May 05 2008

Brainwave Entrainment and Marketing Pseudoscience

Beware simple answers to complex problems, or easy methods for accomplishing difficult goals. If you combine this maxim with the advice to be skeptical of any claims that are being made in order to sell you something – then ironically you have a simple method (perhaps I should call it an “elegant” method) for protecting yourself from most scams and cons. Actually the application of this combination of maxims can be complex, but what it does do is trigger doubt and skeptical analysis. (And to be clear I am not saying that all simple solutions must be wrong – you should just beware them, meaning your skeptical senses should be tingling.)

The reason this rule of thumb is so useful is because there is a huge market for simple answers. A genuine elegant solution (one that accomplishes more with less) is highly valuable in the marketplace. We are used to technology delivering new easy solutions to previously difficult tasks. While most improvements are incremental, there are occasional breakthroughs that transform our lives.

Therefore we are very receptive to new technology products that promise to improve our lives, or solve previously difficult problems, because of some new scientific or technological advance. This has created, in a sense, a marketplace of consumers that expect to be dazzled with technobabble they don’t understand, backed by assurances of legitimacy by the citing of research and association with professionals or professional institutions, and offering significant benefits. We are all, in a sense, waiting for that next product to improve our lives, and many of us like to feel we are on the cutting edge – getting an advantage over others by being savvy early adopters.


Just as nature abhors a vacuum, such marketplaces long to be filled. They virtually suck in con artists and scammers who will fill the demand with cheap knock-offs, like 20 dollar Gucci handbags or “C-mega” watches. And so pseudoscientific claims fill the demand for genuine scientific breakthroughs.

The Neuro Programmer 2 is as good an example of this as any. Here is what is claimed for the device:

The Neuro-Programmer 2 (NP2) is an innovative software application for the PC, built to help you achieve rapid and long lasting personal change. NP2 stimulates Brainwaves while using Hypnosis, NLP and other Psychological techniques to help you transform your mind and enhance your mental abilities.

Using a unique approach that combines the best methods from many different fields, the Neuro-Programmer 2 is an effort-free software application with unlimited potential and broad capabilities. Although it is incredibly simple to use, it remains the most effective self-help tool on the market today. Using NP2 is the single best way to achieve rapid and long lasting personal change.

When neurologists first began to measure the brain’s response to stimuli, it was found that if light and sound stimuli were precisely timed to the electrical activity of the brain, brainwave patterns could actually be altered. In turn, the mental state of a person could reliably be changed.

OK – so some of this is pretty common marketing hype. Consumers have become almost numb to such hyperbole. But still we see some of the common – almost ubiquitous – elements of pseudoscientific scams. The company claims that the device is “effort-free”, that the results are “rapid and long-lasting,” that it is the “most effective” method of its kind, and that it is useful for a broad range of applications (hey, why limit the market). I am used to such hype about dishwashing detergent, but find it intolerable when applied to a pseudoscientific device with medical applications.

What about the scientific claims made for this device – brainwave entrainment? This is a real phenomenon, which makes it a useful tool for a pseudoscientific product, but there is no evidence to support such claims being made for it.

In order to understand brainwave entrainment you first have to understand something about brain waves and electroencephalograms (EEG). Neurons are cells that communicate with each other through electrical conduction. When a neuron fires it creates a small electrical and magnetic field. These fields are far too small to measure by placing electrodes on the scalp, or even on the surface of the brain. The only reason we can detect the electrical fields of the brain is because many neurons are firing together – in synchrony. All brain waves that are measured by an EEG, therefore, represent a large group of neurons firing together.

When we are mentally active various groups of neurons will be firing and the EEG will look like a jumble of different waves at different frequencies. When we are in a relaxed state, however, our brains settle into a steady rhythm – when fully awake this is the alpha rhythm, which as a frequency of 8-12 hz and other recognizable features. When drowsy our brainwaves slow to the theta range, 6-7hz, and when in deep sleep into the delta range, 4-5hz.

Why and how our brains have these natural rhythms is an interesting question, one not fully answered as yet. What we do know is that deep structures in the brain fire at a regular rate and seem to set the pace for the cortex – synchronizing brainwave activity across the brain.

Entrainment is a phenomenon by which some external sensory stimulation synchronizes brainwaves differently than the native rhythm. The most obvious example of this is photic driving – during an EEG the subject will have a strobe light flashed before them at various frequencies. The purpose of this is to see if it will trigger seizure activity. In many normal subjects the brain wave rhythm in the occipital lobes, which is the visual part of the cortex, will match its frequency to the frequency of the strobe light. This specifically is called photic driving, but the phenomenon in general is called entrainment.

