Programming your brain

Welcome to the new improved Gearhead 2007, featuring greater word economy, improved hunt-and-peck typing, nearly guaranteed accurate responses to your questions and the best crash-test ratings in the industry. Gearhead is ready and willing to enhance your digital lifestyle for 2007.

We start with a product for your personal improvement and well-being. At the end of last year we discussed pzizz, a program that creates nap and sleep soundtracks that we have become addicted to. We were therefore fascinated when we stumbled across a related product: Neuro-Programmer 2 Professional published by Transparent for $60.

NP2 is a tool for "brainwave entrainment," a technique described by The Hitchhiker's Guide to, er, sorry . . . Wikipedia as a "functional brain connectivity concept . . . expressed as deviation from statistical independence . . . in distributed neuronal groups and areas, which produce the brainwaves."

Is that clear? Right.

But Wikipedia eventually settles down and tells us things we really need to know, such as "Brainwave synchronization (entrainment) may be achieved when audio signals are introduced to the brain causing a response directly related to the frequency of the signal introduced."

So, the basic idea behind NP2 is to create rhythmic sounds that stimulate and entrain specific brainwave patterns, such as alpha rhythm (8Hz to 12Hz), which is associated with being awake but relaxed, and theta (3Hz to 8Hz), which is typical of light sleep or extreme relaxation.

NP2 has three types of brain entrainment sound generators: binaural beats, monaural beats and isochronic tones.

Binaural beats are created by playing a sound in one ear and another with a slightly different frequency in the other ear (obviously headphones are de rigueur for this). The brain hears the two tones and perceives the difference in the sounds as a lower tone called the beat frequency. The result is that the brain tends to lock its rhythm to the beat frequency, hence brainwave entraining.

For example, if the right ear hears a 300Hz sound and the left ear hears a 310Hz sine wave, the brain is entrained at the beat frequency of 10Hz, which can entrain the brain to produce the alpha rhythm and creates a relaxed state of mind.

Before anyone writes in to point out that you can't hear below 20Hz, the interference beat is perceived "in" the brain rather than by the ears.

With monaural beats the two frequencies are heard together so the beat frequency exists in reality, that is, the beat frequency isn't synthesized by the brain. Monaural beats are more limited in the range of frequencies they can generate that have an effect on the brain.

Isochronic tones are regular bursts of sound that are timed to the target entrainment frequency. Thus a 30kHz tone might be modulated at 10 cycles per second to entrain the brain's alpha rhythm.

NP2 can combine these sound generators with ambient sounds (such as waves) as well as prerecorded or synthesized voices to provide suggestions. You also can add white noise, set the duration of a session, optimize it for headphones or speakers, save the output to files so you can burn CDs, and use the output to drive a range of AudioStrobe devices.

Some of the claimed effects of brain entrainment are real, such as relaxation and promoting sleep, but we're less certain about other effects claimed by people in this field, which include the development of extrasensory perception and telepathy.

"You may be asking at this point, "So, do you sleep better? Are you less stressed? Have you achieved enlightenment?" The answers are yes, yes, and not yet but give us time.

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