Testing the Brain Machine


Mitch Altman is a mad engineer, the kind of guy who invents things designed purely to question social norms. He achieved notoriety for creating the TV-B-Gone, a tiny device that will shut down most TVs by flipping through a couple hundred known remote-control "off" signals at the touch of a button. And now that he's created the perfect device for interrupting your TV signal, he's moving on to bigger and better signals. He's created the "brain machine," a simple DiY gadget (pictured here) that literally changes your brain waves by flashing LEDs at your eyes and pumping low-frequency sounds into your ears. At South by Southwest yesterday, I had a chance to try one out, and find out whether a thumb-sized circuit board and a few LEDs could put me into a meditative or trance-like state.

I was dubious when I first put on the device. The idea behind it, as Altman explained to us, is that it generates several different patterns that induce various sorts of brainwaves associated with relaxation and thoughtfulness. I'll admit I'd always thought the idea of using strobing lights to meditate was sort of hippie-dippie crap. You can see me here, making my "unimpressed" face, right after donning a spiff-looking brain machine put together by Hackaday's Eliot Phillips. I closed my eyes, put the glasses and headphones on, and instantly saw strange, zigzagging red/gray static from the flashing LEDs. The headphones emitted a kind of droning that reminded me of a test pattern noise.

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After about a minute of seeing jagged, jumbled light and hearing the "eeeeeee," the whole pattern suddenly resolved before my (closed) eyes and I began to see a slow, throbbing red/blue pattern. At first it looked like I was zooming into a long tunnel, then it looked like crazy triangles were raining down in front of my eyes like Matrix numbers down a screen. The sound in my ears, meanwhile, had become almost musical, slowly alternating between higher and lower notes.

After two minutes, I began to feel seriously strange. I felt a little woozy, though not in a nauseating way. It was more like I was really sleepy, or had just done a whippet. New patterns were forming in front of my eyes, sort of like the zoomy shape in an old Tempest videogame. I started to feel like I needed to grab onto something, and this translated into a sense of suggestibility or vulnerability, as if I could be led around and made to do things. It wasn't unpleasant, but it was a little scary. So I took the machine off before the 15-minute sequence had completed.

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When I removed the brain machine, I felt decidedly strange. For about two minutes, everything looked muzzy, bright, and hallucinatory. Did I feel calmer? Meditative? Maybe. Mostly I felt kind of stoned, but I think I would have been more relaxed and gooey if I'd been alone and not in a hotel room with a bunch of bloggers who were taking my picture and beaming it directly to Flickr. So some of this data may be sullied by the context in which I used the device.

Still, I must say that the brain machine was far more effective than I ever imagined. It had a very distinct and obvious effect on both my mood and perceptions. I'd highly recommend it to people who want to try altered states without ingesting any nasty substances.

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Safety warning: if you have epileptic or other seizures, don't use the brain machine. Top photo by Sam Murphy via MAKE. Image of me testing brain machine via RobotSkirts.

Hack Your Brain [MAKE]

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