Brainwave entrainment is a method to stimulate the brain into entering a specific state by using a pulsing sound, light, or electromagnetic field. The pulses elicit the brain’s ‘frequency following’ response, encouraging the brainwaves to align to the frequency of a given beat.
This ‘frequency following’ response of brainwave entrainment can be seen in action with those prone to epilepsy. If a strobe flashes at their seizure frequency, the brain will ‘entrain’ to the flashing light, resulting in a seizure.
On the positive side, this same mechanism is commonly used to induce many brainwave states; such as a trance, enhanced focus, relaxation, meditation or sleep induction. The brainwave entrainment effectively pushes the entire brain into a certain state.
Brainwave entrainment works for almost everyone. It is a great way to lead your mind into states that you might usually have difficulty reaching, allowing you to experience what those states feel like.
Any stable frequency evokes a cortical response. The brain synchronises its dominant brainwave frequency with that of the external stimulus. This is called Brainwave Entrainment.
There is a lot of marketing hype around brainwave entrainment. It is sold with promises of increasing IQ, promoting weight loss, ‘mind-tripping’, enhancing creativity, concentration, inducing spiritual states and more.
While these claims are not entirely true, they are not altogether false either. In practice, the claims are based on an overly-simplistic view of how the brain and the brainwaves function.
People are very seldom deficient in a certain brainwave type in all areas of their brain. Usually the distribution is much spottier, with an excess in one area and a deficiency in another.
We are all different, especially when it comes to the distribution of our brainwaves. Boosting a certain brainwave state may be beneficial for one person, and emotionally uncomfortable for another. Without knowing each person’s starting position, entrainment can be rather ‘hit and miss’.
If brainwave entrainment leaves you with unwanted side-effects (see below) or discomfort, you’re probably encouraging a range of brainwaves that are already excessive in some area of your brain. The way around this is to get a brain map to see what your brain’s strengths and weaknesses are, and see what (if any) brainwaves could use some encouragement.
The brain does not operate in just one single frequency; the full spectrum of brainwave frequencies are always running, all the time. The dominant frequency determines our mental state – and entrainment temporarily shifts our mental state by boosting one frequency to be louder than the others.
Brainwave entrainment is nothing new. Ceremonial chambers acoustically tuned to specific brainwave frequencies have been found dating back to the Bronze Age, and the ancient Greeks used flickering sunlight shining through a spinning wheel to induce altered states.
Since the 1970s, a wealth of brainwave entrainment techniques have developed using digitally encoded audio beats, strobe lights, or low-energy electromagnetic fields.
Do we use it?
We rarely use brainwave music therapeutically; it is rather an imprecise tool compared to other brain training methods.
Both brainwave entrainment and neurofeedback deal with brainwaves, but the similarity stops there. Entrainment pushes your whole brain into a pre-determined state, while neurofeedback teaches you how to move specific parts of your brain on your own. It is the differeence between forcing the brain into a given position, and skills building so you can move it there yourself.
The different Types
There are a number of different methods of brainwave entrainment available, each with its own pros and cons. There is a page describing the different types here…
A Japanese television station broadcast a light and sound ‘strobe effect’ as part of a cartoon in 1997. In only 5 seconds, it put 700 children into hospital with seizures, and untold thousands more experienced headaches, dizziness, and nausea.
As learned from Japanese cartoons, do not use brainwave entrainment if you are prone to seizures (or if you’re pregnant, in case you are prone to seizures and unaware of it). Take extra caution if under 26 years of age, as the brain is still developing and is more sensitive.
If the following general guidelines are followed, it will greatly limit your risk of discomfort.
- Don’t overdo it; most cases of side-effects come after overuse. A fifteen minute session is sufficient to begin (or 3-5 minutes if using audio/visual entrainment). Everyone reacts differently, and you will need to determine your sensitivity before jumping in.
- If you experience increased anxiety, convulsions, overwhelming subconscious images, nausea, headaches, dizziness or increased heartbeat, discontinue use immediately and permanently.
- Do not use brainwave entrainment if you have any brainwave hyper-arousal or instability symptoms (listed near the bottom of the page here… )
The warnings done, it must be said that the vast majority of people have no ill-effects from brainwave entrainment. The most common side-effect is simply feeling a little unusual for a while. If you happen to experience any unwanted effects, discontinue use, give it a few days, and you will return to normal.
More on the different types of brainwave entrainment here...