Over the last little while I’ve been doing a lot of reading and have arrived at the conclusion that it’s very hard to know what to expect from AVS (audio visual stimulation) and how best to utilise it.
The information available through cursory searches provides a lot of indications of areas of potential usefulness, however it is in the nature of marketing that many of the claims and their scientific basis are overstated.
This does not, however, imply that the technology is not useful in any of the areas suggested, just that a little more thought needs to be applied to how it may best serve YOU.
Assuming you’re not wanting to make a hobby of neuroscience, and just want to enjoy the benefits of AVS in your life, I’d like to offer the following tips.
1. Form a clear idea of exactly what you’re wanting to achieve and how you will know if you’ve achieved it.
2. Look at all the other means of achieving the required outcomes. Have you tried any other methods? What has and hasn’t worked for you? For example, if you’re wanting to use AVS for ADHD, have you used stimulant medications and did they work? If they were effective, then there’s a good chance you’ll get good results with simple beta stimulation. If not, then diminished beta is probably not a significant factor in your particular case of ADHD. Likewise for depression – have you found SSRIs effective? If not then the seratonin enhancing characteristics of alpha probably won’t do you a lot of good, although the relaxation itself might.
3. Look at what actually has to happen in order for your requirements to be met. Partly covered in point 2 – is there a known mechanism by which your results can be achieved, and is there evidence that AVS can use or enhance these mechanisms?
4. Are you looking for a quick fix? If so, you’re quite likely to be disappointed. While some sessions and frequency bands do have some pretty immediate feel good effects, persistent results will require time and commitment.
5. Do you believe in magic? You’ll need to distinguish magical thinking from legitimate cause-and-effect. There’s a complex assortment of factors and mechanisms that govern the effectiveness of AVS. Not least is that AVS is extraordinarily effective in eliciting placebo effect. This is not a criticism. The placebo effect might be described as any instance of effectiveness where an explanation is not yet available. Quite a few of the things that AVS can achieve are achieved without satisfactory explanation, but that does not mean that the results are any less real.
6. Use standard preset sessions before worrying about creating your own. The sessions included with your chosen products are mostly based on reasonable interpretations of current data. Current data is patchy, but it is improving, and it’s the best we’ve got just now. It takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort to match the breadth of input companies like MindPlace and Transparent put into delivering sessions and tools that have a good likelihood of delivering meaningful results. (I would rate MP and Transparent among the most trustworthy sources, particularly as they make it clear when information they are providing is indicative, provisional or based on incomplete research – some other vendors are far less open about their excursions into conjecture, and yet others are plainly misleading).
7. Apply critical thinking when looking at vendor websites – there is not sufficient science at present to support some of the more specific claims. References to tenuously related fields, such as quantum physics, are invariably flawed. Likewise, claims of proprietary knowledge and specific frequencies or protocols are also unlikely to have robust foundation.
8. Don’t be lured by bling. The requirements for effective AVS are audible beats and flashing lights. Anything beyond this is embellishment, and most embellishments actually diminish effectiveness. That said, it is reasonable to make sessions sufficiently aesthetically pleasing to encourage use. There are some subtleties, such as the use of colour, which may be significant in ways that are not yet fully understood, but my feeling at present is that colour is more about personal preference and session interest than actual functionality. (The full colour Procyon is an absolute joy, but it’s probably no more functionally effective than the 2-colour Proteus).
9. Don’t expect too much from passive AVS use. You’ll gain the benefits of deep relaxation just by laying back and enjoying, but any of the more specific applications will require commitment on your part. A popular hope for AVS is to “achieve monk-like meditation” – you will achieve monk-like meditation when you meditate like a monk, AVS can help you recognise certain mental states and is a great tool for overcoming distraction and mind-chatter, but be assured, you will not experience enlightenment just by plugging into an AVS device. Some uses, like pain relief with low delta, can be achieved passively. Alpha is just plain good for anxiety. Anything much else will require a certain amount of additional understanding and effort.
10. Make sure you’re attempting to solve the right problem. If you’re wanting to increase your focus and concentration, beta might help, but not if you’re only getting 4 hours sleep. If you’re wanting to deal with depression, you’ll need to know if you’re particular depression is a slow wave disorder that responds well to SMR/beta, or whether it is more cognitively based, in which case alpha/theta introspection may well be more useful. ADHD has captured the headlines, and I strongly suspect there’s a lot of people trying to treat themselves for ADHD who should actually be looking at non-pathological laziness and procrastination – AVS can be helpful for either, but the strategies are very different.
11. Consider the other tools that are related to AVS – biofeedback and neurofeedback are much more precise tools and provide objective indications of need and progress. Open-loop AVS is an extremely non-specific tool which gains a great deal from application where the the body’s needs and responses can be assessed. Biofeedback is relatively inexpensive and simple with device like the Thoughtstream. Neurofeedback is orders of magnitude more complex and expensive, but for therapeutic applications has a very sound pedigree.
12. Whatever you read, the ‘truth’ is more complicated. While AVS has been around since we first sat around a fire drumming, and the technology has been deliberately applied for decades, the science is struggling to keep up with practical results. You are privileged to be part of a field in its infancy – everything you do has the potential to uncover new understandings and applications. Don’t expect to find detailed hows and whys – learn to interpret theories, hypotheses and small-scale trial results.
13. Make adequate allowance for individual variability. What works for one person may not work for you and what works for you may not work for anyone else. All the preset sessions are based on broad generalisations. For example, many alpha sessions are based on the 10Hz frequency, which is approximately the natural dominant closed-eyes relaxed frequency of most people. In practice, individuals will have a natural dominant alpha frequency between 9.5Hz and 10.5Hz and tuning sessions to the individual does enhance their effectiveness. Units like the Proteus have a User Mode which very conveniently allows you to ‘scan’ through frequencies to find ‘sweet spots’. A good indication of your dominant alpha frequency can be found by using User Mode with the lights set bright and sweeping through 9-11Hz and noticing when your eyes start quivering and wanting to blink (even though they’re closed) – my experiments suggest that the most powerful blink impulse corresponds to the individual’s dominant alpha.
14. Have fun. With very few exceptions (as detailed in vendor disclaimers) AVS is completely safe. There is virtually no possibility of doing anything that will result in long term damage – achieving such damage would require persisting when minor symptoms or discomforts have already made it clear that what you’re doing is not right for you.
15. Share your successes and failures on the user forums. We’re mostly ‘just users’ of the technology and there’s very few people out there who can claim any real authority. There’s a few ‘names’ in the industry, and it’s well worth reading their publications, but you’ll find that there are significant areas of debate even amongst the old-timers of the field. Join in, participate, question.
16. If you do want to study the subject, start with the foundations first before delving into the specifics of AVS. The fields of science from which AVS draws it’s fundamentals are far better documented than AVS itself. Neuroscience, Psychology, Psychiatry, Electronics and Physics are all rich fields, and a good lay understanding of any or all will definitely make for a more rewarding experience with AVS.
I hope you’ve found something of value in this rambling piece and I welcome any discussion it might provoke.