It has since been discovered that various auditory frequencies can also entrain the brain waves, although the relationship is more complex as the frequency of the resultant brainwaves do not necessarily match any particular aspect of the auditory signal.

That is generally where the science ends and the pseudoscience begins. A number of companies and individuals have then extrapolated from the phenomenon of entrainment to claim that altering the brain waves changes the actual functioning of the brain. There is no theoretical or empirical basis for this, however. Entrainment is a temporary effect on the synchronization of neuronal firing – it does not improve or increase brain functioning, it does not change the hardwiring, nor does it cure any neurological disorder. There is no compelling evidence for any effect beyond the period of entrainment itself.

But the notion of changing brain waves is a very appealing one, from a marketing stand point. People can visualize brain waves and we like synchrony. Also, in the computer age, we understand the notion of “programming.” We also have been prepped for the future by movies such as The Matrix, where people could master Kung Fu in minutes by simply “downloading” the knowledge. This gives the whole notion a superficial plausibility. But the science just isn’t there.

What the Neuro Programmer does (as far as I can tell – access to much of the website requires the purchase of product) is present sound and visuals on the computer screen. The user is meant to passively view and listen to this while their brain is effortlessly programmed to solve whatever problem they are having or improve whatever performance they are interested in.

The Neuro Programmer website, as is typical, is full of testimonials and vague references to research. I tried to track down the research they referenced, but could not find anything published or peer-reviewed by the authors named or on the subjects indicated. For example, they cite one study by Thomas Budzynski, but the only thing published by him that is listed on Pub Med is a small study on biofeedback published in 1969. The 1999 study they reference is not listed. Also – Budzynski has connections to another company – Theta Technologies – which sells similar technology.  (The exact nature of his connection is not clear, he was at least a consultant. He is also listed as the director of research for another company, Synchromed, LLC.)  This looks like just another in-house worthless study to support the marketing of a product.

(Addendum: A medline search for author Thomas Budzynski resulted in 5 entries – 2 case reports, one review article, and one piece of original research with two citations.  These publications are all on biofeedback, none on brainwave entrainment, and the 1999 study is not listed.)

The study itself looked at only 8 subjects. This small size alone makes the conclusions highly dubious. Since it is not published, I cannot see what, if any, controls were in place. There is a second study (which I also could not find) cited that looked at 30 children – again, very small numbers.

The huge problem will all such studies is that there is a clear placebo effect on any kind of mental performance whenever the subject is observed. Do any intervention, then measure performance, and the intervention and measurement are likely to cause an increase in effort and attention which will increase performance. This generic “placebo” effect needs to be factored out of any such study by proper blinding and controls in order for the results to have any meaning at all.

I also did several literature searches just to look for anything published on the neurological effects of brain wave entrainment and found precious little. There is nothing supporting any of the claims being made for the Neuro Programmer or any similar device or technique.

Brain wave entrainment is a real phenomenon and is useful as one method of investigating how the brain works. But there is no evidence, nor any theoretical basis, for any long lasting effect on brain function or that there is any benefit of any kind. Despite this, there is a huge industry of devices that claim to train your brain waves and have a beneficial effect. I wouldn’t waste a dime on any such device.

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15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Brainwave Entrainment and Marketing Pseudoscience”

  1. jonathanbermanon 05 May 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I was under the understanding that an EEG measures net potential difference caused by the ion flow at the synaptic cleft, which sometimes results from an action potential, not directly by the “firing” of the neuron itself. Am I wrong?

  2. James Foxon 05 May 2008 at 1:49 pm

    The irony of the internet can be quite amusing. As I read the above blog post an advertisement for the “The Neuro-Programmer 2″ is flashing on the right of my screen. A good dose of consumer frugality would put many of these folk out of business.

    It usually seems that the use of anecdote and a story to sell quackery is compelling evidence as to how humans like to communicate and what we like to hear. My wife teaches storytelling and has done seminars for University professors and medical doctors on how to more effectively use stories in their teaching methods. Story telling is very powerful and persuasive method of communication. Perhaps skeptics should be asking consumers to look beyond the story or recognize the impulsive response to a sales pitch/story as a time to put on the brakes and take a skeptical and rational moment of thought.

