Entrain the brain

Now for something completely different.

Let’s talk about entrainment, the process by which wave frequencies in two or more interacting systems with different periods eventually lock into phase. You see it nature, for example, when fireflies start blinking together in unison. You hear it in music when different instruments in a jam session start to vibrate together in harmony. It even happens in our bodies. When you slow your breath, it leads to a slowing of heartbeat and brainwaves.

Now let’s talk about binaural beats. Binaural beats are perceived sounds which naturally arise in the brain when two slightly different frequencies are played separately into each ear. It’s best explained with an example: if you listen to a 405 Hz frequency (sine wave) in one ear and a 398 Hz wave in the other ear, your brainwaves will start to oscillate towards a frequency of 7 Hz, or the difference between the two sounds. This process happens through entrainment.

Here’s the interesting part: while human hearing is limited to an approximate range of frequencies between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, brainwave frequencies associated with relaxation, REM sleep, meditation, and deep sleep fall below the 20 Hz threshold.


What this means is that binaural beats can, in theory, be used to entrain your brain to frequencies that fall below perceived human hearing. If you search for brain entrainment on the Web, you’ll find a slew of articles, thing for sale, and wild claims. And I know of at least one institute that will gladly take lots of your money to provide you with a life-changing (patented) brain entrainment experience at their facility.

My interest is more casual. I first came across the idea of binaural beats and brain entrainment back in the early 1990s while researching a paper in college. I found the idea intriguing. I played around with an oscilloscope to observe two waves suddenly lock together after growing closer and closer together. I found the idea of it fascinating.

Then, at some point (the timeline is a bit fuzzy), I came across a sound editor called Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro. This was a classy PC audio editor that once, to my surprise, included a somewhat-obscure menu for creating sound files for brain entrainment using binaural beats and pink noise. I tried it. I liked it. While I didn’t have any crazy experiences, I did find that some of the files I created were effective for relaxation, meditation, and focus.

As I recall, the brain entrainment submenu disappeared at the next Cool Edit Pro software update after I started using it. I don’t know why. Then, years later, Cool Edit Pro was bought out by Adobe. It is now called Adobe Audition.

Fast forward to 2009. While the auditory intrigue of brain entrainment (or, more accurately, the effects of this technique) remains in the speculative and hypothetical range, there are now several choices for the PC and the iPhone/Touch to try this out for yourself. The desktop programs are nice, but these are audio-centric apps that require headphones. It should come as no surprise, then, that the iPhone/Touch apps really shine.

Here’s what you can get for your Mac, Windows, or Linux box

<1. SBaGen. (Mac, Linux, Windows) This is a good, free choice if you like to roll your own, are comfortable with the Terminal, and don’t mind getting your hands a bit dirty. There are sample sounds for backgrounds you can download at the site. If you want to have some fun, and are the type of person who likes the DIY ethic, try it out.

2. BrainWave Generator. (Windows only) This isn’t a Mac app, but I used it in my PC days. It hasn’t really changed at all since those days, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s like SBaGen, but it has a Windows user interface and is much easier to use. It offers a lot of user control to fine tune frequency settings. It’s shareware. It now costs $40 to buy a private license, which is steep for an app that hasn’t been updated since 2005.

2. Pzizz. (Mac, Windows) I tried the trial when it first came out a while back. It uses binaural beats, but also mixes in sound effects, people talking, and music in some sort of fancy algorithm. Many people like it. I didn’t care for it. Why? I can only say it’s a matter of personal preference. I preferred the free SBaGen. I preferred it, that is, until I found the iPhone apps.

But this was made for the iPhone/Touch

1. Binaural Beats. Free. Offers presets with nice background music. You can also try Easy Relax Ultimate from the same company for $2.99. I found the free Binaural Beats app worked for me as a relaxation and sleep aid.

2. AmbiScience. Try the full app for $.99 or the Lite free version. For the price, the $.99 app is nice application that does the job well. It includes entrainment for relaxing, meditating, focusing, or sleeping. The interface is pleasant. I bought it. I use it.

3. mind Wave. The cost is $1.99. Haven’t tried this one. It includes some interesting choices such as headache treatment, weight loss, and creativity boost. I’m a bit skeptical, but it’s not very expensive. You can also opt for “mind Freek,” a separate app from the same developer that also costs $1.99, and offers more esoteric settings such as astral projections, out of body experience, etc. Sounds wacky, and results may vary…but it’s cheap and may be fun to try. I think I’ll probably pass.

There you have it. Does this work, or is it pseudoscience? The truth is likely somewhere in between. I will vouch for it as a tool for sleeping, meditation, relaxation, and focus. What is certain is it costs next to nothing to try aural brain entrainment. So why not?

Scanner Art

Here’s a project idea for the long weekend. Have you heard of scanner art? The basic idea is this: you scan things and you try to make something something artistic with it. Is it art? Is it really photography? Some say yes, some say no. I say, ‘Who cares?’

I have found that I can get some extraordinary results with my trusty scanner (the Epson Perfection 4490). I particularly like how the scanner captures intricate detail in natural objects. Here are a few samples of items I’ve created (click for a larger view).

Edge.org, where the stunning work of Katinka Matson is often featured. Intrigued, I started experimenting with my scanner. I don’t have any sage advice about creating scanned artwork, but I do have a few tips:

• Ensure you clean the scanner bed really well before you scan
• Be prepared to spend several hours cleaning up dust and artifacts from each image you scan with your image editor of choice (even if you DO clean the bed well, you will spend a good deal of time on this task).
• I prefer to scan in the dark with the lid of the scanner open. It produces nice clean lines and a black background, which makes it easier to extract the image.
• This is a great way to experiment with your image editing program (I use Photoshop), particularly for creating interesting backgrounds, arrangements and frames.
• Try scanning anything and everything. For items that might damage your scanner bed glass, some say to try using a transparent film (e.g. a rigid piece of clear plastic of the type used to protect business reports in days past). Haven’t tried this myself — I just use the ‘be really, really careful when scanning’ method.
• Try playing around with arrangement and layering of your scanned items.
• Scan the same item from different angles, then try piecing it together the various images into one montage.
• Scan the same item at different resolutions, then try assembling something interesting from these scans.

