by Michael Garfield
for David Zeitler's States of Consciousness class (JFKU Fall 2007)
Abstract: Light and sound have long been used as both art and science, to affect mood and evoke myriad experiences. In this paper, I briefly explore humanity’s unfolding understanding of the relationship between physical waves and states of consciousness. I also consider the future of both auditory and visual tones in state control (both utopic and dystopic), in light of contemporary technologies. States and waves appear to be the respective irreducible units of mind and body, and the study of either informs the study of the other. Their complementary and co-causative nature suggests a simple and elegant mechanism underlying the emergence of the entire manifest world.
Had René Descartes lived to share coffee with James Clerk Maxwell, he might never have articulated that bête noir of modernity, the “mind-body problem.” Many thanks to plodding philosophical progress: contemporary dictionaries tie the word “wave” to swells of both the physical and the affective, matter and mind. Bliss can be “oceanic,” just as a saw-tooth synthesizer tone can be “aggressive.” Vibration is a language that we use to mediate experience and description – or, perhaps more accurately, it is a medium beyond language, allowing us to bypass intermediary signifiers and communicate with a directness and clarity inaccessible to contemporary tongues. Physical vibration is fundamentally psychoactive, and its study reveals the long-sought-after explanatory bridge between matter and mind, description and experience. At the heart of the world, there is a wave that throbs, coiled and twisting.
Although this esoteric wisdom hidden in common parlance did finally penetrate the skeptical shell of modern science, the artists have always known. On a rainy April afternoon in 2007, I packed myself into a cleared keyboard showroom with seventy other groove fanatics to see the legendary bassist Victor Wooten give a clinic at my local music store. Rather than guide us through his intricate techniques, he expounded on the importance of the mind in playing, and the importance of viewing music as a language. Both English and music are best learned by immersion, by playing before you know the rules; both require you to forget your instrument and focus on your message (Wooten, personal communication, 2007). And after all, Wooten reminded us, everything is music – the same tones we pare into octaves can be followed all the way down into seconds, minutes, and hours (so we stop measuring on a metronome and start using a clock), then weeks, months, and years (so we use a calendar). The unvoiced implication of the day was that we are all riding one long, slow word.
Alex Grey would most definitely agree. In his manifesto, The Mission of Art, he argues that artists have an ethical responsibility to realize art as a powerful and sacred medium of transmission (Grey, 2001). His conviction is that the state of consciousness in which a work is created is recapitulated in those that perceive it, and so artists are – with more or less awareness and intent – acting as conduits for their modes of being. His injunction is that if we want a beautiful world, we have to be it, first.
Grey expresses himself through painting, but he dismisses the differences between sound and light as trivial – and rightly so. As waves, both are periodic disturbances of a medium; sound is a mechanical wave that passes through the particles of a substance, and light is an electromagnetic wave that passes through fields. Whereas most scientists regard light as essentially merely “wave-like” in nature due to its paradoxical double life as a particle, sound is a wave without particulate form, one that rolls through substances without permanently displacing their parts. However, this difference may be illusory. Although the “luminiferous ether” was discredited in the early 20th century, the notion of a material substrate for the propagation of light was recently revived after explorations into the quantum vacuum and its frictionless “zero-point field” (Laszlo, 2004). Newer models suggest that when we observe a photon, what we see is less a single particle of light in motion than an excited form of stationary, subtle “matter” through which the wave’s energy is conducted, and which bobs about in wave-like patterns for the same reason that we can watch a sub-woofer thump to the beat. Light may technically be no more the wave itself than the speaker is – and following this line of thought, light and sound may both be emitted in suitable conditions by every wave, even if we are not equipped to experience it directly.
Sometimes, however, we are equipped to observe cross-sensory correlations between light and sound. After the work of Ernst Chladni and Jules Antoine Lissajous, Hans Jenny pioneered the field of cymatics – or the study of the visual patterns that sonic vibrations form on surfaces and in three-dimensional objects. Particles scattered on a plate, for example, will respond to a continuous tone by dancing into a stable reticulation. This fractal imprint of the sound’s interference patterns is called a Chladni figure. As the pitch of the tone is raised, the Chladni figure periodically melts into chaos and spontaneously reassembles into similar, but increasingly intricate shapes (see Figure 1).
