Michael Hutchison's first book, Megabrain: New Tools and Techniques for Brain Growth and Mind Expansion, explores the use of mind machines to enhance mental functioning.

The first half of the book deals primarily with recent discoveries in neuroscience. For example, neuroscientists had long assumed that the physical size of the brain is determined by heredity. Megabrain, however, discusses studies that show that certain types of external stimulation of the brain ("enriched environments") can cause an increase in brain size. Other studies disproved the old assumption that neurons cannot regenerate. Synthesizing these (and other) studies, Hutchison argues that the human brain is capable of significantly greater feats of learning, remembering, and creating than had previously been believed.

The obvious question, then, is what can we do about this in a practical sense? In the second half of the book, Hutchison looks at various different types of machines that are intended to increase people's mental functioning. Some the fascinating devices he examines include TENS units, cranio electro-stimulation devices, flotation/isolation tanks, and Hemi-Sync tapes. To me, though, the most interesting devices discussed are biofeedback devices and sound and light machines.

Biofeedback refers to the use of mechanical or electrical means to amplify internal physical or mental processes, which allows these internal events to come under the conscious control of the user. An example of a simple biofeedback device is a ThoughtStream. This device attaches to your finger and measures your stress levels. As you become more and more relaxed, the device emits lower and lower sounds, and also flashes LEDs in a recognizable pattern. If you become less relaxed, the pitch of the sounds becomes higher and the LEDs flash in a different pattern. By observing how the device changes in response to your feelings, you can learn to relax deeply at a more and more rapid pace. Of course, many biofeedback devices are significantly more complex than the ThoughtStream. Some that are discussed in Megabrain allegedly help to promote rapid bilateral symmetry, which is similar to the state that meditation masters can achieve only after much practice.

Sound and light machines are more like pacemakers for the brain. These devices come with headphones and goggles, and they produce sounds and lights that pulse at specific brain wave frequencies. The use of these frequencies can purportedly provide the "enriched environment" for the brain referred to by neuroscientists. Depending on the frequencies chosen by the user, she might experience hypnotic states, relaxation, enhanced learning, or other states.

Megabrain leaves many questions unanswered. The first half of the book is on much stronger scientific ground than the second half. Nonetheless, people who are interested in exploring their own consciousness in a legal manner can find many possible fruitful areas of inquiry. The book was published in 1986 and updated in 1991, and at over 10 years old it is somewhat out of date. Nonetheless it still remains the best introduction to this subject.

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