The article below was over ten years in preparation and included dozens of interviews with doctors, scientists, corporations and families familiar with the work of the Alphalearning Institute and attendance on three of the Institute’s training courses.
Variations on the article have been published in many magazines, journals and newspapers worldwide. Mr. Marshall first saw a demonstration of Brainwave I in June 1992 at an international conference on New Edge technology and completed his first article in September 1995 (here the full text) after interviewing dozens of executives, scientists and families around Europe and participating in the courses with Kris and the Van Es family.
For the past year (July 2002 to June 2003) he has been interviewing both old and new clients for this new feature article.
The Alphalearning Revolution II
Copyright 1995 – 2003: Jules Marshall / TCS All rights reserved
In the Alphalearning Institute something very special is going on. Special, incredible, revolutionary – scary even. And in the words of its research director, “Pretty wonderfully awesome.”
I’m in the charming, affluent lakeside Swiss town of Lugano on a €1000-a-day, five-day executive course entitled with misleading simplicity “Learning to Learn”. I say misleading because essentially I and the other participants on the course will be learning to perform neurosurgery on ourselves, as in ‘creating immediate and irreversible change to our brains’. For another $5,000 we’ll get to take home the tool with which to do it. Are we crazy or the forerunners of an educational and medical revolution?
Learning to Learn is the course conducted by the Alphalearning Institute as a pre-requisite for buying its Brainwave I, a sophisticated electroencephalograph (EEG) and ‘brain training’ (or strictly speaking, entrainment) program. When combined with a simple PC, headphones and 32 tiny golden LED lights that fit on a spectacles frame, they create a tool of such remarkable potential that it excites and scares its inventor and director of the Institute in equal measure.
On the course with me are two therapists who hope to integrate the system into their alternative health practice in Toronto and a Swiss woman writing a report for the local canton of Ticino on future education policy (that will later recommend the rapid integration of Alphalearning technology into the teaching process). A Dutch executive who is setting up a ‘superlearning’ consultancy and has been told by people in the field that Alphalearning is a must-have tool, joins us midweek for his second course.
During the week we’ll be using the EEG and light and sound machine in combination with well-established ancient and modern techniques of non-chemical mind alteration, from hypnosis and visualisation, to biofeedback, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), eye exercises and Mind Mapping. Together they comprise a system that stretches and relaxes the brain before easing it into balance, and the tools to keep it in balance, and to put in and retrieve more information, faster.
In addition to our professional interests, we’ve been promised personal benefits that include doubling or even tripling reading speed with no loss of information retention, up to 20 points added to one’s IQ, and a degree of control of our brain state that for thousands of years have taken many years of practice to master. All in five days.
It does sound far-fetched. But that does not make it necessarily fraudulent or false – though perhaps hard to ‘prove’ in scientific terms. Nor has it prevented hundreds of executives from many global corporations (e.g. Olivetti, Raychem, KLM, Ford, Fisons), wealthy individuals (from Swiss bankers to Saudi princes and household names like Richard Branson), Formula One drivers (e.g. David Coulthard), bankers, military officers in several countries, and Olympic athletes from taking the course. They just keep quiet about it.
I have been in sporadic contact with the Institute for the eight years since we first wrote about and photographed several families on courses after two years of research, as it has moved from Holland to Germany to Hong Kong then Korea before settling in its current location in Lugano. I have spoken to many course attendees and the tales they tell of the additional – sometimes extraordinary – effects of the course risk arousing the angry incredulity of several medical establishments, and putting the Institute in the firing line of the Federal Drug Authority, the ferocious gatekeeper of American – and by extension, global – medical and drug licensing.
The morning of Learning to Learn, Day 1, starts unremarkably enough. Attendees learn about the brain – it’s structure and functioning, how it pays attention, stores and retrieves memories, and so on. It’s interesting, dynamic and well-presented, with science, anecdote and examples.
