How media can rewire the brain.
A little over 2 years ago, I was halfway through my BFA New Media degree at Ryerson University and working on an idea that had been troubling me for some time. A die-hard fan of the applied sciences with a degree in engineering, my art always seemed to fall within these realms. I could never really bring myself to make things that were pretty for the sake of being pretty, or abstract for the sake of being abstract. I had this drive to create things that teach us about ourselves, about each other and helped us evolve into the best versions of ourselves. Through my own struggles and the struggles of the people in my life, I quickly developed an obsession for the human mind; its intricacies that prompt pleasure as well as immense pain. I fell into a rabbit hole of research into methods that used audiovisual stimuli in order to remedy psychological distress. At one point during this tireless digging, I felt like I was onto something:
What if these biohacking techniques could be brought out of obscurity? What if they could be experienced like an art piece, a song, or a story that the average person would actually enjoy?
While there are various neurofeedback apps that help users build a meditation practice in the form of ‘brain fitness tools’, their approach is often inaccessible and difficult to implement. Most of these experiences involve users completing exercises as they are provided with feedback into how well they are doing. Although this is a step in the right direction in terms of providing useful information that otherwise would have been unknown to the user, it still leaves a lot of the work in their hands. They also lack a fully therapeutic experience, making them completely out of reach to those in distress.
Today, this idea has grown into LUCID, an experiential media studio whose focus is to better the quality of life of our users by providing therapeutic content through various storytelling mediums; but it all began with an installation. Our focus is to bridge that gap using media, making the benefits of transcendental meditation possible for everyone while requiring little to no work from the user.
Our pilot experience inserts users within an interactive multi-sensory environment, a fully immersive space where each individual enters the structure alone, puts on an EEG reader and a pair of sound-isolating earphones. Throughout the 4-minute experience, the empathetic system responds to the user’s brainwaves by modulating the lighting within the space and changing the three-dimensional soundscape. The goal is to induce a state of meditation in real-time. Each experience is unique and catered to the needs of the single user. Our documented user testimony and data results prove that the experience has profound effects on the mind, especially for those who live with depression or anxiety symptoms:
User #: 420 | VANTAGE Art Festival
“4 minutes of this meditation felt like a 20 minute massage. I felt very relaxed and “floaty” afterwards. I’d love to be able to take this home.”
User #: 213 | Toronto MakerFestival
“This was a fantastic and super helpful experience! As I struggle with anxiety and panic attacks in my daily life, before entering I was very high anxiety. Usually I take a Seroquel however, I decided not to take it and try the experience instead. I felt super relaxed after (limbs relaxed like jelly) and did not need the Seroquel. I look forward to seeing something come to market! THANK YOU!!”
User #: 216 | Toronto MakerFestival
“I have tried meditation on my own, but nothing has delivered such fast results. A truly personalized experience.”
User #: 262 | Toronto MakerFestival
“I was completely blown away by my experience! The relaxation and lightness I felt after the session was amazing. As a chronic sufferer of anxiety, this experience had such a blissful effect on me.”
The foundation of all LUCID experiences rely heavily on psychoacoustics. Taking the form of pieces of music that often take months to create and require extraneous experimentation, research and user testing. Thanks to my background in audio engineering and acoustics, I have a fairly good understanding of the power auditory stimuli can have on the brain. Neurological sound therapy, for example, recognizes this fact and practitioners have engaged in detailed research on its potential to rewire the brain.
The human brain depends on interregional neural communications between different cortices in order to function properly. These communications are accompanied by oscillations at very low frequencies that all contribute to healthy brain activity. Various psychoacoustic phenomena have been used as means to stimulate these oscillations in order to ‘flex’ the perhaps missing waves in people who are experiencing distress. Alpha waves, for instance, are the neural oscillations tied to states of mental relaxation and when they’re deficient, people often show signs of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders such as insomnia (Kraft, 2006). Audiologists have synthesized various psychoacoustic stimuli that have shown concrete results in stimulating desired neural oscillations such as Alpha waves. However, many of these sounds can be perceived as invasive by many people and, thus, would not be listened to leisurely.
Our solution is to take these research practices and reverse-engineer them into their core elements in order to then integrate them into the type of content that users would desire to experience, much like they do with any other storytelling mediums. This is no easy task; but through employing various audio engineering ticks, experimenting with hacked instruments, synthesizing auditory illusions and even composing our music within a completely different tuning structure, we are able to successfully integrate these psychoacoustic stimulations within music. We even go one step further, making these simulations interactive through the use of portable EEG readers, allowing for a completely personalized experience.
We also spend a lot of time researching how certain musical and sonic aesthetics affect the brain as well. Through the lens of biometrics (also tested using EEG readers), we were able to research what sounds naturally cause long-term therapeutic effects in the brain. Evoking a similar effect as the synthesized auditory illusions, these sounds demonstrated an increase in the brain wave oscillations that we hoped to induce in their natural form. Using these sounds within a carefully curated music mix, psychoacoustic stimuli, and brainwave-driven interaction, we built a therapeutic experience that can then be paired within any environment, whether it be a multi-sensory installation or, soon, the comfort of our users’ homes.
In our advanced technological age, people demand that advancements be made for an evolutionary purpose. People have now gotten to a point to where they want to optimize their own biology; there’s no reason this process needs to be restricted to big tech companies and scientists. As the lines between art, science and technology blur, it becomes increasingly apparent that the possibilities to change things that had once been seen unchangeable are on the horizon. Throughout this article, I skimmed the surface of one method in doing so. But this practice can be employed through any medium as well. Biologically curating media can be accomplished through any practice; whether it’s through changing strategic colour balances within a video or testing story elements. All it requires is conducting empirical testing using biometrics, and media creators can be given the power to evoke quantifiable changes in our biological functioning. This of course raises a whole new level of ethics we must abide by, so my only recommendation is to be cautious of ethical boundaries/limits and as the people at Google like to say, “Don’t be evil.”
Read More :
Chuan-Chih Yang, Alfonso Barros-Loscertales, Daniel Pinazo, et al., “State and Training Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Brain Networks Reflects Neuronal Mechanisms of its Antidepressant Effect,”
Neural Plasticity 2016 (2015): 0–14. doi:10.1155/2016/9504642
Ulrich Kraft. Train Your Brain: Mental exercises with neurofeedback may ease symptoms of attention-deficit disorder, epilepsy and depression — and even boost cognition in healthy brains. Scientific American. June 2007
Biohacking: managing one’s own biology through various methodologies
Empathetic System: a computational system that can fully understand somebody’s state of distress and work towards remedying it
Psychoacoustics: the branch of psychology that’s concerned with the perception of sound and its physiological effects (the effects it has on the body).
Neurological Sound Therapy: the controlled stimulation of the ear with a variety of vibrations in order to evoke noticeable changes in a participant’s neurological activity.
Auditory Illusions: an illusion of hearing, the aural equivalent of an optical illusion: the listener hears either sounds which are not present in the stimulus, or “impossible” sounds.
Biometrics: the measurement and statistical analysis of people’s physical and behavioural characteristics.