In this series of review articles we examine the various features of the iMRS Prime, the latest iMRS system. Several of these features, in combination, play key roles in making this such an advanced PEMF system.
One of them is Brain Entrainment, available through the use of the iMRS Prime’s optional Exagon Brain accessory. On the face of it, this application probably seems to have the least in common with PEMF therapy. The key to understanding the combination is simple. Brain entrainment can help you enter a variety of mental states but with the backdrop of deep relaxation. This means that the user’s Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is far less agitated and far more accepting of whatever healing stimulus it receives. It can be combined to good effect with virtually any therapy, including PEMF.
The Exagon Brain consists of a visor / goggles made from a durable hard shell that fits comfortably onto your head (the inside is cushioned with soft foam and the attachment strap is adjustable with velcro pads). Its long cable plugs into a port on the iMRS Prime connector box. Inside the visor are LED diodes that flash rhythmically and very quickly in different colour blends according to which settings or programs have been chosen (these are conveniently packaged inside the iMRS Prime’s Fast Start programs but can also be adjusted manually). The primary form of brain entrainment is through these flashing light rhythms, but the system also offers related entrainment in the form of binaural beat tones, music therapy and colour therapy. Ideally, the Brain is used in combination with headphones which plug into ports on the side of the Prime’s control unit.
What is Brain entrainment?
Non-invasive and with a wide range of applications, brain entrainment is fast becoming a mainstream therapy around the world. From reducing stress and anxiety to potentially soothing chronic pain, the research to date has begun to show the benefits of changing our brain waves.
Brain entrainment involves the use of external stimuli – most usually audio, visual and vibrational – to produce a physiological, mental and often psychological effect in an individual. These stimuli are generally rhythmic such as a pulsing light or a steady beat of a certain frequency, and they cause changes in brainwave activity.
The current research suggests that brain entrainment can help with a range of health issues such as improving sleep for someone suffering from insomnia, lowering stress levels and combating anxiety as well as helping conditions such as ADHD.
A Short History of Brain Entrainment
The power of audio and visual stimuli to affect how we think and feel is not a new idea. The first known clinical application was way back in the 19th century by French psychologist Pierre Janet. In the 1930s, the inventor of electroencephalography Hans Berger first discovered and recorded electrical activity in the brain. He also discovered that adding light stimulation at a certain frequency could enhance brainwave activity.
By the late 1950s, entrainment using tactile and auditory stimuli were found to have similar effects in patients. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that we began to see tools such as binaural beats being developed. According to neuroscientist Francesco Casciaro (1):
“Research on the effects of BWE (brain wave entrainment) on pain, headaches, migraines, anxiety, and stress followed in the 1980s and expanded in the 1990s to include learning and memory, ADHD, learning disabilities, behavioural problems, and PMS.”
Over the last few decades, different frequencies of sound or pulses of lights have been found to produce different effects in the brain. Using brain entrainment tools can induce a range of states of consciousness, helping improve cognition, induce deep sleep and combat stress to name just a few.
Today, a few devices like the iMRS Prime are creating a new therapy and bio-hacking paradigm by combining brain entrainment with complimentary approaches such as biofeedback, sound / music therapy, and colour therapy. We’re also beginning to see its use in the workplace as a method for dealing with high levels of stress.
The Neurology of Brain entrainment
We don’t fully understand the exact mechanism behind brain frequencies and rhythms and how entrainment works with them but when something like a binaural beat is listened to, our brain activity gradually changes to mirror the frequencies being administered.
Five frequency bands have been found to have a connection to different brain states (2):
- Gamma waves (above 25Hz) in certain parts of the brain are associated with memory processes and concentration.
- Beta waves (12-35Hz) are linked to higher levels of anxiety, mood boosting and normal waking consciousness.
- Alpha waves (8-12Hz) are associated with relaxation and may even provide an analgesic effect that can be used to improve symptoms for people suffering from chronic pain.
- Theta waves (4-8Hz) are linked to deeper relaxation and an inward focus.
- Delta waves (0.5-4Hz) are seen when we are in a state of deep sleep.
Simply put, brain waves are produced by the constant activity of electrical impulses passing through neurons. These impulses change depending on a variety of factors. For example, if we’re feeling drowsy, there are likely to be more of the lower and slower delta and theta waves. Certain conditions like ADHD and Tourette’s are linked to slower brain waves. If we’re looking to learn something new, getting our brains to synchronise with faster gamma waves can improve performance.