  3. DevilsAdvocateon 05 May 2008 at 2:35 pm

    A lot has to do with people trusting others too willingly, especially when the message comes wrapped in pseudoscientific jargon from someone who is or claims to be an authority. Testimonials from strangers works too, based on trust.

    Dr. Novella gets it right when it comes to techno-crap. Science and tech advances have come so quickly since we back engineered that alie…. since WWII that the average person struggles to tell science fact from fiction.

  4. [...] not be deceived, I want to share the smartest thing I’ve read all month. It’s from the NeuroLogica Blog by Dr. Steven Novella: Beware simple answers to complex problems, or easy methods for accomplishing [...]

  5. Majaon 06 May 2008 at 5:23 am

    Hi, dr. Novella … or Steve (the first sounds too formal after all the SGU’s podcasts, the last too informal). This is my first comment on this blog, though i’ve been reading it for a while now. This is precisely the kind of “debunking” that i asked for a year ago from our local neuroscience association. I have to share the story. Is that very anecdotal of me? ;) My background is in linguistics and literature, so i love stories. :)

    Anyway, i’m from a small country in Europe, Slovenia, and we have this national neuroscience association that is promoting knowledge about the working of the brain, every year there’s a week long brain awareness week (the same time that’s happening around the world, of course) … A year ago i came across this site of a holistic center, claiming they can teach people languages in record time (5 days of study replacing a year of learning is their claim), using the “superlearing” method. I immediately googled superlearning method and there was this talk of brain waves and relaxed attention and i couldn’t get through the pseudo-babble (it sounded sort of legit but then again not at the same time), and since the brain awareness week was coming up, i thought about contacting the people of the neuroscience association and asking them to maybe include the topic in whichever way they see fit and debunk (or confirm) such claims. I got back a very polite response why they won’t include it. To sum it up (i have their reply open in another tab :) ): they don’t have any experience with the program, don’t know the science behind it, of course scientific studies can be misinterpreted, but that doesn’t mean this specific method isn’t actually helping some people, because individuals vary, maybe this method is more suited for some people and maybe the firm itself even conducts research on what kind of individuals benefit most from the method, but they don’t publish that because of PR, so it’s really the Consumer Protections Office’s place to (potentially) debunk them and not the job of the neuroscience association, which has a mission to stimulate education in neuroscience and to teach the public about the nervous system and its functioning in sickness and in health, so they (the neuroscience association) have information about that on their website, so that people that want to learn can find the information there, it’s possible that those prone to accepting such claims wouldn’t really care about the arguments for or against it, so it’s really not the place of the neuroscience association to serve “narrow interests (i. e., confirming or criticising procedures of creative businessmen), but to promote general awareness of the accomplishments and meaning of new neuroscientific findings”. The email ends with their hope that more people were a part of the critical public of which i am most certainly a part of (which felt like a pat on the head, there there now, you’re a good girl, now let mommy go back to her work) and that it is not their place but the place of consumer protection office to legally protect people and personal responsibility of individuals to accept certain decisions.

    Then i basically gave up, said i understood and thanked them politely, but now after rereading the email, i wish i kept fighting. This wasn’t my first negative experience with the association, i guess i was like them in seeing no point of enlightening people that aren’t themselves interested in enlightenment. ;)

    Thank you for the education and knowledge you spread out,

    Maja

  6. neuron researchon 09 May 2008 at 7:12 am

    [...] any claims that are being made in order to sell you something – then ironically you have a simple mhttp://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=287Fake Sugar Can’t Psych Out Brain ABC NewsArtificial sweeteners often make the the brain hungrier, [...]

  7. [...] this week I wrote about the marketing of devices for brainwave entrainment for therapeutic use, concluding that these [...]

  8. dinamoeon 15 May 2008 at 10:53 am

    Dr. Novella,

    Fascinating discussion. I think you’ve convinced me that the therapeutic claims made by Transparent et. al. are not supported by the research.

    But I was intrigued by your remark:

    ‘ It is not so implausible that there is no possibility of a specific effect (although I admit I would be surprised if this turns out to be the case), and so I am willing to be convinced if the evidence warrants. ‘

    Why so surprised? Haven’t humans have been using flashing lights and pulsating rhythms to alter their states of consciousness for a very long time?

    Apparently, entrainment has been explored by all kinds of people over the last few decades, many of whom have no scientific or commercial axe to grind. One example: The sixties Beat poet and artist Brion Gysin – a recent documentary (‘Flicker’) describes his exploration of photic entrainment effects based on his accidental discovery of the phenomenon. Like most people, he reported a pleasant, relaxing and temporary alteration of consciousness.

