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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