A range of mechanisms has been identified that affect oscillations in the brain, depending on where the activity is taking place. For example, alpha waves are most often seen in areas such as the thalamus and neocortex. Astrocytes, specialist glial cells, play a significant role in many functions of the central nervous system including generating brain waves (3). Not only do they provide structure for the brain but are involved in the storage and release of glycogen and modulating transmitters that are vital for neuron activity.
Brain entrainment is not the only mechanism that can alter how our neurons fire. Changes take place constantly in everyday life. Research has shown, for example, that brain waves synchronise between speaker and listener during a conversation. One study in Nature found (4):
“Results show that brain oscillations are synchronized between listener and speaker during oral narratives. This interpersonal synchronization is mediated in part by a lower-level sensory mechanism of speech-to-brain synchronization, but also by the interactive process that takes place in the situation per se.”
Binaural beats and other brain entrainment tools may well work similarly by getting neurons in different areas to synchronise over a period such as 30 minutes of listening. Typically, an individual will sit with headphones on. Different tones are heard in each ear and the difference between them is then perceived as the main frequency. For example, they might have 210Hz in the right ear and 200Hz in the left – the frequency perceived will be 10Hz.
In one study, binaural beats were used for 30 minutes before individuals were due to have surgery. The research found that participants noted a reduction in their anxiety levels (5):
“This study suggests that offering binaural beat audio before day case procedures might serve to bring about anxiolysis in the majority of patients without impacting adversely on postoperative functioning.”
Effects on Brain Entrainment on the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Some therapists use brain entrainment to help a wide range of issues including stress and insomnia. It’s thought that using techniques such as binaural beats is one of the fastest ways to get the Autonomic Nervous System to move into parasympathetic mode.
The ANS is essentially working in the background to handle our body’s responses to a wide range of stimuli and resting states. Swinging between Sympathetic (fight or flight) and Parasympathetic, it is one of the most constant determinants of our physiological state. Sympathetic activity can be very useful for avoiding a car crash but becomes damaging when in constant use. Being able to quickly sink into a parasympathetic state can be enormously valuable for both physical and mental health. A traditional approach, such as some of the more powerful forms of meditation, has been shown to be very advantageous in many aspects of a person’s health and overall well being.
The same results as from meditation can be achieved with brain entrainment. This has huge implications for thos suffering from anxiety, depression and chronic stress. One small study in the Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine (6) found:
“There was a decrease in trait anxiety (p = 0.004), an increase in quality of life (p = 0.03), and a decrease in insulin-like growth factor-1 (p = 0.01) and dopamine (p = 0.02) observed between pre- and postintervention measurements.”
Types of Brain Entrainment
Therapists nowadays have a wide range of different tools at their disposal which have become ever more sophisticated over time. The main types of brain entrainment today involve either using audio or visual stimuli or a mixture of both.
1. Audio Brain Entrainment
The big challenge with here is that most of the useful frequencies are below what humans can hear. For this reason, two frequencies are often used (one in each ear in the case of binaural beats) where the difference is more readily perceived.
Auditory entrainment is generally administered as either binaural or monaural beats:
- Binaural beats: These require headphones to work properly. Slightly different frequencies are played in each ear and the difference creates an illusion of a certain wavelength that is actively perceived by the individual. Considered one of the weaker types of brain entrainment, they are often used to induce a feeling of relaxation and peace or improve creativity and arousal levels.
- Monaural beats: These don’t use headphones and the two sounds are combined before they reach the individual. Research has found that a short period of listening to monaural beats can help reduce anxiety in individuals.
- Isochronic tones: These use one tone which pulses at regular intervals very quickly. They are often embedded with other sounds such as music or the sounds of nature. As with monaural and binaural beats they can be used for relaxation, changing mood and improving cognition.
2. Photic Stimulation Entrainment
Visual or photic brain entrainment uses repetitive pulses of light. These can be delivered in a variety of ways including through a TV screen, via LED lights and, nowadays, through virtual reality glasses. The visual cortex of humans is much bigger than the auditory cortex and generally thought to be more effective in this context.