Some of the information was rather unorthodox when he first espoused it in the early 1990s: ‘most people have some degree of brain damage, but this can be fixed’. Or ‘brainwaves are contagious’ (the brain broadcasts as well as receives), for example. But these assertions, rooted in Tibetan and other Eastern conceptions of the brain as observed over thousands of years, are not just born out by the results of the Institute’s practice and results. Throughout the 1990s – the Decade of the Brain and a period of unprecedented growth in our knowledge of this complex, fragile organ, science has slowly backed them up too.
Suitably briefed, in the afternoon we all get our first session on the EEG/brain machine. Following a brief standardised test for brain damage, and video documentation of visible things like facial symmetry and gait (that are liable to change at the moment of brain balance so rapidly it can be hard for the subject to believe later), we prepare with no small excitement to take turns.
An EEG is recorded by attaching 4 small wires coming out of a plain grey box to the trainee’s head with sticky tabs to view the brain’s activity on the computer screen. This recording is then evaluated to determine the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ areas of the brain as shown by the waves’ amplitude and the balance of left-right, front-back activity.
Lights and earphones are used to input certain frequencies to synchronize the 4 main sections of the brain (front and back, left and right). The precise program used is based on the results of the first EEG. Biofeedback exercises are performed allowing the user to hear and see their own brainwave frequencies and their left-right hemisphere balance. Thanks to the phenomenon of entrainment (see sidebar), the brain is attracted to the sounds and images of perfect balance and, therefore, balances and tunes itself.
A second EEG is recorded for comparison to the first EEG to measure the effect and results of the training session. This EEG is used to determine the next session setting for the light and sound training frequencies. The above sequence takes about 30 minutes. And indeed, our EEGs show that our brains are more balanced and the change is permanent.
Over the next few days, the session is repeated several times, used in conjunction with the other techniques mentioned earlier. For example, after several listenings to a hypnotic visualisation tape to familiarise the brain with being in a relaxed alpha state – the best one for taking in new information – they use the Lotus software to ‘put’ us in that state, then NLP to ‘anchor’ that state, to be entered into instantly from thereon at will.
During the whole week there’s a fair amount of psychodrama from the Alphaearning, since ‘learning to learn’ is essentially about getting one’s brain to accept change, which many of us resist by erecting sophisticated yet quite fundamental psychological defences that need lowering. In fact, over the course of five days, the room will crackle with emotion, occasionally bursting out into the public areas of the grand hotel in which the course was conducted (much to the delight of the owner, who hadn’t had such excitement around the place in many years).
But the drama is as nothing compared to when the other side of the Institute is in action, the side that uses this technology/system for healing a growing range of hard if not impossible to treat ailments and disabilities. Alphalearning was developed as an executive tool, a way to help execs read faster and retain more; but many individuals have received unexpected bonuses, bonuses that raise profound questions about the self and how it maintains health in all its aspects.
The goal of most religious, martial arts and healers for at least the past 5,400 years has been to balance the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The belief was that the brain, body, mind and emotion were all interconnected and by balancing any one, all the others would also become more balanced. Not only is this something we instinctively feel, but science is increasingly supporting the linkage.
Various techniques (some books claim over 100) have been developed and taught over the years. Tai Chi is a classic example of concentrating on balancing the body to achieve physical and mental harmony. Aikido is another example of blending physical skills with mental intent. The primary goal here too is balance, initially physical, leading to mental and emotional stability. Other techniques have been developed such as mantras (repetition of a sound – or a color blend – as in a mandala).
What the research director distilled from a review of the literature and reading 680 books on the mind and brain (the average Phd. has read only 40 books in his chosen field) combined with an eclectic range of direct experience with ancient brain balancing techniques during the 70s and 80s (he’s studied Aikido, worked closely with the Maharishi in India, and in a Tibetan monastery) was that from the strenuous to the passive, they all work. All will guide the brain/body connection towards balance and stability – but very slowly.