[Note: Recently, it was announced that mysterious inscriptions in the stone blocks of Rosslyn Chapel – famous for its role as the climactic locale in The DaVinci Code, and as a nexus of esoteric knowledge – appear to encode a form of written music in cymatic diagrams. Thomas J. Mitchell, the researcher who cracked the code, has arranged the music for a motet performance at the chapel on May 18, 2007 (The concert quickly sold out). For more information, visit http://www.tjmitchell.com/stuart/rosslyn.html]
Figure 1. “Water Sound Image 232,” a Chladni figure created by Alexander Lauterwasser. These are ripples on the surface of a water sample that has been disturbed by a sonic pulse.
This correlation is mirrored by the testimony of chromaesthetics, those afflicted by a common form of synaesthesia in which neural pathways are crossed and auditory stimulus also evokes a visual response – flickering colored hallucinations dubbed “photisms.” Although the color of any particular note varies between chromaesthetics, these phenomena do have universal qualities, or form constants, which include inverse relationships of pitch and tempo to photism size and smoothness (respectively). It has also been observed that the paintings of these hallucinations closely resemble early cave paintings, which lends some credence to the hypothesis that spoken language and art developed from similarly intertwined synapses in the brains of early humans.
The cave paintings may be evidence of “true” synaesthesia, or they may merely be indicative of a primitive fusion of the senses, which likely differentiated into sight and sound due to the evolutionary pressure of an increasingly diverse linguistic ecosystem (Nowak & Komarova, 2000). The artifacts of either configuration, prehistoric or contemporary, would be similar enough that it may be impossible to determine which is historically true – another instance in which post-conventional development so closely parallels pre-conventional development that the advanced re-integration of components is easily confused with their primitive, undifferentiated state (David Zeitler, personal communication, 2007). Regardless, even non-synaesthetics can find vestiges of an ancestral sensory fusion in our language: the color or pattern of someone’s t-shirt can be “loud,” just as the tone of an instrument can be “bright” or “dark;” a scrambled television image can be “noisy,” just as music can move through expressive “shades” (including “blue” and “black”); a group of colors can have “harmony,” and a sonata can be “radiant.” The list goes on; and what more, each of these terms also applies to a state of mind – usually one engendered by a sight or sound that is similarly described. But that is hardly the end of this symmetrical affair.
The Song of the Rainbow Body
The “phase changes” undergone by Chladni figures as they are subjected to an increasing pitch are strikingly similar to the “switch points” proposed by philosopher Ken Wilber as thresholds between states of consciousness. In Wilber’s model, a person cannot simultaneously occupy multiple states of consciousness (his favorite example is that a person can not be both drunk and sober); however, in a moment of transition between states, there exists a turbulent interstice that can exhibit qualities of each (2006). One such switch point would be the hypnagogic state, which combines elements of both waking and dreaming. Although integral theory disallows strict state superposition, it does allow for the possibility that states are arranged holarchically, such that the subtler and more expansive states of consciousness contain (and are constituted from) a number of their juniors. Causal consciousness – the formlessness through which we all pass in dreamless sleep each night, and which most of us forget each morning – has been unequivocally declared by the world’s spiritual traditions to literally contain the waking and dreaming states of being, and to itself be enfolded within the state-beyond-states of the nondual – much as the circles and stripes of one Chladni figure can be found miniaturized and multiplied an octave “up.” Allan Combs has proposed a related model of consciousness in which increasingly sophisticated stages of development are represented by multimodal strange attractors, like the Lorenz attractor, in which elaborate chaotic basins are connected by spindles of probability – the mathematical transliteration of Wilber’s switch points (Combs, 2002).
Furthermore, states have historically been correlated with different local activations of the body’s subtle energy system. The chakras, in their traditional lotus blossom representations, bear evermore-numerous petals as they ascend the spine (culminating with the infinite petals of the crown chakra, located near the pineal organ, which both Descartes and contemporary researchers have argued to be the physical seat of consciousness). On the one hand, we have the branching complexity of nested states of consciousness; on the other hand, the nest appears as an onion of interpenetrating matter/energy fields. This chirality has not been lost on pioneering neuroscientists, whose research over the last half-century suggests that waves ligate the two (more on this in a moment).
