Stressed-out New Agers are calming their angst in 30-minute sessions on a machine that uses soothing music and lighted goggles to induce the slow, mellow brain waves of meditation and deep sleep.
A Miami stress management center called MindWorld began offering "mindflights" on the machine in April. Publicist Steve Heintz calls the center "a health spa for your brain" and company brochures advertise "electronic meditation" that acts as a drug-free tranquilizer.
A handful of other mind salons have begun offering similar sessions in the last year or so, including the Tranquility Center in New York City, the Universe of You in Marin County in Northern California, Altered States in West Hollywood, and DeHypnotherapy in Soquel, also in Northern California.
All use a machine called a brain wave synchro-energizer, patented in 1982 by Cleveland psychiatrist Denis Gorges and sold by his company, Synchro-Tech Inc.
Brain waves are the rhythmic electric discharges produced by the cerebral cortex. The frequency and size of those brain waves change with different activity. Scientists have measured four distinct types.
Beta waves occur with a frequency of 13 to 26 cycles per second. They are the fast and small brain waves produced during physical activity or fast thinking.
Alpha waves, 8 to 13 cycles per second, are the tall looping waves produced when a person is awake but calm and relaxed, during meditation or creative and absorbing endeavors.
Theta waves, four to eight cycles per second, are the slow, undulating waves that occur during light sleep and peak creative experiences. Delta waves, one to four cycles per second, are the extremely slow waves produced during deep sleep, where most dreaming occurs.
Using earphones and lighted goggles, the synchro-energizer sends auditory and visual stimuli to the brain at the alpha, theta and delta frequencies. Through a phenomenon called entrainment, the brain responds by producing waves of the same frequency.
It is similar to a musical tuning fork that vibrates in synchronous harmony when the piano key with the corresponding frequency is played. In the same fashion, the brain mimics the frequency it receives.
"The machine presents the stimulus to the brain and invites the brain to follow a pattern that it already knows. It doesn't force the brain to follow," said Juan Abascal, one of the four clinical psychologists who founded MindWorld.
Enthusiasts claim that spending time in the alpha and theta states produces the same calming effect as meditation.
Prices and approaches vary. At MindWorld, calm seekers lean back in rows of padded recliners in a darkened room, wearing their stereo earphones and lighted goggles, and pay $39.90 for a 30-minute session. New Yorkers at the Tranquility Center lie on floor mats instead of recliners.
The Universe of You, dubbed "the K mart of consciousness raising" by operator Randy Adamadama, offers 40-minute synchro-energizer sessions for $12.
"We're in a shopping center. You run in and get your anxiety relieved and run out," said Adamadama. "We want to make it available to the masses, like a McDonald's."
Psychologists have used synchro-energizers in their treatment of stress- and anxiety-related disorders since the early 1970s, Gorges said.
Centers such as MindWorld began to emerge with the development of a new $58,500 synchro-energizer that allows up to 32 people to plug into it at the same time. Earlier models were limited to two users.
Through the earphones, mind travelers hear New Age music -- soothing but unhummable tunes with titles such as "Ancient Drums" and "Planetary Unfolding"--that disguise the muffled warble and the heartbeat sound of the auditory stimuli.
The music slows as the sound frequencies drop from the alpha range into theta and then delta, then speeds up again as the session ends.
With the eyes closed, the blinking full-spectrum white lights inside the goggles are perceived by the mind as colorful moving light patterns. These vary, but the abstract images are sometimes similar to those produced by 3-D computer graphics.
"Every vision comes only from you. Every color, every pattern, every memory is yours and yours alone," the MindWorld brochure advises.
The trendy have embraced synchro-energizer sessions as a short cut to meditation.
"If you have a very stressful day, you can come here and it melts away in 40 minutes," Heintz said.
"The buzzword of this decade is stress," said Abascal, a doctor of clinical psychology who specializes in treating psychosomatic disorders and use of altered states.
"Seventy-five to 80% of what you see in the doctor's office is stress-related. The doctor tells you to relax. How do you do that?
"It can take years to learn meditation. Our society isn't built for that. We have a fast-food mentality. We want to get rid of our stress now," he said.
Biofeedback machines, which measured physical response, could tell users when they reached that sought-after alpha state, but it couldn't help them get there. Floatation tanks helped, but were expensive to maintain and required that the user undress and shower before and after--a real nuisance, Abascal said.
"This combines the teachings of the East with the technology of the West. Normally, it takes hours for the brain to reach the delta state, but the machine can achieve that in a few minutes," Abascal said.
Gorges makes no medical claims for the synchro-energizer. He said he plans to seek Food and Drug Administration approval for medical uses pending completion of ongoing research at several medical schools.
MindWorld claims the machine can help the two halves of the brain vibrate in harmony, producing greater efficiency. It advertises cumulative effects ranging from improvements in self-esteem to enhanced learning ability and better athletic performance.
"It's like a car that idles too fast. It wastes gas and puts wear and tear on the engine," Abascal said. "This is like a brain tune-up that resets the idle."
Abascal says it is impossible to become addicted to the synchro-energizer.
"It's de-addictive. You can learn to reach that state by yourself eventually, without the machine, usually in 12 to 24 sessions," he said.
Gorges said 15,000 synchro-energizers are currently in use worldwide, and that 3 million people have used the machine with no ill effects.
But the machine does not work for everyone. The first time on it, 80 to 85% will follow into alpha state, 40 to 60% will follow into the theta state, and only about 20 to 30% will follow into delta, Abascal said.
"Those who do not follow, typically those are people who really need to feel that they are in control at all times," Abascal said. "For them, it's really a boring experience."
It is not recommended for use by those with epilepsy because of the possibility the blinking lights could trigger a seizure. It is not recomended for use with alcohol and street drugs, because the stimulus can accentuate their effects.
It is also not recommended for those with severe mental disorders, especially those who have trouble distinguishing reality, because the group setting does not offer the individual counseling they may need, Abascal said.
Most people report feeling profound relaxation after the sessions, he said. Some describe a feeling of extreme heaviness, as if they are melting into the chair. Others report feeling very light, as if they are floating or soaring.
Others describe it as "going somewhere" and "coming back," a sort of trip inside the mind.
They may experience a dream or childhood memory, though they will be aware that they are not alseep and will seem distanced or detached from it, Abascal said.
During an introductory session beforehand, Abascal assures mind fliers they will not receive subliminal messages, nor will they become so mellow they are incapable of making aggressive business decisions, a common concern among corporateers who try it.
Fort Lauderdale resident Karen Mathers was a little nervous during her first MindFlight, but enjoyed it well enough to return a second time with a friend.
"This time I was a little more relaxed. I went with it more," Mathers said. "It's like seeing a movie of colors. I really enjoyed the music a lot."
She described the effect as "a feeling of calmness, maybe even lightheadedness" that stayed with her about a day and a half, but said the cost probably would keep her from becoming a frequent flier.