Riding the theta waves

IMG_0072Theta Lab, George Poonkhin Khut and James Brown
MCA Shop, 9 & 10 June

The inside of my head: as the old saying goes, ‘nice place for a holiday but you wouldn’t want to live there’. If one of the defining features of contemporary arts experiences is that they show us something about the way we think, then Theta Lab takes this idea to a whole ‘nother’ level, creating a real-time interaction between participants’ brainwaves and a responsive soundscape.

In the waiting room a wall-sized video monitor shows what’s to come: a dimly lit chamber with three futon-like beds on which three participants lie inert. Attendants quietly walk past, adjusting computer settings, keeping watch. Now and then a shaft of brighter light falls across the room as someone leaves, parting the dark curtains between the ‘pod’ and the foyer. Outside, punters are swarming around The Rocks for the final night of Vivid Lights. Here, it’s like a monastery or a health retreat, minus the whale music.

The EEG monitor is strapped around my head. Artist George Poonkhin Khut explains that over 30 minutes I will listen through headphones to a soundtrack influenced by my own brainwaves. As my mind calms, the initial loud crackle of Alpha waves will recede, giving way to other sounds. While there’s no ‘desired result’, the system is set to respond to Theta waves, which usually occur in a state of ‘mindful awareness’, such as when meditating or just before sleep.

Immersed under headphones, the next half hour is challenging, illuminating, and intensely interactive considering that my body lies still and is not in communication with anyone else. It’s just me and the neurofeedback system: a half-hour mental dance of confidence, calm, impatience, frustration, surprise, wonder and occasional self-punishment in the arms of Theta Lab.

The sounds I hear range from a constant, throbbing murmur that travels through my whole body, to bell-like tones that seem to call a higher consciousness. My Alpha wave activity seems to settle a little – the loud crackle subsides – but the beating bass tones continue, and I know my heart rate is going up, not down. I try a bit of yoga nidra relaxation – and get some bell sounds, yay! As soon as I think ‘yay’ the harsh crackle is back. This is the trick of meditation, and Theta Lab is creating an aural window into my process of ‘trying’ to achieve it. As my time in the lab proceeds, I experience  a few moments of real calm, where soft roads of sound like low cello begin to hum in one ear before eluding me again. And at the end, feeling a little like I can’t drum up a Theta wave to save myself, I can only think, wow, is that what it’s like inside my head?

But seriously, as I leave the building (after ‘describing’ my experience in a blackboard drawing and completing a short exit interview) I realise: this sound, whether grumbling, crackling, smooth or harmonic, is me. It holds a mirror to who I am, in a particular situation. All the conflicting feelings are reflected; the unstoppable ping-ponging between awareness, in-the-moment-ness, thought, peace, the arts-journalist self, the curious self, the self-judging self, the playful self. And I really wish I could take it home and do it more, learn to really find those Theta waves. Co-creator James Brown later tells me that an intensive workshop of Theta Lab – say, ten hours a day for a week – is something the artists would love to experiment with.

Theta Lab renders a particular experience of the brain and the mind accessible – one that for all but the mystic is usually beyond perception. For me, it was challenging – but an incredibly illuminating, warm and embracing experience nonetheless. Some people fall asleep, some people access those elusive Theta waves easily. It made me want to lie down and chat to my brainwaves more often.


Here’s a bit of background to Theta Lab, from a short interview with George Poonkhin Khut:

George, can you give me a brief history of Theta Lab? How/when/why did it come about?

I’ve been wanting to work with Alpha and Theta brainwaves since I first got interested in body-focussed interaction in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t something that I could pursue at the time within the context of my doctoral research, because of the very stringent human-research ethics approval process… The idea of brainwave-based interactions – as a creative practice – would have been just too much. So I focussed instead on breath and heart-rate based interactions [for an example see BrightHearts as part of Synapse: A Selection at Powerhouse], and did some private experiments with Alpha and Theta neurofeedback, with Dana Adam, a psychologist working with these technologies in a private practice.

A collaboration with Max Lyandvert and students from the NIDA Costume and Props departments in 2011 gave me the opportunity to begin exploring recent developments in affordable and easy to use brain-computer interfaces – and the Theta Lab project developed from this opportunity. [Winning] the National New Media Art Award in 2012 gave me some extra time and money to invest in affordable hardware and to commission the development of software to integrate these technologies into my existing Max-MSP tool set.

I was also very keen to work with a sound designer…. I’d been really impressed with James Brown’s approach to sound for performance – his work for Victoria Hunt’s Copper Promises and Matthew Day’s Intermission – and also his interest in multi-sensory performance and altered states of consciousness (Aisthesis at PACT); and sensed that Theta Lab would align closely with his own interests in music and live art.

What’s been most surprising or illuminating about this project?

The actual experience of the work itself. We intuitively knew that it would be great to incorporate vibro-tactile sub-bass sounds into the neurofeedback sound design – but actually feeling it, in connection to the changes in the Alpha brainwaves and the way it blended with the headphone component of the sound design, was something else entirely. The unusual combination of mental and visceral action and sensation is very hard to describe, but very sensual and pleasurable.

At what stage is the work now?

Very much at the prototyping and testing phase. There’s so much more to explore with how we sonify these brainwave dynamics, and also technologies for measuring and calibrating the brainwave signals. We really hope we can find some opportunities to develop the work further over the coming 12 months – through some combination of artist residencies, living-lab type creative workshop events and live arts festival events.

What exactly are brainwaves anyway? What makes the wave?

Brainwaves are rapid oscillations in voltage (0.1Hz – 40Hz) between parts of the cerebral cortex, that can be measured with an electroencephalograph. The relative mix and power of these oscillations can be seen to vary according to mental task and process.


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