Synaesthetic Surround: Dreamtime Meets Brainwave Science
[The Healing Journey] • Synaesthetic Surround is a new therapeutic method that integrates light and sound technologies with psychotherapeutic and mindfulness techniques to influence both brainwaves and their corresponding mental-emotional states. The resulting receptive states foster change to those mental-emotional patterns and neuronal pathways we all struggle with in our efforts to change and grow. Research has shown that brainwaves vary at particular frequencies associated with particular mental states. Light and sound waves or pulses can be similarly varied at frequencies that fall within the range of brainwave frequencies. When the correct amount of stimuli are presented to our senses at these frequencies, our brainwaves begin to vary at the same rate as the stimuli. This is a common process of resonance that can be seen in examples of sound waves, like a string on a musical instrument that begins to vibrate when another string is vibrating at a resonant note. This process, brainwave entrainment, allows audio-visual stimulation to elicit mental states such as relaxation, focus and creativity. These states are integrated with therapeutic and mindfulness techniques to increase identity and experiential perspective, and to ground a sense of meaning and self in immediate and visceral mental-emotional-somatic experiences. Synaesthetic Surround is conducted both as a “flow” experience and a therapy. The flow experience is designed to increase perspective, imagination, problem solving, productivity and creativity. The therapy addresses stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, trauma, life and growth issues.
My first exposure was fire, of course. My second was the strobe light my sister and I danced to in our parents’ basement. The flow of time would stop, divided into fractured and singular moments as the light flashed. My body became foreign and yet more intimate; questions of presence: “What if I were like this or this or that?” rather than statement of presence: “I am…”. Presence reduced to experience. Each flash an endless moment in time. Each pulse a memory that had already passed. I entered another world in that basement. An expansive world. A subtle world. A visceral world. Its fractured nature left spaces between for mystery, experiences outside the flow of time and purpose.
I’m sitting in a darkened room not unlike the basement in its simplicity and insularity. The lights are dimmed and the window is covered so no light enters the room. A client sits next to me in a chair with four mounts positioning four lights in the periphery of his vision. Speakers, a subwoofer and a vibratory device are integrated into the chair. Sheepskins and an ottoman give the science a warmth. A collection of electronics and controls sits on a table between us and trails off into a mass of wires. This client has issues with anxiety. I’ve chosen an audio-visual stimulation program for him that starts out with an activating brain wavelength, then shifts to a relaxing, meditative wavelength. I start the program and the lights begin to pulse in concert with tones. I press play on the sound program on my computer and listen to the first sound as I begin composing the soundscape in real time. The client sighs as he leaves behind the everyday, functional world we’ve both just shut out and enters a more varied, visceral world. The full transition is made as the ambient room lights fade to off. Tiger growls punctuate the soundscape and I begin speaking into a microphone so that my voice is integrated into the chair, coming to him from just behind his ears giving an inner-mind effect. I ask the client what he feels and he mentions anxiety. Tiger growls tend to have this effect and I’m glad to hear it, as my goal is to produce mild anxiety in him so that we can work with it directly while he is feeling it. I increase the frequency of the growls, but keep them low and rumbling. I speak into the microphone again, taking the client on a journey where anxiety becomes sound waves and we float under the water, watching them on the surface of the sea and letting their vibrations flow through us. As we sit with and explore anxiety I reduce the tiger growls to a rate so slow we can hear between their notes. As the very structure of the sounds falls apart, so does the structure of the anxiety they are creating. We fall between the notes and find ourselves under the sea again, watching the stormy surface from the safety of the deep, slow moving waters.
I am interested in the healing properties of those deeper, slower moving waters. I am interested in a visceral, sensory experience that elicits a bodily response to mental constructs. I am interested in the interface between our brains and our surroundings and the power our atmosphere has over us. I am interested in the meaning that we experience in these deeper waters. I am interested in shifting the ratio of time spent in the functional world to time spent in this more immediate and imaginative state. I believe that much of our depression, our stress and our malaise comes from spending our time almost exclusively in the functional everyday world, or in a numbing version of escape from this world when a visceral sense of meaning or rightness cannot be found in these places. I believe that we find a sense of meaning in the deeper, slower waters of immediate experience as well as in grander narratives or life trajectories, but that we currently spend little time in either of these locales. Consider the comparison of a day in modern life in the developed world to a day in some other societies, past and present. In the developed world most of us currently spend our days working on tasks that maintain only a distant and abstracted connection to a direct or meaningful action. In some societies we might spend a day obtaining food that we would eat that night, then spend the evening in an immediate, imaginative state of mind with fire and music weaving the days events into grander narratives through storytelling. Our lack of time spent in these meaning-making states results in the feelings of emptiness and stress common in modern life in the developed world.
Synaesthetic Surround, the therapy and flow experience I’ve developed, is a new take on fireside dreamtime. The connection is more direct than might be immediately evident. Like audio-visual stimulation, fire flickers at a rate that bring us into a receptive or trance state. Fire was the first brainwave stimulation device. This is one reason we can spend hours staring into a fire in such a calm, evocative and viscerally contemplative way. Add a version of storytelling: a more conscious, slower, immediate and expansive version of talking through targeted guided imagery, discussion techniques designed to loosen our narrow, functional patterns of self-definition, and re-contextualizing through grand narrative. Then add a version of music: soundscapes and tones created for targeted effects embedded with specific brainwave frequencies. And there you have Synaesthetic Surround, current science’s take on fireside dreamtime.
