device directly affects intelligence.”
Graham believes that the rhythmical, rocking motion--like that which soothes babies--when combined with an electromagnetic field, has a “catalytic effect.” It moves the fluid around the vestibular system, or inner ear. As a result, the millions of hairs within the inner ear send signals to the brain, flooding it with electrical stimulation. “It’s like exercising the brain directly,” he says.
Graham reports that 90% of users get relaxation the first time; however, he suggests that they need three to four hours to gain deeper effects. Studies of long-range effects are underway on some 50 or 60 machines in the United States, Canada and Australia.
“We are finding that we can change the brain waves of adults and learning-disabled kids. For instance, about 10 or 20 people with normal IQ’s now operate in a higher range. In other cases, we have turned C students into A students, and we have been able to affect cognitive functioning in autistic children,” he claims.
McRae comments that she is interested in the device from a therapeutic point of view. “It would be marvelous for chronic-pain patients because, for them, relaxation is the key.”
A mustachioed man in his early 40s, dressed in slacks and a plaid shirt, reclines on an overstuffed chair. He’s wearing plastic goggles with flashing lights that create the eerie appearance of a strange kind of frogman. The Synchro-Energizer uses stroboscopic goggles to send various frequencies of flashing light to each eye and stereo headphones to send various sounds to each ear. The flickering lights cause the user’s brain waves to assume the same rhythm and frequency. In effect, they entrain the brain to any frequency the user chooses, at the flip of a switch.
Inventor Denis Gorges, a Cleveland psychiatrist who has done research in biofeedback, claims that at certain frequencies light reduces anxiety, causes deep relaxation, increases likelihood of being hypnotized and even increases verbal learning skills. It also lines up the activity of the two hemispheres of the brain, he says, resulting in more effective thought and emotional ability.
The user, West Los Angeles psychologist Steve Wolf, reports whole-body relaxation and vivid imagery.
“I’m interested in whether this could help patients--perhaps those who fear losing control. I understand that with this device some people can see forgotten childhood events, or feel sudden flashes of creativity,” he said.
Chris Harvey, a messenger in Los Angeles who has been coming to Altered States for a year and a half “to cope with stress,” reports that the Synchro-Energizer complements floating well. “The combination intensifies my dreams and leaves me feeling more centered for a few days.”
New York City author Michael Hutchison, whose first book, “Floating,” explored flotation tanks and whose second book, “Megabrain,” (Ballantine; $4.95) explores brain-boosting devices, proposes that these machines are the wave of the future.
Berkeley psychologist and author Charles Tart, who introduced the term “altered state of consciousness” into the vernacular, agrees that mind gyms hold potentially great value, but also expresses several concerns.
“My view of human nature is far wider than any particular culture’s view,” Tart said. “We are cramped into a small part of our possibilities, and some part of us knows there’s more meaning. So it’s quite natural for us to seek more.”
For people who are fully functioning but see the culture’s shortcomings and seek something more, Tart believes these devices could be valuable.
“But altered states are not a simple solution for unhappy people who don’t have ordinary social tasks under control. They will not bypass their problems, and may exacerbate them,” he said.