A faster way was needed. Corporate executives did not want to sit on a rock and chant for 15 – 20 years, they wanted a high-speed solution. So how did the techniques work, and why? What was the theory?
Light and sound have been used for many thousands of years to influence the state of mind and emotions of mankind. The early versions (65,000 years ago) were dancers around fires creating the first “strobe light” effects, while drummers added beats. Similar effects are brought on by the constant, rhythmic-drone of Tibetan Buddhist chants, which transport the monks and even other listeners into realms of blissful meditation. It was clear even then that lower frequencies of flashing light and drums caused people to sit calmer and learn better. Moreover, the effect was fast (if ephemeral).
During the ‘70s, the first electronic programmable light and sound machines were developed in California. Initially to enhance music appreciation and meditative experiences, interest grew in trying to teach people to generate an alpha wave by bio-feedback.
The problem with light and sound machines was that 40 – 60 minutes a day exercise was required to achieve a measurable effect on the brain – and, it had to be continued forever to maintain the effect, and most people will not invest that time. Another problem was that while the equipment could easily change the brain’s frequencies and, therefore, control the thought and physical processes of the body, it did not have a lasting effect. Lights off – effect off.
The Alphalearning Institute set out to find a way to keep the change once the lights went off. It took three years of testing as the parameters – frequency of sound and light, various input and output factors, combinations of other non-technological techniques, before they delivered a system that has changed little 10 years later. Because it worked. It can be used to train self brain balancing in 30 – 35 hours, along with the ability to enter an alpha state at will.
A mix of hard, soft and parascience, and eastern philosophy, its very differentness has been a problem for Alphalearning. Peter Selkirk, a senior executive at Raychem UK (which took up the co-sponsorship reins of the initial study from Raychem Belgium. Heinkel and ICL were the other sponsors), says: “As the seniority of managers taking the course rose, there were increasing concerns about its whole acceptance. How mainstream was it? Just how fringe did Raychem choose to go? It’s an example of the fear you encounter of going beyond boundaries of science, and the fact is that it is very hard to distinguish between the charlatan and the innovator.”
He did a course in early 1994. “I understand how they feel. However, I was keen and thrilled with the course.” Though popular with those who did it, the course never became mainstream, like sales skills for example. “This is one of Alphalearning’s frustrations, and it’s understandable,” says Selkirk. “Glasses and earphones make your brain better? It does take some swallowing.”
But Selkirk and his wife Cornelia have had no such doubts – not since their son Harry tried the Brainwave 1 workstation, an event that would change the whole direction of the Alphalearning Institute’s research ambitions.
A number of beneficial “anomalies” had occurred during the initial executive testing – strange little tics and life-long problems disappearing , and by word of mouth, parents doing the course began to bring their disabled children along. In February 1994, Harry Selkirk was just two – so any fear of a placebo effect was removed. He was brought to a session in the UK, on the same day that a new batch of LEDs for the glasses arrived from the manufacturer.
For some time, they had suspected that the frequency of light used – the same as the most intense light of a flame (610 nanometers) – would make a difference; that it would make changes permanent. But Harry’s reaction amazed them. A club foot (equinovarus) since birth straightened out there and then, in just one 12-minute session, and it stayed straight.
In the following months, these health anomalies continued to occur. Not just improvement in concentration, confidence, rashes, depression and better pain control, but treating addictions, Attention Deficit Disorder, various types of dyslexia, several cases of epilepsy allowed to completely come off the drugs they used to control the problem.
It became clearer – to them at least – that what had started out as simply a way of teaching executives to read faster and remember more was threatening to become a full-blown medical revolution, the Institute had to decide what it was in business to do.
“We at the Alphalearning Institute no longer believed that there was any basic difference between dyslexia or autism or any of 50-100 other “brain disorders”. We now believe that the common denominator is electrical damage in the brain. It is just that damage in different parts of the brain cause different external symptoms, both physiological and psychological.,” says the Alphalearning. “And we can fix them.”