Science of Body
The science behind Synaesthetic Surround began with the audio-visual stimulation that has been used in contexts currently involving goggles with integrated lights and headphones. Lights and tones pulse at specific brainwave frequencies in order to produce enough sensory stimuli to overwhelm the brain so that the frequency at which brainwaves are modulating begin to synchronize, or entrain, with the frequency of the audio-visual stimuli. This technology has been studied and used for stress, depression, PMS, ADHD, and relaxation. The problem with using the technology as a therapeutic technique in a form involving goggles and headphones is that the external world is completely blocked out and therefore therapeutic interaction with a therapist is not possible and awareness of the body and surround space is dramatically reduced. In developing Synaesthetic Surround I wanted take the technology out of the goggles and headphones and make it part of the therapeutic setting. Not only am I then able to conduct various types of therapy in a receptive state, but the experience of one’s body can be heightened by the heightened consciousness of the surrounding atmosphere. This last point is important as, according to some recent studies, our feelings are intricately entangled with our spatial and bodily experience and therefore need to be addressed through body as well as mind. Real change occurs on a visceral level, i.e. a level that combines body and mind. While this visceral level is connected to more conscious, surface thoughts and feelings and therefore can be affected by working with such thoughts and feelings, addressing the visceral level directly is particularly effective.
Synaesthetic Surround takes its name from synaesthesia, which is the experience of a sensory input through more than one sense, for example, the perception of a color associated with a sound or musical note. Some people have such experiences in very concrete forms and are surprised to find that others don’t have similar experiences. For others, such as many artists and writers, it has been more a metaphorical or imaginative function and an attempt to go beyond the limits of our everyday experience to tap into an underlying, more primal experience. Research indicates that as infants we all experience synaesthesia before our brain neurons are fully cropped and our sensory experience is parsed to specific senses. There are two theories regarding synaesthesia in adults. One says that the phenomenon is simply a malfunctioning cross-wiring of neurons that were not sufficiently cropped in development and that it therefore has no larger implications about experience. The other theory says that adult synaesthesia is a window into a form of experience that we may all still have, but that our brains have learned to filter out, as they have with so many other aspects of perception, in order to make more functional sense of the world. This underlying form of experience is a global, networked, wash of response to sensory stimuli that prefaces the specific sensory experiences we usually associate with sensory stimuli. It is a more emotional response that includes experiences of intuition, inspiration and feelings of meaning. Research indicating two separate tracks of sensory information processing supports this latter theory. In the case of the better known track, sensory information moves through nerves in the eyes, for example, then through various parts of the brain into the visual cortex and then into the cortex, at which point conscious perception of the stimuli and the situation occurs. In the other processing track, sensory stimuli trigger nerves in the eyes, then take a neuronal path more direct to the amygdala, a control center for more basic, primal feelings. The amygdala then informs the body how to respond (i.e. clenching the stomach for fear, etc.) and the resulting bodily response then informs our conscious experience how to interpret a situation through emotions and thoughts.
Our sense of self and our experience is therefore rooted in our bodies and our mental representations of our bodies. The process through which we form our identities is a pre-conscious interaction between our minds and our bodies, to whatever degree the two can be considered as separate. One of my goals with Synaesthetic Surround is to loosen these mental representations of the body and of spatial-visceral experience. Once these representations have been loosened, new arrangements of identity and experience become available. New neural pathways develop when we spend time in these atypical states. As an entry into the place where emotion, thought, and body coalesce to form identity, synaesthetic experience can be a direct window into the subtle, ineffable, tectonic aspects of experience where our feelings of meaning and, ultimately, happiness reside. I am interested in working directly with identity in its most basic form, experience. Identity is typically the filter of repeating interpretations we make of experience. I want to help loosen this static version of identity, suspend some of those interpretations and reach the experience underneath. Such interpretation or filtering cannot be completely removed, nor would we want it to be, but we can create more space in the interpretations we choose and the degree to which we believe in them as true, or just use them as temporary structures through which to have experience.
My body became foreign and yet more intimate; questions of presence: “What if I were like this or this or that?” rather than statement of presence: “I am…”. The next question, “What if I see this or hear this or feel that?” Presence reduced to experience. “I think therefore I am” becomes “I experience” or even just “experience”.
Sit down, close your eyes. Let your body float and dissolve. Let go. Let what you know of your day, your life, your thoughts, your experience, your self…go. Now move toward the light. Pulsing, carrying you in waves, back and forth. Move toward the light. If this is a death, it’s an extremely pleasant one. Bathed in light, sound and vibration your body relaxes and your sense of place shimmers and shimmies. The bounded sense of self you maintain loosens and your sense of possibility and identity – spatial, emotional, perspectival – expands and flows into unknown form and feeling. Your mental focus increases to form a sense of immediacy and presence that you rarely felt back when you were alive. Some of the concepts and structures through which you’ve navigated and limited life begin to shimmer and shimmy, taking on a translucence dissolving to transparency. What you see on the other side is less defined, less static. As experience overtakes a set presence, the act of defining presence seems to miss the point. Luckily in your shimmer and shimmy, you’ve let go of the point, and chosen the ever-shifting wave.
Todd Bresnick, Psy.D. has drawn from his background in psychology, critical theory, and art to develop Synaesthetic Surround. He currently conducts research as an Assistant Professor at New York University as well as continuing research and development of Synaesthetic Surround. Learn more about Synaesthetic Surround here.
Image courtesy of the author.Tweet