Photic stimulation may have a role to play in conditions such as depression (8):
“Rhythmic photic stimulation has been shown to alter brain oscillations, and this type of stimulation at alpha frequencies can evoke alpha oscillations in the brain. Moreover, photic stimulation at alpha frequencies exerts beneficial effects on cognition and behavior.”
Brain Entrainment and Stress
Many of us today live with stress and anxiety, sometimes to the detriment of our physical and emotional health. Workplace stress in particular is a major problem in modern society and something many businesses are trying to combat.
According to a survey carried out by Perkbox (9):
“In 2020, of British adults in employment – a staggering 79% commonly experience work-related stress. This is 20% higher than 2018’s findings. Just 1% of UK employed adults say they ‘never’ experience workplace stress, while 17% ‘rarely’ experience stress of this kind.”
The trouble with stress and anxiety is that we tend to try and cope with it rather than doing something positive to change things. A small amount of stress is good for us and a natural physiological and psychological process. When it becomes chronic, it can begin to damage mental and physical health, cause heart issues and lower our immune response.
We already know the benefits of deep breathing exercises and meditation in improving states of stress and anxiety and there are plenty of published research articles on the subject. Brain entrainment works similarly, activating the deep-parasympathetic system so that an over-anxious mind has greater feelings of safety. Once activated, the parasympathetic system starts to release hormones that relax the mind and inhibits high activity functions.
Our stress response begins in the brain and, when there is a threat or stressor, the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands operate together to support the flight/fight response. In chronic stress situations, this entity is more often than not either completely or partially activated. According to Harvard Health (10):
“Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated, much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress.”
Research published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (11) found that subjects who were given theta binaural beats had a ‘greater parasympathetic dominance’ than those who were not exposed and were able to control their stress response better. It’s no surprise that many businesses and employees nowadays are looking at options such as binaural beats to help combat stressful lifestyles.
Brain Entrainment in Ideation and Problem Solving
While much of brain entrainment focuses on relaxation and stress relief, certain brainwaves are associated with higher cognitive function and can prove useful in work. While most of the research to date is focused on health problems such as anxiety and stress, some studies are now looking at creativity and productivity.
One piece of research (12) found that alpha and gamma binaural beats had an impact on divergent thinking – that part of our thought processes that is closely aligned with creative thinking. A review of the current literature for binaural and monaural beat research (13) found, among other things:
“Lane et al. applied binaural beats at beta (16 and 24 Hz) and theta/delta (1.5 and 4 Hz) ranges for 30 min throughout a psychomotor vigilance task. The authors reported that beats in the beta range were associated with a less negative mood and improved performance in a vigilance task.”
How do Therapists Use Brain Entrainment?
With so much chronic stress, trauma and severe anxiety evident in the population, specialist therapists have seen increasing demand from the general public over the last few decades. In showing patients how to activate their parasympathetic nervous system, they use a range of techniques such as yoga, meditation, massage therapy and, more often nowadays, brain entrainment.
In many cases, entrainment is used in conjunction with other therapies such as biofeedback, sound and colour therapy. Many therapists also utilise neurofeedback. When some areas of the brain are too aroused, it can lead to severe anxiety. On the other hand, too low an arousal level may be associated with depression. Using brain entrainment can help synchronise frequencies and produce a therapeutic effect. Research that used a transcranial alternating current stimulation (14), for example, found that it had a major impact on treating depression.
There is increasing evidence that synchronising the two halves of the brain has several health benefits. In general, the left side of the brain controls the right side of your body and is involved in details and linear thinking. The right half of the brain, conversely, controls the left side and is more focused on creativity.
When our brain hemispheres are out of sync, it can lead to poor thought processes and conditions such as anxiety and depression. Binaural beats and other brain entrainment approaches can bring these two sides into greater harmony, helping people to relax and learn new tasks.
Brain synchrony in normal life is relatively rare. Experienced meditators can often only achieve it for a short time. Evidence to date suggests that brain entrainment can help individuals reach this stage more easily: Research into the impact of binaural beats(15) on improving memory found:
“…that beta frequency binaural beat audio signals are an effective method for facilitating simple free-recall memory, ability to attend, and the ability to persevere at routine motor tasks.”
