Reprinted from Psychology Today August 1977
FOR A BRIEF TIME as we lie in bed at night, neither fully awake nor yet asleep, we pass through a twilight mental zone that Arthur Koestler has described as a state of reverie. Many people associate this drowsy stage with hallucinatory images, more fleeting and disjointed than dreams, and compare it to the viewing of a speeded-up, jerky series of photographic slides. A host of artists and scientists have credited the imagery of this twilight state with creative solutions and inspiration for their work. Koestler once tried to describe the process:
'The temporary relinquishing of conscious controls liberates the mind from certain constraints which are necessary to maintain the disciplined routines of thought but may become an impediment to the creative leap,' he wrote. 'At the same time, other types of ideation on more primitive levels of mental organization are brought into activity.'
We are now beginning to understand that during this brief somnolent state, people not only may have creative insights but may also be more in touch with the unconscious in general. They are hyper-suggestible and capable of learning certain things more efficiently and painlessly than during the day, when logical and analytical faculties are in control. There is even evidence that the suspension of critical judgment associated with the usually dominant left hemisphere of the brain may allow the nondominant right side of the brain, with its more intuitive and emotional processes, to take over.My colleagues and I at the University of Colorado Medical Center and at the Biofeedback Institute of Denver have found that people can make use of the twilight zone for many kinds of learning. We have found, for example, that it may help some people who have trouble assimilating certain kinds of information: students who have mental blocks for subjects such as foreign languages; fat people who are unable to comply with suggestions to eat properly; prejudiced people who find it hard to believe anything a member of a minority group says. Resistance, biases, prejudices, emotional blocks are a few of the terms used to describe this inability to absorb certain kinds of information. By presenting carefully prepared material during the twilight state, these assimilation blocks can be at least partially eliminated. Training for theta . The twilight state, I believe, opens a kind of pipeline to the unconscious, to the nonrational half of our brain that we usually ignore. If we learn to open the pipeline at will, rather than by chance, perhaps we can resolve some of the conflicts between the conscious and the unconscious mind-conflicts that create problems in many areas of our lives. The difficulty is that most people do not stay in this transitional period for long. As an individual falls asleep, he goes from a relaxed alpha brain-wave pattern, accompanied by slow, rolling eye movements, to the disappearance of alpha and its replacement by slower, small-amplitude theta waves of 4-7Hz (cycles per second)- all within roughly five to 10 minutes.
With my colleagues Johann Stoyva, Kirk Peffer, and Pola Sittenfeld, I taught subjects to maintain a twilight state in the laboratory. We used an electromyograph (EMG), which trains them to reduce tension in forehead muscles through biofeedback. By learning to relax those muscles, they decrease cortical and autonomic arousal as well. Once they learn to produce theta brain waves, they can be trained to maintain the theta pattern indefinitely with a device called a Twilight Learner. Developed with the aid of John Picchiottino, an engineering consultant, the unit enables a trainee to maintain a twilight state as information from a cassette tape recorder is presented to him. Sensors placed on the trainee's scalp pick up the tiny brain-wave signals. When the trainee produces the theta pattern characteristic of the twilight state, the signal automatically turns on the tape recorder. As long as he produces theta, the tape recorder runs. If his brain waves change to alpha or beta, indicting an increase in alertness and a marshaling of critical cognitive faculties, the recorder shuts off. The Twilight Learner increases the volume of the tape message if theta increases in amplitude and/or decreases in frequency ' a change that indicates a person is moving toward deeper sleep. When this happens, the increased volume gently nudges the trainee back into twilight sleep. Beginning trainees often find themselves oscillating between an alert alpha pattern and a sleep theta pattern. With more experience they learn to stay almost totally within theta.