    Given that we are talking about a fifty dollar investment, and that entrainment seems to be safe enough (at least for people with no history of seizures), it seems to me that many rational, skeptical people might want to download the thing and try it for themselves rather than wait around for some gold-standard study to appear.

    Thanks,

    Paul

  9. Steven Novellaon 15 May 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Paul,

    As with your anecdote – the EEG effects are transient. Whether or not there is an effect on mental state is harder to say (beyond the non-specific effects of quiet meditation), but even here we are talking about a temporary effect. The claims being made for these devices is for long term effects. And also – not just relaxation, but improved cognitive and physical function. There is absolutely no justification for such claims.

    I would be surprised if the evidence turns out to support long term improvement form these techniques because there does not appear to be a plausible mechanism.

    Whether or not it is worth the $50 is a judgment call. In my judgment – the probability of any real benefit is too small to warrant any investment in money or time. I also would not want to give money to a company that makes unsupported health claims.

    There are risks beyond direct medical harm – distracting from more fruitful interventions, being tricked by the placebo effect into accepting pseudoscientific claims, etc.

  10. dinamoeon 15 May 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks for that reply, Dr. Novella. Just out of curiosity, would your position on neurofeedback be basically the same?

    Paul

  11. Dave Sieveron 29 May 2008 at 12:41 pm

    I’m surprised to say that although Dr. Novella is criticizing the lack of research on entrainment, a grade fiver could have collected better and more accurate research on the topic in an hour on the internet.

    I admit that some brain wave entrainment or audio-visual entrainment (AVE) companies, (as it is more commonly known) are dubious in their claims and quality of stimulation in their products. Transparent Corp, however has some fairly solid people backing it, Tina being one of those people.

    I have spent the past 20 years conducting research on AVE and have been published in the Journal of Neurotherapy on ADD, have written several articles for “Biofeedback,” have a chapter on AVE in a psychology testbook and own a patent on visual-field stimulation. There is quite a lot of clinical research on BWE, which can be found at: http://www.mindalive.com/PDFarticles.htm. Studies I have yet to get published are: alpha/beta AVE stimulation to treat seniors with high risk of falling and depression (n=80), treating SAD with 20 Hz AVE (n=74), and a 7-school study treating ADD/ADHD with AVE (n= 204), Some studies just coming down the pipe from othersw are an ABA designed depression study with a 3-month followup and a study from the U of T in Austin on using AVE to reduce worry in college students.

    In particular to Dr. Novella’s shoddy research and negligence are the comments he made about Tom Budzynski, PhD. Dr. Budzynski is a legend iin the biofeedback industry. He was one of the founding members of the Biofeedback Society of America, presently the Assn for Applied psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB). He is one of the kindest and most knowledgeable professionals in the industry. While Tom has an academic interest in AVE, he has NO ties, financial or otherwise, to any manufacturer of BWE/AVE devices. What Dr. Novella has said about Dr. Budzynski amounts to slander and he owes Dr. Budzynski an apology on this forum.

  12. Steven Novellaon 29 May 2008 at 2:31 pm

    Dave,

    I stand by my statements regarding the state of clinical research into brainwave entrainment or AVE. There is a great deal of basic science research – but very little that can support the clinical claims being made for devices on the market.

    I wrote a follow up post (http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=291) after reviewing the research provided to me by Tina Huang. I was not impressed – you can read my review.

    I also took the time to read through some of your website’s articles, focusing on the discussion of clinical trials. I found more studies that were either small, poorly controlled, or had results that were difficult to interpret. So I still stand by my assessment of the clinical research – I am not impressed and I think that generally the claims being made for products on the market outstrip the evidence. Specifically I am not convinced by existing research that we are seeing anything clinically other than a non-specific effect of being studied, rather than a specific benefit of AVE.

    You comment about my research being “shoddy” and “negligent” is demonstrably false. I have done numerous PubMed and Medline searchers, and extended them after the feedback from Tina. She has also now provided me with the results of her extensive review. I think you are making the classic mistake of confusing basic science and preclinical studies with clinical trials designed to evaluate efficacy. My comments were directed at the latter, not the former.