The intimacy of light, sound, and experience in the subtle body is unfathomable. Each chakra opens in response to the intonation or contemplation of a specific Sanskrit vowel, releasing the practitioner into that chakra’s correlative state. These syllables are arranged according to the frequency of their overtones, starting with “ah” at the root of the spine and proceeding to “ng” at the crown. Curiously, Jenny noticed that when he created Chladni figures from these tones, the resultant patterns contained the written letters for each respective syllable (2001). He hypothesized that written Sanskrit could have been born from the patterns left in sand on the ground or the head of a drum during ritualized chanting – in other words, it may be that Sanskrit’s legacy as a sacred language may be related to its purity, its origin in direct light/sound relationships, unlike extant languages for which the spoken word is arbitrarily attached to a written signifier.
Additionally, each node in the column of chakras is associated with a specific color, arranged into the visible spectrum (red to violet) long before Western science had decoded the significance of electromagnetism and wavelength. David Lewis-Williams and Jason Godesky, presumably unaware of this, have proposed a branching spectrum of states, bifurcating at various points into paths of increasing and decreasing awareness – an uncanny, independently derived, linear version of Combs’ model (Godesky, 2006).
The point of insistence is that we draw boundaries between states with abandon where, in nature, there are no such obvious delineations. And this understanding can be followed to fascinating conclusions. The wavelength of each band of color in the visible spectrum (measured in nanometers, nm) can be halved repeatedly until the rate of its vibration falls within the octaves of the audible spectrum (measured in Hertz, Hz), giving a table of musical notes that correspond to each color (see Figure 2). Contemporary standard tuning, for which A = 440 Hz, is actually about a half-step above where it has been for most of history. By restoring the original standard pitch (or “Renaissance tuning”) at around A = 415 Hz, the color spectrum aligns such that A corresponds to the color red (echoing the chakra system’s red root chakra and the syllable “ah”), and the relatively narrow bandwidths of orange and blue lines up with B and E, which lack the additional semi-tone of the other lettered notes (Perry, n.d.).
Figure 2. Correlations between the visible spectrum and A = 383.57 Hz tuning (381 Hz is the lowest frequency to which A can be assigned and remain in visible red).
Reproduced from Sneddon, 1981.
There is a spooky similarity between visual harmony as mapped by the circle of complementary colors and auditory harmony as mapped by the circle of fifths. Eschewing any attempt to ascribe specific Kosmic significance to this, the two charts can be seamlessly superimposed – regardless of how the notes are assigned to colors. The relationships between pleasant sounds and pleasant sights are geometrically identical (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. The circle of fifths, superimposed over the color wheel. Harmonic relationships between color and pitch are geometrically identical. Graphic layout by Michael Garfield.
This scientific synthesis came millennia after Hindu sages started using similar knowledge to manipulate the energetic body. Just as a chakra’s vowel is intonated in order to open its potentials, so too is its color often emphasized in contemplation or decoration to engineer certain states of mind. In recent years, the numerous cultural traditions of using color to influence states have evolved into a common, if under-examined, practice of alternative medicine (Yousuf Azeemi & Mohsin Raza, 2005). This discipline, called chromotherapy, seeks to correct imbalances in a person’s energetic body by activating subtle energy centers through sympathetic resonance with the appropriate colors – just how hammering middle C on one piano will cause the same note to vibrate on every other piano in the room (Burns, n.d.). Red, associated with the primordial vital energies, is worn or used to raise energy levels; yellow, associated with the social identity, can be employed to raise self-confidence and boost happiness; and so on. Particularly interesting is the use of white to denote priesthood and to contemplate spiritual purity, since white contains all other colors, just as the nondual state contains all states.
[Note: Although Wilber does not consider emotions or moods to be states proper (you can be both awake and happy), I will recognize them as states for the purposes of this paper – albeit junior states, subholons of the waking state (which would be, according to AQAL, a subholon of the dreaming state, which is a subholon of causal awareness, which is a subholon of nondual One Taste).]