If scanning objects appeals to you, check out Scanner Magic and Photo Vinc for more tips and ideas.

Try your hand at screenwriting

Celtx. It’s a free tool for creating a screenplay and offers robust collaboration and sharing options (and it’s for Mac, Linux, or Windows).

In addition to screenplays, it also supports AV scripts (documentaries, ads, music videos), audio plays (radio, podcasts), theatre (U.S. and International Standards, and plain old text). But if screenwriting is your game, there are many choices…

Dedicated Screenwriting Tools

Celtx (free, Beta)
Mariner Montage ($139.95)
DreamaScript ($195)
Movie Outline ($199.95)
Final Draft ($229)
Movie Magic Screenwriter ($249.95)

Tools that can handle Screenwriting (to some degree)

Latte and Literature’s Scrivener ($39.95)
MacroMates TextMate: Try the screenwriting bundle ($63 for TextMate, free Bundle)
Apple iWorks: Try the Screenplay template for Pages ($79 for iWorks, free template)
NovaMind Platinum ($249)

I’m not a screenwriter, but I’ve dabbled in it. For this, I use Celtx. For my other varied textual needs, I rely on TextMate, Scrivener, iWorks(Pages), and Redlex Mellel. This is off-topic, but I just have to note that I especially love Mellel. But it’s not for screenwriting. It’s a versatile word processor. Why I love it and how I use it is a topic for another post, another day…

Switched to a mac? Try Linux on that old PC


I recently completed a project that began with installing VMware Fusion on my Intel iMac and (unexpectedly) ended with an old Compaq Presario laptop running Linux. If you’re an adventurous type and wish to reclaim an old PC, or if you just switched to a mac and now have an old PC collecting dust, read on. In my case, a friend donated an old Compaq laptop to me (she switched to an iMac) so I could use it to test out websites on Internet Explorer. It did the job … but just barely. Windows XP just doesn’t run well on 58MB of RAM! My workflow went like this: launch Explorer, go for a snack, take a bathroom break, play with the cat, then arrive back at the laptop to either (a) load the page I wished to preview or (b) discover the machine had inexplicably froze.

Thankfully, my intel-based iMac is now handily running Windows XP and the old laptop is now obsolete. Or so I thought. On a whim, I installed Ubuntu Linux on my iMac (again, using virtual machine wizadry) just to test it out. I was amazed – it was fast, enjoyable, and very useable. One nice thing about Linux is that the OS shares the same Unix underpinnings as Mac OSX, so if you’ve been using X for a while, you’ll feel fairly comfortable in the new environment. When I started learning more about Linux, I was surprised at the dozens of ‘flavors’ of this OS and the vaster number of open source (free) software applications that run on it (all of which can run on Mac OS too, by the way). I am in awe that there are so many people out there developing this stuff out of sheer passion and dedication. How cool is that?

It was then that inspiration struck. Why not install Linux on my old Compaq paperweight? What a great way to use an old machine, and to learn more about Linux (and Unix) – skills that will make me a better Mac user too. I was not dissapointed. Linux turned my Compaq into a very usable machine that is suprisingly responsive (I won’t say it’s speedy – but it runs like lightning compared to running Windows). For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed using a Compaq (despair over a Compaq drove me to switch to a mac in 2000!). I now have a risk-free platform on which I can learn about Linux and develop my Unix skills. It also serves, simply, as an extra PC around the house. True, I can also learn Unix commands via the Terminal on my mac (on Mac OSX or using a virtual machine to run Linux), but it gives me greater peace of mind to explore the inner workings of Unix on a totally separate machine. I can try things I would be hesitant to try on the mac. And if I really mess something up on my Compaq (and I already have), I don’t really care. I just reinstall the operating system and try again.

The Linux version I’m using — Puppy Linux — is under 100MB, so it’s quick to reload. A warning to you, though: it took me (a Unix novice with no prior Linux experience) several days of experimentation to get everything up and running on the laptop. Now that I have the process down, I can reformat the partition of the hard drive and reinstall a clean version of Linux in about 15 minutes. But you should know that you may have to get under the hood and expirement to get it working (here, I’m mainly talking about the drivers for your USB plug-ins, network connection, or printer) … but that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s a good way to learn.

To be fair, I think my experience had a lot to do with the Compaq and my inexperience and little to do with the Linux packages I tried (searching user forums, I discovered that many people aptly refer to these old Compaq laptops as ‘craptops’). If you are installing Linux on a newer laptop (newer than my Presario 1200 running at 500Mhz with 58MB RAM) or perhaps on a laptop of higher quality, you may have no trouble at all. I had plenty of trouble. And that leads us to the first rule to follow before you start any project like this: backup any data on the target machine that you wish to keep! I’ll post about how I choose a Linux version to install and the steps I took to get it running very soon. I want to end on this note: you will not get a laptop out of this that can run all your mac or pc applications. You’ll be using freeware versions of applications that do much of the same thing. So what’s it good for? You get a machine for light text work, email, and web browsing on a machine that was formerly unbearable to use. You get to experience an operating system that is increasingly used around the world because it’s free and it works well. And you get a platform on which you can learn Unix. Not bad for a PC I formerly considered trash.

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