    Regarding Dr. Budzynski, I simply reported the results of my PubMed search. I now added a Medline search, which revealed 5 results: two case studies, one review article, and only one clinical trial on biofeedback in tension headaches (with two citations from different journals). All the citations were from the 1970′s, except for one case study from 1995. None of these studies have anything to do with AVE. He may have other published work, but for some reason it is not making its way into the recognized peer-reviewed literature.

    Regarding his affiliation with Theta Technologies – I may have overstated his connection and it is not as clear as I thought. The website does indicate that he developed some of the specific sessions used by their products, and he wrote many articles for their users manuals. So they do not just cite his research – he actively developed their products and information. I could not find, however, any documentation as to his exact relationship to the company. So, if I overstated his connection to the company I apologize for that. However, if Dr. Budzynski is going to claim no conflict of interest than he should clarify exactly what his financial relationship is with Theta Technologies, and any other company with similar products. (Meanwhile I will make a correction in the original post.)

  13. Millsleyon 25 Aug 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Although this is an older entry, I just wanted to add that kids are more dominantly in an Alpha and Theta brain state. It is common knowledge that it is much easier to learn languages as children, and I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to consider that perhaps lower brainwaves are more conducive to changing brain patterns, which these companies claim to do. The software allows you to record your own voice over binaural frequencies so you can set your own intentions. Therapists and self-help gurus often prescribe setting goals for yourself and repeating them multiple times a day (which seems to help wire the brain to meet them), so perhaps having your brain in a more receptive state while doing so is not too far-fetched.

  14. koreananoon 26 Aug 2008 at 10:14 am

    Novella,

    This is an interesting article you have written. I’m a life science major in my 2nd year and was having difficulties in sleeping. While browsing around the net, I chanced upon this software as the one u have reviewed.

    Against my natural science background awareness and distrust of these so-called too-good-to-be-true stuff, I simply d/led a trial copy and tried the sleep induction feature inside as I’ve difficulty sleeping in the night which took up to an hour or two before I can sleep and i was always woken up some-way thru because of my eczema.

    I was surprised to sleep within 10 mins having started the feature and I woke up at 8am the next morning, having had a real good sleep in months. I no longer feel sleepy half-way thru lectures and I’m sincerely grateful. The effects have lasted continued for about a week now.

    At the same time about now, I began to try out the other features, but they all sound the same. I’m not sure whether the effect is really catered towards each supposed feature/direciton and i wanted to research more on it. Reviews were few and hardly any credible sources, and this blog caught my eye.

    I am also aware at the same time of the placebo effect.

    Is this software really pseudoscience – I do not think so. Strictly speaking, if certain amount of research has been done on this topic, it is a science by itself and should not be thrown away as a pseudoscience. People used to think that the earth was square. Round earth hypothesis was pseudoscience?

    Nevertheless, there are alot of marketing tactics which were employed in the website which I thought was not ethical in the scientific world – BUT, somewhat common in the marketing world. This is a problem which only Transparent corp can answer, do they want to sell or do they want to educate? The former probably.

    Shooting down the software and it’s author was correct. Consumers have to be educated. At the same time, I think it fair to give Transparent Corp the benefit of doubt. Doctors have for years been giving placebo medicine to patients (i’m pretty sure this literature would be common knowledge to those in the field) claiming that it works but for the placebo effect. If this is the case here, and consumers gladly believe in what they have purchased, and THEN have a greater positive effect on their lives, why not?

  15. Steven Novellaon 26 Aug 2008 at 10:29 am

    Hmmm…three months without a comment then two in one day.

    Anyway – Millsley wrote: “It is common knowledge that it is much easier to learn languages as children, and I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to consider that perhaps lower brainwaves are more conducive to changing brain patterns, which these companies claim to do.”

    Yes – this is a huge an unwarranted leap. This is exactly the kind of simplistic leap that I am criticizing. Children have a greater aptitude for learning language because their language centers are different than adults – they are still in the process of forming their basic programming. After around age 4-5 that process is complete, the basic language program is set. This has absolutely nothing to do with brainwave frequency.

    This is also “cargo cult” logic – the notion that imposing through stimulation a brainwave pattern that is similar to that of a child will create child-like features of brain activity. This is like building a grass control tower hoping to summon the planes to drop the cargo.

    Koreanano – anecdotal evidence is anecdotal.

    Also – to correct a couple of misconceptions – scientists never claimed the world was square or flat. Of course the scientific conclusions in the past were often wrong, and does not mean that any specific current claim is wrong.

    Further- prescribing treatments that are known to be nothing but placebo is not accepted medical practice. See here: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=24

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