Blinking lights, sounds at brain gym reduce stress, practitioners say MIND OVER MATTER

January 18, 1994|By Judith Gaines | Judith Gaines,Boston Globe

After a stressful day at work, carpenter Peter Smith, of Barre, Mass., leans back in a reclining chair, dons some electronic goggles and a head set, and settles in for a little synaptic sizzle.

As he watches the kaleidoscopic play of light pulsing on his eyelids and listens to synchronized sounds, the strains of the day fade away and after about 20 minutes he feels "more focused, more creative and much more relaxed," he says.

Mr. Smith is among a small but growing number of people who are going for workouts at "brain gyms," new health clubs for the head. These centers purport to offer brain tune-ups to the hassled, the stressed, the overburdened, and others who just want to be more relaxed and alert.

People in the Baltimore-Washington area may be among the next to try the experience. David Adar, owner of Sirius Minds brain gym in Manhattan, N.Y., says he's been talking with the owners of a chain of health spas in Washington who want to bring the concept to this area. Mr. Adar won't name the group at this time because negotiations are at a critical stage, but he says it probably won't be long before mind tune ups will be available here.

Experts like Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Deaconess Hospital in Boston, say the value of these places has still to be studied. Others say relaxing to special sounds and light at a brain gym is not much different from relaxing through meditation or yoga.

But Will Perry, who runs "Between Two Worlds," a mind gym in Norton, Mass., says society has hardly begun to explore the brain's potential. In his modest, cedar-shingled bungalow, he offers an imaginative approach to care of the head, inside and out: it's a combination hair salon and mind gym.

By using light and sound to synchronize brain waves, his system "integrates the right and left hemispheres of the brain -- so people function more effectively," he says. "You can't play Mozart on an untuned piano. Tune your mind first, and then anything is possible."

Meanwhile, Mr. Perry, a Taunton, Mass., native, also works as a coiffeur. "So if you don't like all the mental gymnastics, you can still get your hair cut," one customer quipped.

Mr. Perry's mind gym is one of nearly a dozen brain fitness centers worldwide -- and the idea is catching on, says David Adar, who runs Sirius Minds. "For years, we've understood the importance of exercising the physical body, but we haven't recognized that the brain needs a workout, too," Mr. Adar says.

In these harried times, even people who know the value of meditation sometimes need a light-and-sound fix to help them relax. Mr. Smith, who spent 10 years as a cloistered monk, found that regular brain tuneups, at the mind gym and on his own portable system, enhanced his meditation.

"Just the thought of going home to that music and the flickering pastel colors relaxes me," he says. "It's like how some people feel about having a beer when they get home."

Larry Wolf, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at the New England Medical Center in Boston, observed that many people who have difficulty with traditional meditation find that the entertaining lights and sounds -- what Mr. Perry calls the mind's eye theater -- engage their attention.

And a surprising number of people with serious problems also show up at Mr. Perry's door.

One was Val Collias, a 59-year-old hairstylist in Hyannis, Mass. When he first heard about the mind gym and its light-and-sound system, "I didn't pay much attention. I thought it was a scam," he says.

But he eventually decided to give it a try in order to cope with dyslexia that severely hindered his reading ability.

At first, he says, he was scared and didn't know what to make of the strange sirens he heard during his brain workouts.

Mr. Perry told him "the system was getting garbage out of my subconscious," he says.

Now, two years later, "my reading has improved a thousand percent," he says. "I can read out loud without any problem, which I couldn't do before. And I think my attention span is greater."

In Cambridge, Mass., psychologist Herbert J. Hoffman told a similarly dramatic story about an 18-year-old patient. The young woman, a college student, "was so distressed about being away from home that she was unable to focus, to the extent that she couldn't read a page of text. And she had had trouble sleeping since childhood," he says.

After a week of regular brain workouts, "much of her distress had dissipated and she could read text. In two weeks, she was sleeping through the night," he says.

Mr. Hoffman stressed that the brain tuneups are not appropriate for everyone.

People with a history of seizure disorders or severe mental disturbances should attempt them only under a physician's care, he says.

But he said that early research suggests the workouts may help people with insomnia, chronic pain, jaw disorders and "high levels of distress that have not responded to other interventions."

Mr. Perry stressed that he isn't making any medical claims, or offering "nirvana in a box" -- at $20 a visit, or $200 for a four-week session.

He explained that the lights and sounds pulsate at specially programmed frequencies. They begin in the beta range (12 to 20 cycles per second), the range of normal mental activity, and then progress to the alpha level (8 to 12 cycles per second), where the mind is more relaxed but also alert, or the dreamlike theta range (4 to 8 cycles per second).

"The mind hears the tone, scans the frequency and then sings along with it," he says. And once the brain learns to track these signals, the system can be programmed to take it to a wide range of mental states.

"It's like a taxicab for the mind. It picks you up where you are and takes you wherever you want to go," he says.

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