In the realm of Brainwave Entrainment, the Guardian Response is enemy #1.
To give you an idea of what the Guardian Response is, there was a recent article in the Independent about Mind Machines, specifically the MindSpa. The author is pretty skeptical at first, and doesn’t really know what to expect. Not surprisingly, his first experience is not all that great. Here’s an excerpt:
The programme starts with a 10-second countdown that’s supposed to give me time to get comfortable, but instead makes me nervous. Three… two… one… suddenly 12 white LEDs in the glasses start flashing maniacally, while at the same time my ears are bombarded with a rhythmic electronic drone. I feel like I’ve been locked inside the engine room of the Starship Enterprise. Never mind Zen-like calmness – I fear the MindSpa is going to induce an epileptic fit. I try to relax and focus on my breathing but five minutes in I start feeling queasy. It’s time for a break.
According to Dr Ruth Olmstead, a psychologist and expert in “Auditory and Visual Stimulation” (AVS), I’ve experienced a “guardian response”. Olmstead, who developed the MindSpa programs for Californian firm A/V Stim, says: “The first time people try it they’re often too busy thinking about it to relax.”
Later on in the article, after some research and a few more tries, the author was able to bypass the Guardian Response and have a very pleasant experience with the technology.
Brainwave Entrainment (BWE) is not like drugs or alcohol – if you are not in a conducive emotional and physical state for relaxation, there is no amount of BWE that can make relaxation happen. If this is the case, the conflict between what the stimulation is trying to do, and your own resistance to it, often causes opposite effects such as anxiety, frustration, headaches or queasiness.
The Guardian Response can actually be due to a number of factors, such as lack of rapport with the therapist or conflicting beliefs.
Here is how David Siever describes this problem:
The guardian response, simply put, is a condition of anxiety that a person may develop when placed into a situation to which he/she feels apprehensive. The guardian response may be produced when a person is in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable setting or where that person is expected to engage in an activity which incites anxiety. Many people have a guardian response to dissociating. Because both L&S and AVE can produce dissociation, they may also elicit a guardian response in some individuals.
Clients may be concerned about being pressured to purchase a product or service, they may have uncomfortable feelings regarding their rapport with their “therapist.” Some may feel anxiety about doing a simple task such as performing a math question or even relaxing. A client may be nervous about using the equipment, or may feel too “exposed”. A client may be nervous about having “dark” thoughts or may have conflicting religious beliefs, moral values or medical beliefs prohibiting him/her from having a good BWE experience. In any of these cases, the client will probably develop a guardian response which will manifest itself as:
- need to visit the washroom
- refusal to relax
- refusal to drift away during a session
- refusal to complete a session
- high GSR activity
- an immediate “bad” experience
- poor, boring or sickening visuals
Often, an unsettled client can be comforted into having a better experience through conversation or by playing a relaxation tape. If the AVE concept, for some reason, conflicts with the person’s belief system, there is typically nothing that can be done except to end the session and thank the person for being there. This person may try a session a year or two later when his/her belief system is prepared for the AVE experience, at which time she/he will likely have an excellent experience.
The Guardian Response is the reason I have had such a frustrating time getting some of my friends and relatives to use BWE. I have a teenage relative who has always been very curious about the technology – when I demonstrate some new hardware or software to the family, she’ll always be the first to want to put it on and try it. The problem, of course, is that we’re usually not in an appropriate place for any type of relaxation, and she will feel the need to giggle or talk to her friends while using it.
The more skeptical beginners can have similar initial problems. Although very well studied, BWE is not yet mainstream. Therefore it is understandable that people would be skeptical at first. Beginners who are still in the process of researching the technology may find it hard to “let go” and allow the stimulation to take over. I make a special effort to present as much research as I reasonably can beforehand, but this is something that is hard to explain in a few paragraphs. Even Dr. Huang has mentioned problems with this. If you can get past this barrier, and convince them to give it an honest try, even the most cynical beginners will have very effective experiences. Some of the most dedicated users of BWE technology I know started out like this, including myself. Skepticism is healthy, and in the end won’t make a bit of difference from a neurological perspective. The trick is getting people to try it a few times.
Creating the first experience
Luckily, most people interested in our products have done quite a bit of research and have already decided to make a concerted effort to try it. The real challenge then is creating a pleasant and convincing first experience. Presenting instructions and tips before every session is essential for beginners. Using background files like nature sounds or ambient music can help create a more familiar experience. Verbal guidance and induction scripts are also quite useful. We use a questionnaire (called a Wizard in NP2) that asks a series of questions about your personality, and what kind of sounds you prefer, and then gives recommendations based on data and feedback collected from thousands of users.
Even so, it can be a high-wire act trying to balance a user’s first experience with effectiveness and neural response. The user might have a relaxing first experience if there is so little entrainment that all you hear are nature sounds, but the actual neural effect of the session may be severely diminished. Did you know that the most effective audio entrainment is from clicks? Unfortunately, clicks are so abrasive sounding that they are completely unusable in commercial products, even for experienced users of BWE.
The Guardian Response is a real challenge; there is a lot of work to do to make everyone’s initial experience as fantastic as someone who has been using this technology for years. If you are a new user: remember to read everything you can beforehand. Before starting your session, listen to it for a few seconds. Does it sound relaxing to you? If not, customize the session to yourself. Consider your first session a mere experiment. Throw away any expectations or anxieties you have about it. Lay back, relax and let the stimulation do its work.