Brain machines vs. old school meditation for creativity

David Mind Machine.jpg

I measure whether a yoga practice has given me something or not by what happens to me in Savasana. If I go into a deeply relaxed, meditative state and come out the other side inspired and bursting with ideas, I’m happy. But if I can’t get past my monkey mind, I carry a mild sense of dissatisfaction with me for the rest of the day.

It had never occurred to me that I might be able to use technology to enhance my meditation and, as a result, possibly tap into wherever it is my ideas come from more effectively.

But, after I interviewed the photographer Mick Rock , who uses a brain machine to fire up his creativity, I became intrigued. Could I get into a deeply meditative state with one? If I could, what advantages might it have over how I’ve been taught to meditate?

Also, the very idea of brain machines was futuristically hip. And the glasses looked like something Lou Reed would have worn back in the 1970s. This was when the first neurofeedback machines appeared that could measure brainwaves. They, along with Transcendental Meditation, are credited with laying the foundations for today’s tech-friendly mindfulness industry.

It’s my delight

I bought myself a David Delight Plus brain machine from a company called Mind Alive Inc in Alberta, Canada. How could I not, with a name like that?

The David Delight Plus is a pair of glasses with a white screen on each lens and reflective plastic on the other side, headphones, and the unit they plug into. This generates flicker on the screens, scripted to work on different brainwaves, Binaural Beats and heartbeat pulses to help regularise your breathing. Binaural Beats refers to how the brain responds to a stereo sound with two different tones. You hear and respond to the difference, not the tones themselves.

Each category includes programs that use alpha, beta, delta and theta brainwaves to help you wake up, relax, focus, visualise and sleep.

A brief introduction to brainwaves

Brainwaves are produced by neurons in our brains communicating with each other. They produce synchronised electrical pulses that neuroscientists divide into different bandwidths, measured in Hertz (cycles per second). All our thoughts, emotions and behaviours start as brainwaves.

Slower brainwaves relax us to the point of feeling sleepy. High frequencies happen when we’re wide-awake and wired.

Alpha brainwaves dominate when our thoughts flow quietly and help with mental coordination, calmness, alertness, mind/body integration and learning. Beta waves are connected to our normal, aware, waking state of consciousness. Delta waves are made in deepest meditation and dreamless sleep. Theta waves are also present in sleep and deep meditation and allow us to go beyond normal awareness.

The most intriguing of all the brainwaves are Gamma. They’re fast and process information from all areas of the brain. Gamma is extremely active when we’re in states of universal love, altruism and peak functioning. Experienced meditators can produce Gamma waves.

When our brainwaves are out of balance our emotional and neuro-physical health suffers. If they’re over-aroused, we can suffer from anxiety disorders and problems sleeping among other things. Under-arousal is connected to depression and attention deficit. Brainwave instability might lead to anything from OCD to bulimia, it’s claimed.

Somehow, centuries ago, yogis and meditators discovered how to naturally balance their brainwaves. (I still find that remarkable, don’t you?) As countless scientific studies have demonstrated, yoga enables us to go into alpha, theta and even gamma states. Brainwave activity increases and anxiety reduces.

Putting the David in Delight

When I spoke to Dave Siever, founder of Mind Alive Inc and the David in David Delight, he told me that the company had been making machines since 1984. Since then, they’ve observed tens of 1000s of people and used comprehensive questionnaires to record peoples’ responses to the technology. They also worked with countless yogis and meditators. But the main purpose of the brain machines is to help therapists, psychoanalysts and doctors treat serious neurological conditions.

When I realised this, I felt a bit embarrassed and foolish admitting that I was only using it as a tool to aid my creativity.

I spoke to Dave Siever on Skype. He was in Alberta where it was something like 17 degrees below. Dave is 61 but, as he says, people take him for 50. He’s an almost unnervingly knowledgeable, articulate advocate for brain machines.

“I’m interested in meditation to enhance my creativity,” I said. “And I wanted to see if I’d get the same results from using one of your machines as I did from yoga meditation,” I said. “I tried the theta setting first and it was incredibly powerful. The session’s almost 40 minutes long and it felt like I’d only been using the machine for five.”

“People typically have time distortion when they drift into trance,” Dave said matter-of-factly.

It surprised me to discover that what I was doing when I went into an especially deep yoga meditation was simply entering into a trance. But I liked the idea.

Crystal Healing Bed power

If you’ve ever entered into a deep meditative state, you may well have had the feeling that you were leaving your body and panicked.

The first time I used my brain machine I was a little nervous because it uses flicker. I’d experienced flicker a couple of times, using a Dreamachine and also a Crystal Healing Bed. The Dreamachine looked beautiful but did nothing for me. In total contrast, the Crystal Healing Bed, which I used when I was in Brazil, spending time in the Casa de Dom Inacio where psychic surgeon John of God does his work, was incredibly powerful.

I lay down on a massage table in a darkened room. Above me was a row of crystals mounted on a metal frame in a row above my chakra points. The boy who’d led me into the room covered my eyes with a towel. A pan pipes version of John Lennon’s Imagine began to play. The boy switched on the machine, walked out and shut the door. Light corresponding to the chakra colours began to pulse through the crystals. I don’t believe in chakras or crystals or John Lennon and started to giggle.

What happened next wasn’t funny.

After what seemed like only a couple of minutes I came back into myself at the point where I was leaving my body. I held on to my sense of who I thought I was for dear life for the rest of the session, which felt like it had only lasted five minutes.