Listening Your Way To Enlightenment
Another domain of state manipulation research is psychoacoustics, or the study of the relationship between sound waves and experience. As was implied above, chromotherapy and psychoacoustics are essentially sister disciplines; they are separated by a quantitative gap of about twenty-two octaves, rather than the qualitative gap that conventional sensibilities have assigned color and sound. Nonetheless, chromotherapy remains largely a fringe discipline, whereas psychoacoustics has been widely embraced by academia, especially in the last few decades.
One consequence of this blooming research community has been the advent of innumerable state-control tools that use the modality of hearing to jettison people into non-ordinary states. The most common form of this technology is neuro-entrainment via a binaural beat generator – a device that sends a stereo signal to the listener from which each ear receives a “carrier” tone slightly offset from that received by the other ear. According to Bill Harris, the founder of Centerpointe Institute and a vanguard researcher in neuro-entrainment, the interval between the tones creates a standing wave that synchronizes brain activity at that frequency; for example, a binaural beat with carrier tones of 104 Hz and 108 Hz will produce synchronized neural activity at 4 Hz (n.d.).
This is where the mind-body problem falls overboard and drowns, because every major type of brain wave, as classified by frequency, is correlated with a particular state of consciousness. Listed in order of decreasing frequency (from 30 Hz to 0.5 Hz), the four major brainwaves are designated Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta. Jeffrey Thompson, head of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research (CNR), explains that these are measured in the average person during states of outward concentration, inward contemplation, creative visualization, and deep relaxation, respectively (or, while asleep: external/linear mental activity, internal/non-linear mental activity, dreaming sleep, and deep dreamless sleep) (1999). Common sense: the more relaxed the state of mind, the more languorous the brainwave that describes it. Furthermore, Thompson continues, these levels of brainwave activity are also powerfully evident at various depths of spiritual practice; Alpha activity is associated with Zazen’s diffuse concentration (gross meditation), Theta with astral travel and deity yoga (subtle meditation), and Delta with the luminous void and formlessness (causal meditation).
As if this were not enough, CNR scientists have identified additional classes of brain activity on both ends of the spectrum and inaccessible to standard electroencephalograms. Epsilon waves, below 0.5 Hz, are associated with the deepest levels of meditation, whereas Gamma (about 40 Hz), Hyper-Gamma (about 100 Hz), and Lambda (up to an incredible 200 Hz!) waves appear to be responsible for synchronizing regions within the brain to integrate spatially separated cognitive activities. According to Thomspon, Gamma activity “[binds] information from all the senses together for a higher-level awareness of unity of the objects of our perception” (1999).
[Note: This would explain why, when advanced meditators enter nondual awareness when hooked up to EEGs, their brains appear to flatline. Activity has not stopped; it has just dipped below the threshold of detection.]
Phenomenological reports from Hyper-Gamma and Lambda brain states describe experiences identical to those reported from Epsilon states, leading Thompson’s team to propose that the former are actually modulations riding upon the latter and that states of consciousness and brain activity actually meet at the extremes. To put it another way, most of us spend our lives totally ignorant of the fact that we live on a Mobius strip of states that is eating its own tail at the opposite pole. These empirical findings are completely consistent with the traditional practicums for entering meditative consciousness – namely, you either stimulate or relax yourself until you trigger some form of regulatory neural feedback that propels you into the nondual. Either way will do (and has done, for thousands of years) – hence the alchemical slogan, “as above, so below.”
The meat of all of this is, binaural beats can “entrain” a person’s neurophysiological state, and thus, their state of consciousness, with at least the consistency and ease of conventional ritual methods such as fasting, dancing, drumming, meditation, and/or the ingestion of psychedelic chemicals (although, let it be noted, these are all, ultimately, wave-based technologies).
[Note: In the name of stability through redundancy, I will take all of the above. (And that is the buffet-line exuberance of the integral shadow.)]
Additionally, the intensity with which one enters a state through neuro-entrainment can be adjusted by modulating the carrier frequencies – the lower they go while maintaining the same interval, the more stable the entrainment, and the deeper and more vivid the experience of that state (Harris & Wilber, n.d.). The relationship between exterior and interior wave-states appears again, albeit in a different form.
