Flotation Tanks

Another method for inducing profound relaxation involves the use of sensory deprivation. This is based on the discovery of the Ganzfeld effect, whereby individuals exposed to an unvarying visual field (such as in a white-out produced by a blizzard) enter an altered state of consciousness and begin to experience a wealth of internally stimulated visual imagery. The most effective application of the Ganzfeld effect involves the use of flotation tanks (Hutchinson, 1984).

The Float Experience

A float tank is an enclosed container roughly the size of a large bathtub with a lid. Inside is ten inches of warm water, heated to a constant temperature of 93.5°F (equal to the temperature on the surface of your skin) and inundated with Epsom salts to enable you to float effortlessly. When you shut the door you are enclosed in total darkness. All sounds are blocked out by earplugs. But this sensory deprivation chamber goes beyond a simple Ganzfeld situation by restricting other sensory input as well. Tactile sensations are eliminated by lying back and floating in a pool of water at body temperature, causing you to lose your sense of separation from the liquid. The boundaries of your body seem to disappear, thus eliminating sensations of touch, pressure, or friction. The effects of gravity are also nullified by the fact that your body is totally suspended in fluid. The result is that you are almost completely deprived of external sensory stimulation. Scientists estimate that at least 90 percent of our brain's activities are involved in processing the wealth of external stimuli that bombard us at any given moment. When we are freed of the need to monitor external stimuli, our mind opens up to internal, often unconscious mental processes that are ordinarily obscured. One of these processes is internal imagery.

Positive Effects of Floating

Numerous studies, as summarized by Michael Hutchinson (1991), in his books MegaBrain, and MegaBrain Power (1994) document that floating has dramatic stress-reduction effects. Most people find the float experience profoundly relaxing. Studies reveal that periodic float tank exposure leads to decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption, along with reduced levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, in the bloodstream. Furthermore, levels of stress chemicals remain lower for days, and in some cases weeks, after the float sessions. Float-induced relaxation also leads to vasodilation (enlargement of blood vessels, causing increased blood flow), which boosts the supply of oxygen and other nutrients to the brain. This, along with the effects of sensory deprivation, results in enhanced mental functioning.

Along with documented stress-reduction benefits, the flotation experience has been shown to produce many other beneficial effects. Studies have revealed that endorphin levels rise after float tank exposure, a common result of the deeply relaxed state. Floating also appears to increase access to right-brain functioning, thereby making it easier to get in touch with creative and problem-solving abilities, visualization skills, and memory functions. Many professional athletes who have combined visualization practice with floating have succeeded in improving their sports performance. Learning appears to be enhanced when floating. Many individuals combine floating with specific learning tasks, such as mastering a language or memorizing complex material. This involves taking advantage of what noted researcher Thomas Budzynski, Ph.D., refers to as a “twilight learning state” where relaxation (in particular, the achievement of a theta brainwave state) leads to improved mental clarity, concentration, synthesis, and recall. In a study (Taylor, 1983) that compared the learning ability of a float group with that of a nonfloat group, the results revealed that people who floated learned at a significantly superior level. As the difficulty and complexity of the learning material increased, the superiority of the floaters over the nonfloaters increased sharply. Check out whether your community has a flotation center and treat yourself to this enjoyable and healthy relaxation experience.

Light and Sound Technology

Sound and light machines that alter brainwave activity via a combination of stroboscopic lights and synchronized rhythmic tones may seem new, but the knowledge that flickering lights and rhythmic tones can lead to profound relaxation, altered states of consciousness, and visual images is something humans have known since the discovery of fire. Can you remember staring into a campfire or fireplace and feeling a sense of calm and tranquility pervade your body? Meanwhile, you may have found yourself watching images dance in the glowing embers. When you first see a sound and light machine it may appear bizarre, like something out of a science fiction movie. But while the hardware is new, the techniques being used are ancient.

Human Brainwaves

To understand how light and sound machines work, you must first learn a bit about human brainwaves, which were first discovered in 1922 and can be measured by an EEG. Human brainwaves range from 0 to approximately 40 cycles per second (cps). They can be divided into four categories based on distinct changes in consciousness associated with different frequency levels. The following relationships can be observed between brainwave ranges and subjective states:

  1. Beta waves (13–40 cps), the highest frequency range, are associated with normal, waking alertness. We operate within this frequency range during most of our waking hours. It is here that we carry on most of our daily living tasks. The high end of this range includes arousal frequencies, which can be associated with tension.

