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Is Brain Entrainment the Same as Meditation?

In May, 1973, the cover of Elementary Electronics magazine boldly displayed a beautiful woman laid back with a primitive device strapped to her forehead as she “tuned in” to her alpha brainwaves. 

It was the era of exciting promise that built almost spectacular claims around two emerging modalities – Biofeedback and Brain Entrainment. 

These two compatible technologies were going to change almost everything from health, psychology, and learning to consciousness and spirituality. 

Finally, new science was going to make the arduous traditional meditative practices of the past as simple as relaxing back in your easy chair at home.  It was also the era of popular psychedelics and a “back to nature – commune” social dream. 

That was 50 years ago.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps not if you were born in the 1990’s.

Here we are (again?)

With oodles of new advanced personal tech devices attempting to measure and track everything from your steps during the day to if you farted in your sleep (really??). 

With all this information, we will (finally) know exactly what we need to be superhumans (gulp). 

Why bother doing progressive body/mind practices when you can “Rewire Your Brain in Just 5 Minutes” (a current marketing claim). 

Many of these approaches are based on Brain Entrainment principles and methods. 

You too can meditate like a seasoned Tibetan monk and cut years off of your goals…and Brain Entrainment can do it fast right now.

This is a short posting so let’s see if we can succeed with an overview of the idea:

“Is Brain Entrainment the Same as Meditation?”

Brain Entrainment is the popular term for the Frequency Following Response that was first noted in the 1930’s and was basically ignored until the 1960’s. 

The principle is rather straightforward – when our brain is exposed to a regular pulsing signal, if sustained long enough without distraction, areas of our brain will begin to pulse at the same rate as the input signal.  It is easy to observe by noticing it is simple to tap your foot to music with a regular beat. 

It quickly becomes unconscious. 

Neurological studies show that Brain Entrainment is effective and that our brain will surrender, to a degree, to the sustained regular pulsing signal input.

Now, let’s jump to another area of neurological research that is finally gaining respect – monitoring the brain’s activities during active meditation. 

This is distinctly different that the Brain Entrainment just described. 

In these studies, there is no signal input to guide the brain. 

There is only tracking of the brain’s electro-neurological output created by the conscious actins of the meditator practicing their technique.  The tricky aspect of these studies (which are very promising) is the wide subjective variables that come from the range of human meditators. 

It is impossible to know how “well” the person is meditating at the moment of testing especially considering that they are typically seated in some artificial testing environment and told to start and stop their practice in time slots of perhaps just 20 minutes. 

Different meditation styles yield very different brain neurological profiles. 

Lastly, and this is super important, the findings to date illustrate what should have been obvious – different meditation styles yield very different brain neurological profiles. 

Even knowing how to categorize a meditation technique style is challenging.  Studies may categorize techniques in different ways. 

The most common are:

  1. Focused Attention,
  2. Open Monitoring,
  3. Open Awareness,
  4. Loving Kindness and
  5. Non-Dual Awareness. 

Studies will use one or more of these styles making the results difficult to compare. 

There are other techniques that may not be represented here such as the Generation Stage practices in Tibetan Buddhism in which the practitioner gradually envisions themselves as their meditative deity. 

And as stated above, it is impossible to assess the degree of “success” of the meditator on that particular day in any case.  Wow.

OK – now, let’s imagine that the meditator findings demonstrate a high amplitude gamma brain wave predominance in certain brain locations. 

It would seem that getting high amplitude gamma waves in the brain equal to that demonstrated in meditation by any means possible would result in the equivalence to the actual subjective meditation experience itself. 

But is that true?

Brain Entrainment has the ability to “superimpose” brain frequency activity upon and into the brain. 

The brain is not “doing it”. 

It is “being done” to the brain. 

The action is likely somewhere between coaxing and forcing – hard to tell. We do know that that “superimposed” frequency activity diminishes very rapidly once the input signaling stops.

In meditation practice, using various cognitive approaches, the person is “generating” the related brain waves. 

No one knows if the brain waves themselves are the functioning factor in the change of consciousness or a secondary manifestation of a more subtle change in consciousness.

This analogy may or may not be exacting enough but still worth a try. 

Let’s imagine practicing hatha yoga in which various body postures (asanas) are assumed for their particular benefits. 

Following the idea from above, consider one case where a second person moves the body of the yoga practitioner into a posture that the practitioner cannot assume on their own and then holds the practitioner in the posture.  The body is certainly in the asana but it has been “superimposed” on the person by an outside force and influence. 

Now, another case is considered in which the yoga practitioner themselves assumes the posture and maintains it without any outside force or influence.  The person “generates” the asana/posture on their own.  Are these equivalent?  I doubt it.

So, can we answer the question “Is Brain Entrainment the Same as Meditation?”

I would say, not yet.  It may have a relationship that is yet unknown. 

Maybe Brain Entrainment is like training wheels on a bicycle that help you learn to ride before you go two wheels on your own. 

Or maybe Brain Entrainment has little or no relationship to actual meditation generated by one’s own conscious processing.  In an impatient world that rushes from one thing to another, we must be cautious. 

If it seems too good to be true, it may well be the fact.

To be continued.