We have used the Twilight Learner to treat a variety of problems. One client was a graduate student who had failed a Spanish-language exam and was so anxious about taking it a second time that he was unable to study at all. Therapist Kirk Peffer and the client made a Spanish-English tape which included suggestions that the client would be able to study effectively and remember the material. After hearing the tape 12 times under twilight-state conditions, the student was able to study without anxiety and passed the exam easily. The Twilight Learner can also be valuable in psychotherapy. Of course, there is a risk in generalizing about individual cases, because success may be due to circumstances in the client's life that have nothing to do with the treatment itself. Moreover, we don't know how long-lasting are the effects on those who have seemingly been 'cured' of their symptoms. Still, the results are surprising. One man who had trouble asserting himself or saying no to anyone had tried conventional therapy for three years without success. There was a dramatic improvement following five weekly sessions of twilight learning. The machine was used to produce a theta state and accompanying imagery. One of the images was a vivid memory of a confrontation which occurred when, as a young boy, he had refused one of his father's requests and have been harshly punished. The therapist and client discussed the image and then designed a cassette tape, which the client recorded in his own voice. It dealt with the relation of his current problems to the early experience with his father, and suggested that he had the right to refuse unreasonable requests. The client gradually seemed to become more assertive and reported that he was able to deal more effectively with authority figures. Another client was suffering from extreme anxiety associated with his wife's request for a divorce and her threats of suicide. He had earlier conquered a drinking problem, but the new strain was too much and he started drinking again. We designed a tape to help alter the irrational thoughts that were contributing to his severe guilt feelings. Three twilight-learning sessions helped reduce his guilt and anxiety, lessened an insomnia problem, and helped him control his drinking. Whether or not our treatments offer permanent relief, we believe they open up remarkable possibilities. Work being done elsewhere in the country confirms the potential of such techniques in psychotherapy. For instance, Dr. Ian Wickramasekera, a psychobiologist in Peoria, Illinois, has also achieved notable results in preparing people to accept suggestions for positive change through recreating the twilight state in the laboratory. Suggestopedia . Earlier research in Eastern Europe ' prior to the development of biofeedback techniques ' suggests how the twilight state may be used as a learning tool. For example, the Russian tutorial method known as 'hypnopedia' uses repetition of material over several days or weeks. While the student is awake, he is given a mental set or expectancy that he will absorb the material during sleep. Evidence from hypnopedic studies suggests that the lighter sleep stages produce greater learning. As sleep deepens, the brain's processing of auditory material changes and makes it difficult for the sleep learner to assimilate complex verbal material. The Bulgarian scientist Georgi Lozanov has students in his 'suggestopedia' program relax in comfortable chairs and focus their attention on classical music. The information to be learned is presented by an instructor who modulates her voice according to the tempo of the music. Students are told to focus on the music, not the voice. Lozanov reports that this type of learning is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from what occurs in the normal waking state. He claims that suggestopedic learning is more intuitive and holistic and that information is retained longer than under alert conditions. In the United States, Elizabeth Philipov of Pepperdine University has adapted Lozanov's techniques to teach Cyrillic languages to English- speaking students. In 120 hours of training, the students learning Bulgarian assimilated 1,800 new words on average and were then able to use them in reading, writing, and speaking. A study comparing this method with traditional language instruction showed the suggestopedic students were more proficient with only one-third study time. Three researchers at the Menninger Foundation have been studying the relationship between the twilight state and creativity. Through biofeedback, Alyce and Elmer Green along with Dale Walters were the first to closely examine the association between a theta state and creativity. In one experiment, they recorded the brain-wave patterns of a physics professor, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist, as each deliberately produced a special state he associated with creative thoughts. The brain-wave patterns of two of them showed high percentages of the theta waves (4-7 Hz); both reported their customary hallucinatory images as they reached the special state. The third subject showed a slowing of alpha frequency from 9.5 to 8.3 Hz and reported that he had attained a mind- quieting, imageless state but did not quite reach the creative state. Conflict between solutions. As may be obvious by now, the twilight state resembles in many ways other altered states of consciousness, including drug trips, hypnosis, meditation techniques, faith healing, and primitive religious rituals. All involve an extreme state of mental arousal, with the participants, flying high or feeling somnolent, becoming excited or approaching the drowsy state. All change people in some way'often dramatically. What do they have in common and why don't they work all the time? For some speculative answers to these questions, we looked at a relatively new field of research, brain lateralization. Researchers have learned a great deal in the last 10 years about how the brain's two cortical hemispheres function. The left hemisphere is dominant in nearly all right-handed people and about two-thirds of the left-handers. It controls the characteristics generally ascribed to consciousness and high-order functioning, and is the seat of our reasoning faculties. Each hemisphere gathers in essentially the same sensory information, but handles it in a different way; much as if two different computer programs were being used. The left hemisphere codes the information into verbal form and uses logical, analytical processing to arrive at a 'reasonable' conclusion. The right, nondominant hemisphere performs a holistic or Gestalt synthesis, arriving at a conclusion based more on nonverbal input, without using