A Magnetized Personality
D.R. Hill and M.A. Persinger at Laurentian University have conducted related research with magnetic fields instead of sound waves. (Remember that electromagnetic “wave-like” phenomena may be much more akin to mechanical waves than some scientists have been willing to admit.) By applying magnetic plates to the temples of their subjects (they call them “experients,” with blatant disregard to homonymy), they were able to obtain a fascinating set of phenomenological reports (2003). The most curious thing about these testimonies is that they are almost identical to those from clinical studies with DMT (n,n-dimethyltryptamine), a powerful endogenous psychedelic that is secreted from the pineal organ – the crown, the supposed seat of the soul – in psychoactive amounts at birth, death, and periods of incredible stress). The details were too close to be dismissed; visions of hyperdimensional but mundane neighboring realities, washes of intense anxiety, and the feeling or seeing of nonhuman sentient entities were common to both. Their resultant hypothesis was that these fields were actually triggering a release of DMT by the brain by simulating (or inducing) the correlated brain activity. Hill and Persinger note,
"The experiences are enhanced if the strength of the fields over the right hemisphere are [sic] about 10% greater than the fields over the left hemisphere and if the complex structure of the applied field contains a variety of intrinsic temporal patterns. They include burst-firing configurations containing a frequency-modulated or phase-modulated component."
In other words, these doctors were using offset waves that met and created complex interference patterns at the center of the brain (where the pineal organ is located) –bypassing the auditory pathways altogether to stimulate synchronized neural activity. Their results were more stunning if they made “music” with the magnets; in compositional terms, “a variety of intrinsic temporal patterns” means “polyrhythm and harmony.” Frequency and phase modulations created standing waves just like sonic neuro-entrainment technology; and there it is: an exceedingly clear relationship between electromagnetic vibration, brain activity, and chemical correlates to consciousness.
It gets a step kookier. Mere hours after writing the above paragraph, I discovered a new article on Wired magazine’s website describing a process called “transcranial magnetic stimulation.” It is a non-invasive procedure that uses a handheld device to focus magnetic waves on the prefrontal cortex, where they alleviate depression by increasing paralimbic blood flow, releasing serotonin, and improving the function of dopamine and norepinephrine (Graham, 2007). The technology is in the final stages of its FDA review and has the attention of the American Psychological Association for its potential to help with otherwise intractable cases (and is also being tested for the treatment of migraines). Five companies in the U.S. and Europe are already producing prototypes. Which begs the question: Are we at all prepared for where is this taking us?
The Ethics of “Pushing A Vibe”
Wilber has written extensively about Karl Marx’s Dialectic of Progress – how advances in technology lead to the exacerbation of both positive and negative forces in the world, or what he calls the “good news, bad news” scenario of evolutionary unfoldment (2002). The crux is this: a given technology requires a certain degree of cognitive complexity to imagine and create, and thus is the artifact of a particular altitude of consciousness (for example, the wristwatch is the mascot for modernity); however, most artifacts do not require the same degree of development to use as they do to build (even a child can wear and read a watch).
Starting with the myth of Prometheus and barreling forward to the present day, the consequences of this dialectic have been writ large time and time again. Albert Einstein issued a famous, tearful apology to Japan for helping decode the physics that led to the atom bomb – but which also led to significant advancements in clean energy and space travel (Pellegrini, 1999). Alfred Nobel went so far as to create his eponymous Peace Prize as a reparation for inventing dynamite (Frängsmyr, 1996). Mary Shelley’s tragic novel Frankenstein, so commonly misinterpreted as a warning against “trespassing in God’s domain,” was actually intended to remind us that we are permanently responsible for the consequences of our actions, that the neglect of an inventor assures that his inventions will be misappropriated. If you dream up the handgun, it is your duty to keep it out of the reach of children; and yet, over and over, the secret leaks – or bleeds. As Guy Garvey laments in his anthem, “Leaders of the Free World,” “The leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones / and it’s easy to ignore, ‘til they’re knocking on the door of your homes” (2006).
So it will be with consciousness-altering wave-based technologies. If there has ever been a time to consider the ethical implications of binaural beats, magnetic neuro-stimulation, chromotherapy, and other related means of engineering states, that time is now – before these technologies are ubiquitous in a world that has shrugged off its parental duties. Before its collapse, the Soviet Union devised a number of military applications for electromagnetic and sonic technologies that were originally developed for medical use. These “psychotronic weapons, ” designed in the 1970’s, include an ultra-sound gun capable of killing a cat at 50 meters, electromagnetic field generators used to debilitate interrogation subjects, and sound-based brainwashing techniques (Matthews, 1995).