“Proof’ is a difficult concept – as is “cure”, for that matter. On the one hand, there has been a retreat from seeing science as the only arbiter of truth. But how else do you convince people of incredible claims? How do you mobilise government and health organisations to back and provide access to a heretical technology like this?
By 2002 there had been more than 3,500 participants on the course, and the list of incredible benefits continues to grow. Less dramatic but still remarkable are the small, almost imperceptible changes that occur with regular Brainwave training, from quickened reflexes and increased mental clarity and alertness, to greater intuition and enhanced smell.
One academic the Alphalearning has had cooperation with is Professor Rainer Dieterich, psychologist and dean of the education faculty at the German army’s Bundeswehr University in Hamburg. He finds Alphalearning’s approach promising, not being bound to specific theories and uninfluenced by any ideology – rare in the field of psychology, and that this very eclecticism creates skepticism among scientists.
Dieterich uses the system for speed-teaching military officers to speak French (increased from 12 words per hour to 36 words per hour). Other applications are to train helicopter pilots to memorise the 40 steps required to evacuate a crashing helicopter, parachutists to memorise the 14 steps in landing from a parachute.
For the time being, Alphalearning has decided to concentrate his thrust of his claims on dyslexia, a range of conditions that he believes are all brain damage related and all treatable. The US National Adult Literacy Survey in 2002 found 44 million – of the 191 million American adults at Level 1, the lowest literacy level, that creates “difficulty using certain reading, writing, and computational skills considered necessary for functioning in everyday life.”
Almost a fifth of UK primary school children are registered as having serious learning difficulties, a doubling in the past decade. It’s not known how much money is being because much of it is spent privately. One specialist school for dyslexics in London charges £5,625 a term
Whatever the cause (Alphalearning blames modern obstetric practices) and financial cost, the social cost of this quiet catastrophe are immeasurable. No reading, no access to the rest of the curriculum; in a knowledge-driven economy this amounts to an appalling handicap and the impact of constant failure on children’s self-esteem is debilitating – it should be no surprise that 66 percent of US prison inmates are functionally illiterate.
Ask Julia Lowes about dyslexia. Her educational psychologist, a dyslexia specialist pronounced Julia ‘severely dyslexic, in fact one of only six genuine dyslexics she’d encountered in 16 years’. She eventually and reluctantly did the Alphalearning course in 1994, after being badgered to do so by her brother, who discovered it when trying desperately to get back to university following brain damage from a car crash.
“Three hours into the course, straight after my first go on the Brainwave, I phoned my mum and asked her to buy me a book,” says Julia. “I immediately and for the first time in my life, saw that I could relax my brain enough to see the words. It’s a problem to describe, let alone teach: how do you ‘relax’ your brain?” There’s been gradual improvement ever since, her reading speed is up from 3 words/minute to 190 words/minute.
When Julia and her mother went back to her educational psychologist, she “blustered about how all kinds of changes can happen, adolescence, etc. She skipped 2-3 parts of the 11-part Weschler IQ test to avoid having to discuss or confront the real changes that had occurred, changes that could only have come from the course,” says her mother Pippa. “She completely shut the door on us.”
Julia was an Olympic race horse groom, and when she bought a Brainwave I herself, she set it up in the stables where she worked. Soon several riders and trainers remarked how calm two of the horses were she looked after. It was the two next to her PC, which brought back Alphalearnig’s claims that ‘brainwaves are contagious’ – maybe even to horses?
She got her chance to test the theory in Dubai, where she’d been flown by the Alphalearning, who was conducting a private course for two sheiks. One had an 8-year-old horse, a grey, that was impossible for anyone to get near without causing extreme distress. Its vet was finding it increasingly hard to approach even with a head harness, and it could only be ridden after a long, tiring battle. She put the headphones on its neck and held the lights over its eyes – the Institute has a video of it – and sure enough, incredibly, the system seems to work on animals too. “The faces on the grooms!,” laughs Julia. “Their chins hit the ground. To see it following me round like a meek puppy after 20 minutes.”