  2. Alpha waves (8–13 cps) are generated while we are relaxed but alert and also when we are engaged in creative, absorbing endeavors. Meditators strive to achieve the alpha state. An excellent measure of whether you are relaxed involves determining whether you have reached an alpha state.

  3. Theta waves (4–8 cps) are usually produced when we are just falling asleep or waking up (also known as the hypnagogic state), and rarely do adults manifest a theta state while fully awake. Waking theta states generally occur during bursts of highly creative activity or peak experiences.

  4. Delta waves (0–4 cps) are produced when we are deeply asleep or in other similarly unconscious states.


Light and sound machines work by gently guiding your brainwaves into a slower frequency cycle, thus lulling you into a more deeply relaxed state. This is done with only gentle tones and flashing lights. The devices affect your brainwaves through a process known as entrainment (or the frequency following response), which is a very well researched and empirically validated phenomenon. Basically, your brain begins to match or mimic the flashing light stimulus that is presented to it. So if you are viewing a light flashing in the alpha range, after a while your brain begins to shift into an alpha frequency range to match the flashing light. That is entrainment. It is the same principle by which tuning forks work. Your brain essentially can resonate like a tuning fork, entraining to flashing lights, pulsating tones, or both. As your brain enters into an alpha or theta state, your muscles naturally relax.

Sound and light technology has a distinct advantage over relaxation exercises and biofeedback; where biofeedback merely measures levels of tension and relaxation and helps train you to relax by providing feedback, light and sound machines literally create a state of relaxation for you as a result of the entrainment process. Although practice on these devices is certainly recommended to maximize results and benefits, you do not have to go through a time-consuming learning process to learn to relax. Light and sound machines create the relaxed state for you, sometimes in as quickly as five minutes. Light and sound machines are also portable, unlike flotation tanks, and are available for home usage.

Do light and sound machines, also called brainwave synchronizers (BWS), really work? Or are they simply a fancy placebo? Given that light and sound technology is quite new (having been developed in the 1980s), there is minimal controlled research. However, we conducted several unpublished controlled studies (Brucato & Abascal, 1990, 1991) documenting that light and sound machines do produce clinically significant levels of relaxation. In one study with college student volunteers, the effects of brainwave synchronizers were compared to the outcome of activities that are considered intrinsically relaxing, such as reclining in a comfortable chair or listening to soft music. The experimental group reclined in specially designed recliner chairs and received six light and sound sessions complete with melodious music. Subjects in control group 1 only reclined in the same chair as the experimental group and were instructed to relax. Subjects in control group 2 reclined in the same chair and listened to the same music as the experimental group. To minimize variations in subjects' expectations, all groups received a blurb about stress and the beneficial effects of relaxation, combined with an explanation that they would be receiving state-of-the-art relaxation treatments. The results indicated that the levels of relaxation (as measured by a variety of physiological and self-report indices) in the group receiving exposure to light and sound were significantly greater.

Researchers have gone beyond verifying the phenomenon of entrainment and have begun to document the effects of practicing relaxation with entrainment devices such as brainwave synchronizers. Michael Hutchinson (1991) summarized many of these findings:

  1. Certain frequencies, particularly within the alpha and theta ranges, are associated with deep physical relaxation and mental clarity.

  2. At these same frequency levels, anxiety levels are reduced.

  3. Such reductions in anxiety or tension levels have been shown to linger for hours or up to several days following exposure to BWS stimulation.

  4. In some cases the verbal ability and verbal performance of subjects was increased following stimulation.

  5. Suggestibility and hypnotizability were markedly increased, especially by frequencies within the alpha and theta ranges.

  6. The flickering lights could bring the two hemispheres of the brain into a state of greater coherence or synchronization. This state is associated with increased intellectual capacity or functioning.

  7. Such exposure could help stimulate vivid, spontaneous mental imagery and imaginative, creative thinking.

Experiencing Light and Sound Machines

Sound and light devices have great potential as stress-management tools in that they produce relaxation in a more reliable and efficient manner than many other methods. This technology is also quite entertaining, as many people report seeing colors, shapes, or patterns during exposure. The visual experience has been likened to a kaleidoscopic array of vibrant colors and designs. Spontaneous dreamlike visual imagery is also possible, and for that reason BWS devices have been used to potentiate creativity and problem solving in addition to relaxation. Many individuals resist the regular practice of relaxation techniques or meditation because of the boredom factor. Light and sound machines, due to their entertainment value, are anything but boring, leading to higher compliance with routine relaxation practice. For these reasons, we highly recommend light and sound devices and feel that they represent the cutting edge in stress-management technology.

