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Mind Gym: Exercise for the Brain

December 01, 1987|CONNIE ZWEIG

Adam Danikiewicz, a tall and thin Hollywood gardener whose hobbies are art and yoga, sits upright in an ordinary chair with a headband connecting five electrodes to his skull and observes a small screen before him on the table. A shifting pattern of red lights reveals the instantaneous changes in the electrical activity of Danikiewicz's brain.

"High, erratic beta," the guide says, meaning Danikiewicz's brain is showing normal waking-state activity. "No alpha or theta, a little delta," he adds, referring to the other brain frequencies flickering on the screen.

Danikiewicz loosens the electrodes and marches off to the other room to spend one hour in a flotation tank, a soundproof, lightproof, weightless environment--all for the sake of science.

Mental Environment

"When he returns from the flotation tank, I expect to see less beta, more alpha, maybe some theta," says Larry Hughes, who has converted three adjoining apartments into a Disneyland for the mind, a float center and "mind gym" for people interested in creating and exploring new mental environments.

Like several other mind gyms around the country, including Tranquility Center in New York City and Space-Time in Chicago, Altered States here offers a wide range of devices for reducing stress and inducing meditative states of mind.

"These technologies act like a brain tune-up," Hughes said. "Most people know that stress is a major cause of physical symptoms but they don't think that machines can have a calming effect. Whatever other effects will be proven in the future, these machines beyond a doubt are relaxing."

In the next room, Danikiewicz lies on his back in a plastic, rectangular tank, 8 feet long by 4 feet high, floating in 10 inches of water containing 800 pounds of salt. Flotation tanks, or isolation tanks as they also are called, were devised in 1954 by inner explorer John Lilly, in an effort to observe what would happen to the human brain without stimulation.

Lilly discovered, to his surprise, that the brain created its own internal stimuli. He reported on his creative hallucinations and states of euphoria in a number of books.

Hughes discovered floating several years ago when he worked at a local Nautilus club. At that time, Jeff Labno, now his partner at Altered States, told Hughes that floating was an easy way to achieve a meditative awareness. In 1980, the two bought a tank, left their jobs and began to charge others for float time. In 1986, they began to buy brain-boosting devices and expanded to fill three full apartments in their West Hollywood building complex.

"Most people come basically for relaxation," Labno said in a telephone interview. "The second common reason is self-exploration. And some don't really know quite why they're there, but they say they love it."

Rejuvenating Experience

An hour later, Danikiewicz returns, reporting that he feels rejuvenated and curious to see his brain-wave activity. With the electrodes once again connected to his skull, Danikiewicz views the "Mind Mirror." Hughes interprets: "There's less beta, some alpha and delta, and slight movement in theta. There's also more balance between the hemispheres (or two sides of the brain)."

Hughes explains the meaning of this shift in brain activity. "Less beta means that with lowered stimulation in the tank, your ordinary mental activity slowed down. The alpha and delta indicate a meditative state. And the balance between hemispheres means more coherence or order in your brain."

Until recently, avid floaters had no confirmation of their subjective experiences. Hughes installed the Mind Mirror in October. The biofeedback device was invented by C. Maxwell Cade, a British physicist and psychologist who aimed to help people gain more control over their brain states.

Hughes explains: "First, you close your eyes and use some technique, a relaxation or meditation practice. Then you freeze the screen display with a finger lever and open your eyes to check your brain activity. In this way, you can learn to associate certain ways of breathing or imaging with the patterns they produce and compare them with patterns of different brain-wave activity."

In another part of the apartment complex, Barbara McRae, who works at a Hollywood clinic doing laser acupuncture and pain control, lies for 30 minutes on a rotating cot that generates an electromagnetic field. The Graham Potentializer, invented by Canadian electrical engineer David Graham, was originally designed to be a "spiritual healing device."

Graham explains by phone from his home in Phoenix: "I had studied Christian mysticism and meditation and I wanted to induce altered states. But what I've found is that the device directly affects intelligence."

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