[Note: There is already an Association of Victims of Psychotronic Experimentation, which has filed suits against Russia’s Federal Security Service. However, since most of the plaintiffs are now clinically insane, the cases have faltered in light of credibility and verification issues (Matthews, 1995)]
Israel has already employed a device called “the Scream” for riot control purposes; it emits bursts of sound that disturb the internal organs and cause dizziness and nausea, even at low volumes. In 2005, a spokeswoman from the Israeli military declared her nation’s intent to use the Scream against any settlers on the Gaza Strip who resist evacuation orders (Block, 2005). Numerous sources have confirmed that these technologies have been adopted, and their efficacy and applications vastly expanded, by the United States (Tapscott, 1993; Opall, 1993; Ricks, 1993). Bombs destroy physical infrastructure, and diseases take time; sound, however, inflicts nearly instantaneous damage to exactly the desired degree. It may be that the battles of the 21st century will be decided by psychotogenic “music.” (And the Devil always wins the fiddle contest.)
Of course, not all morally questionable applications will be governmental. On the one hand, we have the enticing prospect of being able to “dial in” any state of consciousness we desire, and of being able to receive prescription sonic therapy for psychological and somatic disorders (in this new era, the two are inseparable). Something of the sort is already being offered by the good people at www.iDoser.com, who offer the discerning customer “binaural brainwave doses for every conceivable mood” and claim that they have engineered legal mimics for everything from French Roast coffee to LSD to methamphetamine.
[Note: Philip K. Dick, genius futurist that he was, featured a similar bedside device called the “mood organ” in his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick, 1968).]
This is all well and good if it remains a matter of choice, but there remains the possibility of using the same technology to control consumer behavior. Kiersten Sanford and Justin Jackson, hosts of the popular radio program, “This Week In Science,” have suggested that magnetic technologies such as those employed by Hill and Persinger could not only be used for “God spot cafés” where people could go for a shot of mystical experience, but also installed in vending machines to make people feel “at one with Coca-Cola” (2006).
Grey has furiously criticized this application of the wave in The Mission of Art, condemning advertising agents who draw false associations between the transcendent and instant gratification by depicting glowing auras around hamburgers (2001). He would certainly level an even sterner reproach against organizations brash enough create mystical states of consciousness in unsuspecting consumers as a form of mind control. Thankfully, pre-emptive legislation has already appeared in both Russia and Bulgaria to prohibit this kind of subliminal manipulation by the private sector (Matthews, 2005). Nonetheless, history shows that declarations of illegality are essentially useless to prevent the mobilization of advanced technology against law-abiding individuals – often, and most tragically, by their own leaders. It is little wonder that only a pitiful fraction of this research has been publicly disclosed.
Much more could be said about the history and potential of using sound and electromagnetism to affect states of consciousness. Waves are more than a fascinating natural phenomenon; they are the literal Word from which, traditions claim, our entire world is created – and their manipulation has always played an essential role in accessing states far deeper and more illuminating than ordinary wakefulness. With exponential advances in wave-based technologies, it will be a historical instant before we have common access to the realms of the shamans and sages – before we have harnessed the incredible power of psychoactive vibrations, and discover as a species a yogic techno-mastery of the ocean through which we once merely floated about. The advent of language was a monumental achievement for humanity; but soon enough, even language might be cast aside in favor of newer, more direct methods, by which we can transmit experience with flawless fidelity at the speed of sound – or light.
Nonetheless, as with all such advancements, this newly elaborated power will demand a tremendous moral responsibility from our species. If anything in the world can be said to provide fertile soil for abuse, it is the capacity to alter states of consciousness – either one’s own or another’s – on a whim. We are on the verge of mastering the wave as we once mastered the plow, and with consequences a thousand times more far-reaching and extreme. It is foolish and naïve to suppose we can halt progress – but those of us who can be mindful stewards of state control, must. It is our duty to make sure that the “vibe” we are spreading is a good one.
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