I wanted to know what your thoughts are on using Sportslink or the Hemisync technology as tools for developing focus and strengthening the mind? In Extreme Alpinism, you describe them as having been valuable for you. So I was wondering if you still feel the same way about them and would you recommend them to others?

Answer

In my first book, "Extreme Alpinism - Climbing Light, Fast And High" a segment in the chapter written about psychological training was devoted to using electronic tools to influence particular brain wave states. Clearly, when one is all jacked-up from stress and physical effort but offered an opportunity to rest and recover (part way up a climb, for example), shutting down the brain to make the most of the recovery period is necessary. Most of us have trouble shifting psychic gears - in any situation - so learning what a particular brain state feels like, and the steps one might take to reproduce it is a helpful skill. This applies as much to shutting down internal dialogue to allow sleep as it does to shutting down internal dialogue that distracts from ideal physical performance. The first teaching tool I used was Hemi-Sync, a binaural radio-sonic technology produced by The Monroe Institute. These sound patterns, included with music, verbal cues or nature sounds, produce what Robert Monroe called a Frequency Following Response in the electrical activity of the brain to cause a shift in EEG frequency toward a particular, desired brain wave condition, having first "synchronized" the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Monroe's thesis was that relaxation, sleep, arousal, focus, and awareness may all be self-directed when the brain is in a synchronized state.

In 1997 I was introduced to Rayma Ditson-Sommer who had developed the Sportslink Focus Trainer, which used a combination of binaural beats and frequency-specific light to entrain the brain toward the desired state. The combination of light and sound felt more effective than the purely sound-based Hemi-Sync product.

I used the Sportslink mostly during a post-training or stress recovery period to shut down my brain, to relax, with the objective to speed the recovery process. I used it to sleep on plane flights - or any time I could not voluntarily turn off brain activity. I was never certain that I learned to voluntarily access a particular brain state (by using this tool), that I could do so without it, but I was able to relax in mountain situations that were most certainly not "relaxing" and I managed to get some rest during bad bivouacs when it was essential to recover before climbing again the next day.

I also used the Sportslink during periods of mental rehearsal or visualization. Consider that training is left-brained, a conscious modification of specific behavior patterns. Competition and performance are right-brained activities, the free and creative expression of the trained behavior (the ????letting go?????? of one??????s trained abilities). By stimulating the correct brain wave state for each activity, the practice or expression can be more effective, a better use of time and energy. To learn a bit more about the different hemispheres of the brain and their interaction check out this video.

These tools are not limited to sport performance. In fact, this may be the least interesting - though most visible - category of use (Ditson-Sommer has used light, color and sound to treat ADD/HD for almost 20 years). That being said, improving peak athletic performance is an attractive and lucrative concept so athletes from quite diverse sports have used brain wave entrainment tools as well as bio/neuro feedback devices to do just that. Thought Technology, Ltd produces biofeedback equipment and lists quite a few athletes who have used their tools over the years here.

I first read about using biofeedback to induce changes in skin temperature when Jean-Louis Etienne discussed having used it prior to his solo North Pole expedition in the late-80s. I dismissed it as a BS sales pitch. But as I practiced with the various entrainment devices I realized that the tool itself was not the answer, instead the tool was a means to learn self-control, which, in Etienne's case manifested as the ability to increase skin temperature at the fingertip. Focusing solely on the skin temperature issue misses the point, which was to learn the means to control or reduce or adapt to the stress of long and intensive effort in an inhospitable environment, trying to do something no one had done before. We can use technology to learn specific lessons that we may eventually apply or express independent of that technology: use biofeedback tools to learn how to achieve and maintain a meditative state that facilitates optimal performance in the relevant activity.

Modern biofeedback equipment is more advanced than it was during Etienne's experience and an overview of current technology may be viewed here. However, these tools do not suit everyone's temperament nor does everyone have easy access. In fact, some folks I know reject it outright. Of the Sportslink device, my friend Brian Enos, shooting champion and Zen practitioner, said, "It's a crutch and I don't need or want it." I am certain that my old coach Steve Ilg would also urge a more organic approach.

So to answer the original question, I think this type of (brain wave entrainment) tool can be useful for certain individuals during particular periods. However my feeling about all tools is that we use them until we can become independent of them. There are some we need, always. There are others that only light the way, and guide us toward, introduce us to, our own latent abilities.

The brain wave entrainment tools are worth a try because they are relatively inexpensive. That said, were I to walk this path again I would use a more interactive biofeedback tool that compelled me to use my brain as opposed to the entrainment technology that allows more or less passive participation. The interactive, feedback tools will likely produce better results, more efficiently.

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