Brain Entrainment combined with Biofeedback, Sound and Colour Therapy
While brain entrainment is sometimes used in isolation, it can have a profound effect if used in conjunction with other types of therapy. When the correct wavelength is used with therapies such as biofeedback, sound and colour therapy it can have a cumulative impact.
Biofeedback is increasingly being used to help individuals manage better their health and wellbeing. With various devices on the market today, we can measure parameters such as heart rate variability (HRV), oxygen saturation and exercise levels. It’s important to get feedback if we are looking to change behaviours and incorporating brain entrainment can add to the health outcomes. If someone suffers, for example, from chronic stress, markers such as heart rate and HRV can be used in combination with alpha binaural beats.
One research study found that combining binaural beats with feedback allowed some participants to control their alpha production:
“…of the 15 subjects with both binaural beats and feedback reported being able to control alpha production via their focus on the alpha binaural beats. The data suggest the possibility that binaural beats can be used to evoke specific cortical potentials through a frequency-following response.”
Sound therapy is widely used in conjunction with brain entrainment tools such as binaural beats and can certainly be used to enhance effectiveness. Music therapy is particularly useful when treating individuals with dementia and can lead to improvements in perception, memory and mood if administered properly.
Colour therapy is used as a holistic approach to bring balance and harmony to an individual. It’s been widely believed for many years that different colours elicit certain emotional responses. For example, blue may be seen as a cool, calming colour, red a more energising or even enraging one. Again, brain entrainment can be used in conjunction with this type of approach, for example, to produce a stronger calming effect that both on their own would be unable to achieve.
The Future of Brain Entrainment
We are only just beginning to understand how brain entrainment works and what its therapeutic uses are. As our technology advances and we begin to uncover all the mysteries of the brain, this approach to health and wellbeing will probably have much wider uses. The iMRS Prime is already offering a hybrid approach at the cutting edge of several of these technologies, and more is sure to come.
1. Francesco Casciaro, Vincenza Laterza et al Alpha-rhythm stimulation using brain entrainment enhances heart rate variability in subjects with reduced HRV World Journal of Neuroscience, 2013
2. Priyanka A. Abhang, Suresh C. Mehrotra Introduction to EEG- and Speech-Based Emotion Recognition, 2016
3. Yossi Buskila, Alba Bellot-Saez and John W. Morley Generating Brain Waves, the Power of Astrocytes Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2019
4. Alejandro Pérez, Manuel Carreiras & Jon Andoni Duñabeitia Brain-to-brain entrainment: EEG interbrain synchronization while speaking and listening Scientific Reports, 2017
5. R. Padmanabhan, A. J. Hildreth, D. Laws A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and pre-operative anxiety in patients undergoing general anaesthesia for day case surgery Association of Anaesthetists, 2005
6. Helané Wahbeh, Carlo Calabrese, Heather Zwickey Binaural beat technology in humans: a pilot study to assess psychologic and physiologic effects Journal of Alternative Complementary Medicine, 2007
7. Leila Chaieb, Elke C. Wilpert et al The Impact of Monaural Beat Stimulation on Anxiety and Cognition Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017
8. Shinheun Kim, Sangwoo Kim et al Rhythmical Photic Stimulation at Alpha Frequencies Produces Antidepressant-Like Effects in a Mouse Model of Depression Plos One, 2016
9. The 2020 UK workplace stress survey Perkbox, 2020
10. Understanding the stress response Harvard Health, 2020
11. Katherine Kelton, Terri L Weaver et al The Efficacy of Binaural Beats as a Stress-buffering Technique Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2020
12. Susan A. Reedijk, Anne Bolders, and Bernhard Hommel The impact of binaural beats on creativity Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013
13. Leila Chaieb, Elke Caroline Wilpert, Thomas P. Reber, and Juergen Fell Auditory Beat Stimulation and its Effects on Cognition and Mood States Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2015
14. Morgan L. Alexander, Sankaraleengam Alagapan et al Double-blind, randomized pilot clinical trial targeting alpha oscillations with transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD) Translational Psychiatry, 2019
15. Richard Cauley Kennerly An Empirical Investigation Into the Effect of Beta Frequency Binaural-beat Audio Signals on Four Measures of Human Memory Hemi-Sync, 2013
16. Dale S Foster Subjective Correlates of Alpha-FrequencyBinaural-Beat Stimulation Combined with Alpha Biofeedback Memphis State University, 1990