Are we there yet?

A great many of the sessions included with mind machines and software include the word ‘relaxation’ in their name. Relaxation is one use of AVS/brainwave entrainment that has been conclusively tested and universally acknowledged. Nearly everyone will find alpha sessions effective for simple relaxation, and a good proportion will also have success with theta. Thing is, you’ve got to know how to let go and let the sounds and lights do their magic.

I’ve noticed a preference for short sessions in the posts made by people on the various forums. That’s a real shame and it suggests to me that people are in far too much of a hurry. How hard can it be to stay put through a decent 30 minute AVS session? People say they want to be less stressed, deal with anxiety, and so on, but will they just do a simple session every day? Starting to relax and enjoy longer sessions is a good sign. Being able to detach enough to let the inner critic take a break, becoming immersed in the sound and light, seeing and hearing without looking and listening – these are signs of relaxation and the beginnings of a meditative state of mind.

Trouble is, if you’ve had no guidance in techniques, have just finished another toxic day at the office, it’s hard to know just what to do to get relaxed. This is where biofeedback devices have their place. With a simple GSR (galvanic skin resistance) device a clearcut answer to the question, “Are we there yet?” can be found.


There’s a few relatively inexpensive GSR devices around. There’s the GSR2, which is standalone unit, extremely cheap and simple. My personal favourite comes in at the next price point, and adds a truckload of functionality. The Thoughtstream from MindPlace can be used standalone, with LED and headphone feedback, and can also drive Proteus sessions. Next up are the Lightstone or IOM systems from Wild Divine.

All of these devices measure the moisture levels in the skin of the hand, an indirect measure of tension/relaxation. All three can be used with the biofeedback sessions in Mind Workstation.

The GSR2 provides tone feedback, and there is software so that a PC can read its output via the soundcard. In use, one drapes two fingers over the shiny contacts and listens to the descending tone.

The Thoughtstream uses an elasticated band with two conductive buttons that are held firmly against the palm of one hand. In addition to a descending tone, a row of tricolour LEDs tracks relaxation progress, with ‘best reading’ recalled at the end of a session. A serial connection allows use with Mind Workstation, or the optional Mental Games software. The TS can be connected to a Proteus via their serial ports using a supplied cable. Initially the Proteus comes with a number of biofeedback controlled sessions in the second memory bank. If you’ve already overwritten them, they can be downloaded from the MindPlace support site.

The Lightstone/IOM use both GSR and HRV (heart rate variability) to gauge relaxation status. The two devices are essentially the same, except that the IOM is a later release and conforms to some extra safety standards. HRV is based on the fact that not only does heart rate change but regularity of the beat. Greater regularity (reduced HRV) is an indicator of stress. Both these units are USB based and require drivers to be installed. The Lightstone and IOM can only be purchased with Wild Divine software, either The Passage or Wisdom Quest, or Healing Rhythms. The first first two are mind-control enhanced games, having the player perform certain tasks by focusing or relaxing according to the instructions. Healing Rhythms is a more sophisticated biofeedback package with a more therapeutic flavour. The Lightstone and IOM both use three cute little finger-tip clips, providing the physical electrical contact for GSR and an LED/photosensor pair to detect bloodflow.

Whichever device is in use, with real-time feedback it’s easy to learn what works. When the tone drops as you breathe more evenly, when it rises as you think about the power bill that’s due tomorrow, you have a solid indication that something’s happening, and with the Thoughtstream as it is, or the others with software, a day-to-day indication of progress can be maintained. With confirmation provided by one of these machines, a great deal more confidence in the process can be achieved. When asked, “Did it work?”, you’ll be able to confidently say, “Yes, I relaxed three levels more than I did yesterday.”

All of these GSR devices are relative reading. They compare a present reading to a baseline, usually calibrated at the beginning of a session. This makes automatic allowances for changes in temperature and humidity between sessions. GSR is reliant on good skin contact. An aqueous hand cream or a wash with a moisturising soap before use can give more stable readings. It is in the area of reliable readings that I have found the Thoughtstream excels – the elasticated band and generous contact area just work. HRV is an absolute reading and, using photoelectric detection, is relatively insensitive to environment issues.

The Wild Divine Journey programs, The Passage and Wisdom Quest are very much a matter of taste. Personally I found the entire concept tedious and the sound and imagery overwhelmingly new-agey. I haven’t had the chance to use Healing Rhythms, but I believe it’s a more down-to-earth mind and body training aid. For me, however, the involvement of Deepak Chopra is not a good thing.

The Mental Games suite is, well, well it just hasn’t grabbed me. The programming is way, way behind state of the art, and I just don’t find the tasks engaging. These games were developed by Andrzej Slawinski, of Audiostrobe fame, and new games have been long promised.

My likes and dislikes aside, biofeedback games are an excellent way to acquire control over mental processes, and enhance the effectiveness of many therapeutic protocols, particularly those using beta, alpha and theta frequencies.

Personally, I mostly use the Thoughtstream alongside the Procyon with the audio output of the TS fed into the Procyon’s aux. input so that the tone can be heard over the beats. On the odd occasion when I do want biofeedback controlled stimulus, I hook the TS up to Mind Workstation. Mind Workstation comes with four Thoughtstream, GSR2 or Lightstone controlled sessions, two each alpha and theta. As set up, the GSR device controls the pitch of the entrainment track, however it’s very easy to change the MWS engine settings to lower the beat rate as you become more relaxed, or to trigger other events. There’s also four sessions for each device that use the GSR output to control visualization parameters, allowing you to use your mind to control the image on the screen.

As simple as it all is, biofeedback adds a new dimension to AVS relaxation training, and makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of stress related therapies. While neurofeedback (EEG) is much more direct, precise and detailed, the cost, complexity and inconvenience make it something that most of us just won’t be bothered with often enough to get value from it. GSR biofeedback requires virtually no planning or preparation – very little more effort than organizing headphones, glasses, etc. for the session itself.

Are we there yet? See for yourself.


P.S. Thanks, Mark, for pointing out the error regarding HRV – the text now correctly states that stress is associated with lower HRV.

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