deductive reasoning. This ability to reach two conclusions is useful for the most part since it is theoretically possible for a person to act upon the superior solution, achieving better results than if just one choice were available. Unfortunately, there is also the danger of conflict between the two solutions. When this occurs, the dominant hemisphere will usually win out, but what happens to the conflicting idea or attitude? Perhaps these subjugated 'programs' remain in storage to plague the individual in subtle ways not easily accessible to the verbal, conscious hemisphere. Perhaps these conflicts produce both psychological and physiological malfunction, such as the psychotic break of the schizophrenic, and mass murder of innocent individuals by a boy who was 'always quiet and shy and never hurt anyone.' Freud believed that repressed memories and action tendencies influence our everyday behavior even though we are not consciously aware of their power. It may be that brain-lateralization research points to a physiological basis for Freud's theories ' with the unconscious residing in the nondominant side of the brain. High and low arousal. As show in the simplified model above, the dominant hemisphere appears to function effectively over a smaller range of cortical arousal than does the nondominant side, perhaps because its functions ' analysis, abstraction, logic ' are more complex. The dominant hemisphere controls thinking most of the time. But when individuals get excited or frightened, the right hemisphere takes over. People 'don't think straight', and they do things that later, when they calm down, surprise of dismay them. The same switch happens at the other end of the arousal scale ' for instance, when someone is very fatigued or in the twilight state. The dominant hemisphere stops functioning efficiently, while the other side keeps plugging along. Without the normal censorship of the dominant hemisphere, the other is free to accept and act upon suggestions or commands made under these conditions. Less critical by design, the nondominant side is more likely to attempt to implement the command even though it may be nonsensical. This can happen at normal arousal levels, too, in unusual situations. If, for example, a world- famous mathematician tells you that two plus two does not equal four, you may believe him, at least for a moment. Or, if a world-renowned healer of a famous Philippine psychic surgeon 'lays on his hands,' you may be 'cured' even though you are not in a high or a low arousal state. The 'embedded-suggestion' technique of Milton Erickson, the great hypnotist, is another example of this effect [see Secrets of a Modern Mesmer, PT, July 1977]. What these situations have in common is a suspension of critical judgment and the acceptance of an illogical message. There seems to be an interruption or overloading of dominant-hemisphere functioning and a relatively uncritical absorption of material presented to the nondominant hemisphere. I qualify this statement because even the nondominant hemisphere has some protective defenses. We need to know more about these unconscious resistances as well as more efficient ways of communicating with the right brain. The right hemisphere prefers visual communication to verbal, but recent research indicates that the nondominant side can absorb more verbal material than had been thought, if presented properly. From research with aphasics ' people who have lost speech skills because of stroke or other injury to the dominant hemisphere ' we know that using concrete rather than abstract words improves comprehension. It also helps if the words are spoken slowly. And, strangest of all, singing helps aphasics: they understand better if sentences are sung to them, and they are able to express thoughts more easily by singing the words themselves. Apparently, the right hemisphere processes verbal material better if it is coded in rhythm or emotion. When someone speaks in a monotone, only the verbal, dominant hemisphere is activated. If the speaker adds intonation, the nonverbal side starts to pay attention. The right hemisphere's language is not the logical content of what is said, but the emotions conveyed by how it is said. Lecturers, preachers, and politicians who are famous for their oratory know intuitively what to do with their voices to generate emotion and thereby persuade their audiences. Left-brain overloading. Based on this theory, my colleagues and I have developed another way to reach The nondominant hemisphere [in this case, without biofeedback]. Since we want to suspend critical screening by the left hemisphere, we overload it with some meaningless task which the nondominant side does not care to process, leaving it free to do other things. The other thing in this case is listening to a message carefully prepared for the right brain. I discovered that repeating out loud a fast sequence of random numbers presented by a tape recorder made it impossible to consciously hear another tape recorded message being played at the same time. To enhance the effect, the random numbers are played at a slightly higher volume level in the right ear [more of what a person hears in their right ear goes to the left hemisphere, and vice versa]. The message intended for the right hemisphere displayed at a lower volume, but still audibly, in the left ear. If someone listens for and repeats the fast sequence of numbers, he hears very little of the other message. We tested these techniques on 20 men and women who were interested in weight control, using a tape with 10 weight-control suggestions. It also contained one suggestion that had nothing to do with weight loss: 'The back of your neck will itch.' When the 20 people repeated the random numbers as a group ' sounding like some jet-age mantra ' 12 of them scratched. Afterward, I asked if anyone heard a suggestion that did not concern weight control. Two of the people said they had heard the scratch suggestion, neither of them had scratched. A few days later, a woman told me that when she reached for a second helping of food, she heard a voice in her head say, 'You will eat only one helping..17, 96'' We have also prepared tapes to help people stop smoking. The technique is simple, but the wording and intonation of the material is crucial. I believe that as we learn more about communicating with the nonverbal hemisphere, we will find important applications for its use not only in psychotherapy but also in sports, the arts, and education. Perhaps we are only rediscovering abilities we once possessed before speech and logic came to dominate our behavior. It is exciting to consider that we may be learning again to talk to the long- neglected half of our brain.