Using a light and sound device is as easy as pushing a button. The device consists of goggles and headphones that plug into a small, portable computer console. All you do is press a button to choose the program you desire. Preset computer programs exist within the machine, varying in length, modes of light presentation, and frequency ranges, allowing you to pick an alpha, theta, or delta program. Once you have chosen your program, you don the goggles and headphones, adjust the volume and light intensity to your comfort level, and close your eyes. It's that simple.

You can enhance your experience by playing melodic music (such as New Age or classical) through the machine to accompany your relaxation experience. Most light and sound devices are built to accommodate a patch cord that interfaces with a tape or CD player. An even more elegant approach is to combine light and sound technology with double-induction hypnotic tapes for self-improvement. Since brainwave synchronizers can create profound relaxation (analogous to a hypnotic state), it follows that listening to a hypnotic tape while already deeply relaxed will maximize the effectiveness of the suggestions on the tape. In our experience, using hypnotic tapes in conjunction with light and sound creates a synergistic effect where each is more powerful than when used alone.

Tips for BWS Usage

The following list offers several guidelines to enable you to get the most out of BWS technology, as well as to help you choose programs that will help you achieve your goals.

  1. If you are not an experienced meditator, it is wise to begin with alpha programs of twenty to thirty minutes' duration as a good way to introduce yourself to this technology. Once you are comfortable with the process and aware that you have achieved a relaxed state, you can move on to other programs.

  2. If you have a seizure disorder or a history of convulsions, these devices are contraindicated. Stroboscopic light stimuli can precipitate a seizure in individuals prone to them. These devices will not cause seizures unless you have a pre-existing seizure disorder.

  3. Not everyone achieves the full depth of relaxation in the first experience with light and sound. Sometimes it takes a few tries to let go and trust in the process. If you try too hard, it is like trying to fall asleep. You cannot make yourself sleep, as it is a process of letting go; the same is true with relaxation. In our experience, light and sound technology is effective with 75 to 80 percent of the population. There is no right or wrong way to have a light and sound experience. You may also find that each experience you have with this equipment is different.

  4. When using hypnotic or subliminal tapes in conjunction with light and sound, effectiveness is maximized by employing a theta program. You will be most receptive to suggestion while in a theta or hypnagogic state. A word of caution: in our experience subliminal tapes are not nearly as effective as advertised. Studies indicate that subliminal tapes can potentially carry some influence, but only if used properly—that is, listened to in their entirety daily for at least thirty days in succession.

  5. When using BWS machines to potentiate creativity, imagination, or problem solving, it is also recommended that you choose a theta program (Budzynski, 1991). It is while in theta that we are most likely to get flashes of inspiration or develop creative solutions. Thomas Edison taught himself to fall asleep standing up against a wall while holding a hard rubber ball in one hand. As he began to doze off, his hand would open and release the ball, which would fall and strike a strategically placed metal plate at his feet. The resulting clatter would rouse him and he would immediately jot down any thoughts, ideas, or images that had occurred to him as he was nodding off. Many of his most famous inventions were first glimpsed in this fashion. Edison didn't know it at the time, but he was using the theta state to maximize his creative juices.

  6. Delta programs are typically used for two major applications: to control pain and to facilitate sleep. Avoid delta programs otherwise, for they will make you too groggy.

  7. Many light and sound devices also contain short wake-up programs within the beta range that can take the place of a coffee break. Especially during that late-afternoon lull, it can be useful to do a six-or ten-minute beta program to wake yourself up without the negative side effects of caffeine.

  8. Depending on the nature of your job and the amount of privacy in your workspace, it may be possible to take a light and sound machine to work. If you feel fatigue catching up with you, it may be possible to do a short relaxation program (for example, fifteen minutes) to recharge your batteries and revitalize. Or you can wake yourself up with a very short beta program. Many professionals use these devices regularly within their offices as a way of minimizing stress and anxiety and boosting energy.

  9. The relaxed state produced by light and sound use often lingers for several hours up to a day or two after exposure. We recommend that you practice with the device two to three times weekly. This can reduce your baseline level of tension (your normal level of arousal) by linking together these periods of increased relaxation—the equivalent of giving your car a tune-up, increasing its efficiency and gas mileage and averting future breakdowns. If you are interested in obtaining a brainwave synchronizer for your personal use, please refer to the appendix for more information.

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