When I came out of room into the hot, muggy Brazilian afternoon, I was vibrating like a struck tuning fork. The air was pulsing. Everything was broken up and dancing. I walked over to the shade of a wooden pergola as if I was an old man. I spent all afternoon there, staring out across the valley, the red dirt road snaking down to where the path to the sacred waterfall began, the horse tethered half way up the other side, white against the forest green. It took me hours to stop shaking and for my fear to go away.

The thought of using the brain machine scared and excited me.

Using the brain machine, I felt like I was beginning to leave my body and had the same time distortion as I’d had with the Crystal Healing Bed and, not so intensely, during Savasana. But I wasn’t at all scared when I was using it.

Dave told me why. “Entrainment using the machine almost always shuts off the conscious part of the mind, so you don’t analyse the situation you’re in. You have no fear of losing control. I work with people who have horrible pasts or are so traumatised they have sleep seizures from cortisol damage.  I can almost always knock anyone who’s guarded into a deep trance. It doesn’t take long.”

I explained why I was using a David Delight Plus and Dave launched into an impressive explanation of what the machines do that I just about followed. The gist of it is that the machine enhances creativity by relaxing the user. The heart beat sound is a breath pacer.

For people doing creative work – writing, making music, anything visual – being relaxed and breathing properly is essential if you want to come up with the goods.

As Dave said, “Many people don’t breathe correctly. But just seven or eight minutes of using the brain machine, we call it entrainment, will fast track people into deep, really high performance meditative breathing. As people develop mastery they can breathe better and better under stress, but beginners often can’t do it at all.”

When people become de-stressed and produce healthy alpha waves, it’s the first step to enabling all the different regions of the brain to work together. They can shift from the creative right brain to the logical left brain “more gracefully and efficiently”. Brain machines also stimulate oxygen and blood flow to the brain. This is especially useful with people who have ADHD, attention deficit disorder.

But when a trained meditator is making theta waves, or the machine is stimulating them, cerebral blood flow, serotonin and endorphins all go up. Brain function improves greatly.

Dave himself swears by his Delight. “The more you do it, the more it comes easily,” he told me. “When you keep that brain going, you feel energised. And you’re keeping yourself physically and mentally younger. Of course, you’ve got to have a good diet, give the brain good fuel. Typically, as people get better using brain technology they want better food and a healthier lifestyle.”

And what about the yogis and meditators Dave’s worked with? “Entrainment, using the brain machine, is very successful with them from the word go. We’d be at conferences and give a Tibetan yogi in their robes a machine to try out in their room. They’d come down amazed at how quickly they went into a deep trance. It took half an hour instead of a day at a retreat.”

So, how do I use a brain machine to best stimulate my creativity? Should I use the theta program?

“I wouldn’t use theta if you’re up against a deadline,” Dave said. “You can be creative in theta, but you can’t write. You can’t concentrate and focus and be in high theta. Use theta a couple of days before you’re starting a project, when you’re wanting to get to the essence of what you’re writing. Before you go into trance, ask yourself how you would explain what you’re writing is about in a couple of sentences. Wait for a day and then see what pops up in your brain. I do this all the time. Then I use alpha or beta to boost my focus and concentration when I have to sit down and write.”

Brain machines vs. meditation

I’ve been using my David’s Delight Plus brain machine for a month now. After a session using the alpha wave balancing program, I definitely feel more energised and focused. When I’m looking at the flickering lights I don’t have visions like it’s claimed flicker machines can induce, but the lights appear to generate patterns and change colour. I guess the binaural beats are also doing their job.

The theta program continues to knock me out and I love it. I get the same feeling of being high when I come out of it that I get from a deep meditation. What Dave says about the effect of theta on creative thinking appears to be true for me. I can’t do any serious writing for a day after I’ve used it but then ideas begin to flow.

When I use the machine, I don’t feel I have to do anything with my thoughts – not even observe them as they pass. Because I’m staring into the flickering light, I don’t have to worry about my powers to visualise. I know my brainwaves are being worked on whatever happens. All I do is lie down, start the machine and concentrate on my breathing.

Do I miss everything that goes with conventional meditation practice? Not really. But I do wonder about the wisdom of divorcing meditation from its original religious context and calling it mindfulness.

I just read The Buddha Pill. The book acknowledges the efficacy of meditation and yoga but also questions the validity of some of the scientific research often cited by meditators and yogis as proof. It’s also the first book I’ve ever read that goes into how dangerous meditation can be for some people.

But it’s the debate on what meditation becomes when you call it mindfulness that was particularly interesting to me. At one point, the authors write:

In principle it’s perfectly possible to meditate and be uninterested in meditation’s spiritual background. However, research shows that meditation leads us to become more spiritual and that this increase in spirituality is partly responsible for the practice’s positive effects. So, even if we set out to ignore meditation’s spiritual roots, those roots may nonetheless envelop us, to a greater or lesser degree.

When I began meditating around ten years ago as part of yoga, I certainly felt more connected, empathetic and altruistic although I didn’t start believing in a higher power. But I wouldn’t say that using a brain machine is making me feel any more spiritual. Perhaps it’s because I’m only using the technology right now. Maybe the best thing to do is combine using the brain machine with conventional meditation and see what happens.

I’ll do that next.

My David’s Delight Plus cost a little under €400. I bought mine from Amazon but you can also buy directly from Mind Alive here . They’re not cheap but they are an investment. Especially if, like me, you use your brain machine every day and your partner loves the way it sends her off to sleep and gives her profound dreams.

David Holzer