She now works as a professional ‘electronic horse whisperer’ in the UK, for 75 per cent of her time. “It’s a conservative world, the horsey world, yet it is increasingly looking to alternative remedies and therapies,” she says. “People have been very skeptical. I remember one old hand calling it ‘mumbo jumbo’ but being gobsmacked after I’d done a session. He could not believe it was the same horse.”
But her real passion is in helping kids like herself. “I have had so many dyslexia industry doors closed on me. Institutes simply don’t want to know. They fear they’ll all lose their jobs, but I believe there will be more work for them with this equipment.”
The only proof of the pudding, really, is in the eating with Alphalearning. You have to do the course, go on the machine, to believe. And those that have done the course do believe, and they treat their friends and family too.
In late 2002, we caught up with some of the families we had seen and spoken to eight years ago. Karin, mother of severely disabled Kris; Jos, who had brain damage from a car accident, and his family. They were unanimous in saying the system had helped them, both in understanding what was wrong with them, and in helping control and to some extent reverse their problems (see photo captions, and www.alphalearning.com for more case histories, technical background, etc).
After that much-lauded Decade of the Brain in which our ability to observe this enigmatic organ in ever greater detail, what can we actually do with this knowledge? “Most systems in neurology are only good for diagnosing and nothing more,” points out Dr Paulo De Faria. “We can find where the problem is but what can we do? Maybe find a certain stimulation or exercise – listening to a sound, playing with a ball – but nothing localised, and always very slow.”
Everyone I have spoken to without exception has experienced very aggressive dismissal by their mainstream doctors, psychologists, teachers and brain specialists.
Yes, it’s scary, change. Fix a liver and you’ve made someone well; fix a brain and you’re changing who someone *is*.
But if even half of the clams of this system are true, it could herald a new era in human understanding of the relationship between mind, brain and body, in education, healthcare, prison rehabilitation, sporting endeavor, and more. Look at our failing schools, the epidemic of brain degeneration in our elderly, prisons full of uneducated, frustrated time bombs.
The question is: what are we – society, governments, business – going to do about it? In the last 10 years, lacking support or any recognition, Alphalearning´s instructors say they have often felt like throwing all their research away. “It scared me, what I was opening up.” The critics can say it *shouldn’t* work – “and I have no idea nor opinion on why it should or even whether or not it should,” he says, “but they simply can’t argue that it *doesn’t* work; I have over 3,500 cases and their 40,000 EEGs on record to show it does.”
Scientific history of: brain wave frequencies
The first attempt to understand brain states from a scientific point of view was around 100 years ago, when the British biologist Richard Caton discovered that the brain emitted electrical impulses. These ‘brainwaves’ are the electrical wave patterns generated in every person’s brain as a product of the combined action of its 100 billion-or-so interconnected nerve cells.
Brainwave frequencies are described in terms of hertz (Hz), or cycles per second, which are measured on an EEG. Researchers have proven that brainwave frequencies determine (and not just reflect) what brainwave state we are experiencing at any given time.
By measuring the production of brainwaves with EEG equipment, the frequencies that produce these various brain states can be tracked on a computer monitor. The four general categories of brainwave frequencies and their main characteristics are:
- Beta brainwaves, which have highest frequency pattern (14-30 Hz). Generally, beta waves are characterized by logical, analytical and intellectual thinking. They are our awake, engaged state.
- Brainwaves with a frequency pattern ranging between 7-12 Hz are known as alpha waves. They most commonly occur when we are calm and relaxed, yet mentally alert and learning. They are so-called because they were the first brainwaves to be recorded by science.
- Theta brainwaves range from 3-5 Hz and are characterized by our being deeply relaxed and inwardly focused. This brainwave state is also associated with memory storage and retrieval and the assimilation of new information with high retention, heightened motivation to work towards goals, bursts of creativity, insight and new behavior patterns.
- Delta brainwaves range from 0.5-2 Hz and are associated with being extremely relaxed, characterized by sleep, and pain control.
Each of these electrical wave patterns represent distinctly different ways of perceiving, processing, learning and knowing information (in fact, all types of waves are produced at all times, but there is a preponderance of one above the others, depending on the brain’s activity).
The frequencies generated in the brain are the result of outside stimulation that has been passed to the brain via electrical signals from our different senses. However, a predominance of a specific desired brainwave state can be created at will, more so with training.
It was not until 1938 that the German doctor and scientist Hans Berger actually measured a brainwave, which he dubbed the Alpha wave, with a frequency of around 7-12 Hz. His aim was to isolate this “learning wave” and use it to help teach Nazi soldiers to use all their new military equipment more quickly. Like Richard Caton before him, Berger had to stick needles into his subjects’ heads to get a reading. But unlike Cade, Berger had an unlimited number of human “white rats” to which no one cared what happened. Mercifully, despite his butchery, Berger ended up with no idea how to replicate the wave or teach soldiers how to generate it.
The next advance in accelerated alpha wave training, sometimes called trance technology, came in the 1970s, when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi began teaching Transcendental Mediation. “The first form of mediation you could learn without sitting on a rock for 20 years.”
As corporate executives became more and more overloaded with information in the late 1980’s, it became widely appreciated that new and more efficient techniques of learning had to be mastered.
According to a survey at the time by the European Commission in Brussels the average senior executive spent three of his 10 hours at work a day reading. An increase in reading efficiency of 3 to 1 would save 2 hours per day. According to the same survey the average cost to a company for a senior executive is over $200/hour, so each supercharged executive could save $4,000 a month for his or her company.
In co-operation with senior executives from over 100 international corporations, the Alphalearning Institute was established in 1989 to conduct a research project to determine whether brainwave frequency training could increase learning efficiency.
By testing and studying the brains of hundreds of high performing individuals, i.e., senior corporate, military and government managers – it was possible to discover the precise brainwave frequencies that were required to perform various mental and physical activities.
It was the first brainwave study done on “super high performing” subjects as opposed to subjects with known brain disorders or “normal” subjects. It became clear that top performers in various areas, such as reading, memory, creativity, persuasion, etc. used various brainwave frequencies – and all the high performers had the same frequency analysis on each function.
They did the same tests on amateur and professional sportsmen and women, from golfers to trap shooters to athletes, and got the same result: better brain balance corresponds to better performance, a better ability to quiet the ‘internal scream’ produced better results under pressure.
To determine how these brain states might be replicable in less-than-super performing individuals, the Institute began a trawl through the tried and trusted ancient techniques of achieving brain balance.
In a host of fields, Tibetan practices have subsequently proven valid when science finally developed technology sophisticated enough to test them. Tibetans have discovered many scientific truths through empirical observation. But what science is unable to explain, it is loath to embrace.
When the Alphalearning Institute claimed in the early 1990s that brain damage could be fixed – not by repairing dead cells, but by growing new ones – that too was counter the 100-year-old scientific orthodoxy. But in 1999, researchers from Princeton University discovered that new neurons are continually added to the cerebral cortex of adult monkeys scientists have found that humans are not necessarily stuck with the number of brain cells they were born with after all.
Jules Marshall (1962) is a freelance writer on technology and culture as well as a multimedia designer based in Amsterdam. An editor of MEDIAMATIC and contributing writer for WIRED magazine, he has also published in ELLE, THE GUARDIAN (UK), SYDNEY MORNING HERALD (Australia), WIENER (Germany) and COURRIER INTERNATIONAL (France).
Copyright 1995: Jules Marshall / TCS – All rights reserved