Sunday, January 19, 2014

Blinky Lights - Visual Entrainment

In talking up my EEG hacking with some friends, I found a buddy who was really interested.  In particular, he was interested these smartphone apps that claim to affect your sleep state.  My friend wanted to know if these apps actually did anything to the brain.  That's a pretty cool question, and very similar to the question that I had about meditators (see their results here and here).  To figure out if his sleep-modifying apps were doing anything to his brain wave, he volunteered to be my guinea pig.  What a guy!

A Willing Guinea Pig Meets the Red EEG Cap

This post shows some of the data that I collected...though not yet when subject to the sleep app.  I decided to start simple and record how his particular brain responds to sensory entrainment.  Entrainment is how these sleep apps work, so if we understand how he responds to entrainment in general, we'll be well-positioned to understand his response to the sleep apps.  So

Background:  It is my understanding that the sleep apps work by playing specially-constructed sounds into your ears via headphones.  They're trying to induce certain brain rhythms (Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta, etc) by playing audio into your ears at the same frequency as the desired brain rhythm.  Put most simply, they play a 10 Hz tone into your ears and hope to get brain waves at 10 Hz (ie, Alpha rhythm).  This is called entrainment and is a long-known phenomenon in EEG.  Personally, I'm not too familiar with this type of auditory entrainment, but I do know that visual entrainment, so I'm going to start there.

Setup:  I'm using the same setup as I used for my recordings of meditators.  I used an EEG electrode cap (this is the first time using the red-colored cap, though...exciting!) with the EEG electrode gel that came with the electrode cap kit (ECI Electro-Gel).  We used the same electrode montage (see figures below), the same reference electrode (near FPz/AFz) and the same ground/bias electrode (right mastoid).  For electronics, I used an OpenBCI V1 board with an Arduino streaming data to my PC running our full GUI that was written in Processing.

Baseline, Eyes-Closed Alpha:  Since I had never recorded my friend's EEG before, I decided to start with the most basic recording -- I had him close his eyes so that we could see his Alpha-wave posterior dominant rhythm (PDR).  The spectrograms in the montage below show his is very normal.  Note the energy in the Alpha band (~10 Hz) that shows up most strongly in the back of his head and not at all in the front of his head.  As I said, very normal.

Spectrograms of EEG Signals Recorded With the Eyes Closed.
Notice the Strong (and typical) Energy in the Alpha Frequencies.
Click to Zoom.

In the figure below, I summarize this PDR Alpha response across the eight electrodes.  It shows that his Alpha peaks at about 10.25 Hz.  His Alpha are a bit stronger on the left side of his head (channel 7, green) than on the right (channel 8, blue).  That's also what happens with me.  I've always wondered if this asymmetric Alpha response is related to handedness.  I'm right handed.  I don't know handedness my friend is.  It would be interesting to record a lefty and see what happens!

Average EEG Amplitude Recorded With Eyes Closed and Relaxing.
Notice the Strong Peak in the Alpha Band (~10 Hz).
Finally, the last thing that I'd like to examine with his eyes-closed Alpha data is the spectral coherence of the EEG signals from neighboring electrodes.  This is a quantity that I first analyzed in this post on my second meditator.  It shows how strongly related (how correlated) are the signals between two electrodes.  I use this type of analysis to estimate whether the different physical areas of the brain are working together or independently.

Below are the cross-channel coherence plots for my friend sitting with his eyes closed.  Like with my meditating friend, he shows very little coherence in the front of they head (those areas must be acting independently relative to each other) and more coherence towards the back of the head.  Looking specifically at the Alpha band, it looks like the Alpha seen between electrodes 5 and 7 (ie, back left) are strongly related to each other.  Same with the Alpha seen between electrodes 6 and 8 (ie, back right).  In the very back of the head (7 and 8), the 10 Hz energy is not very coherent between the two hemispheres, even though they are physically closer together that 5/7 or 6/8.  This is so interesting to me.  It is also the same result that we saw with my meditator friend when he was not meditating.

Spectral Coherence Between Neighboring Electrodes.   Strong coherence (red) implies coordinated
EEG activity whereas low coherence (blue) implies independent EEG activity.
Click to Zoom.

Visual Entrainment:  Now we start to do something new.  To see how entrainment works, I started with the easiest sensory entrainment that I know about -- visual entrainment.  The idea here is that you blink a light at a certain speed and you look for brain rhythms at that same frequency.  Truth-be-told, I wasn't actually planning on doing this test, so I didn't have a good light prepared.  But I do have a nice new, really-bright hiking headlamp that has a blink setting.  I don't know exactly what speed it is, but I counted blinks and it's less than 5 Hz.  Sadly, it's blinking rate isn't as steady as I might like.  But, when you're EEG hacking, sometimes you gotta be quick and dirty.

[WARNING!  Be careful doing this kind of test at home!  Blinking lights like this can induce seizures!  Proceed at your own risk!]

To do my visual entrainment test, I darkened the room and had my friend sit in a chair, like before.  I held the blinking light about a foot and a half from his face (see picture below).  We did part of a recording where his eyes were open and looking at the blinking light (so bright!), then he closed his eyes while the blinking continued, then he opened his eyes again.  It turns out that only the eyes-closed portion gave decent results, so that data is what I'm going to focus on.

Attempting Visual Entrainment Using a Blinking LED Hiking Headlamp

If we start with the spectrograms (below, you might want to click on the figure to see it bigger), you'll see that we got a nice line of energy down at the low frequencies (~4 Hz).  The line only appears when both the light was blinking and when his eyes were closed.  Note that it shows up in all EEG channels, but it appears to be a bit stronger on the right side of his head.  These lines in the spectrograms mean that his brain waves were indeed being induced to oscillate at the same rate as the blinking light.  It's a well known effect, but I still think that's kinda cool.

Spectrograms of EEG Signals Recording With Eyes Closed with a Bright Blinking Light.
Click to Zoom.

These spectrograms are summarized in the single spectrum plot below.  It shows a peak at 3.9 Hz, which is most likely the blinking rate of my head lamp.  The amplitude of the entrained waves is quite strong --  note that it is similar in amplitude as the eyes-closed baseline Alpha waves that we recorded earlier.  This graph also confirms that the entrained waves are a bit stronger on the right side (channel 8, blue) versus the left (channel 7, green).  If you remember from above, his baseline eyes-closed alpha waves were the opposite -- they were stronger on the left.  Finally, perhaps most surprising of all is that there are no Alpha waves at all.  Remember, his eyes are closed just like before.  Yet, there are no Alpha waves.  The presence of the blinking light apparently suppresses his natural rhythms (the Alpha) and entrains a rhythm at its own blink rate (the 3.9 Hz signal).

Average EEG Amplitude Recorded With Eyes Closed and A Bright Light Blinking
Notice the Strong Peak at 3.9 Hz (the Blink Rate) and the Absence of Alpha Waves.

Finally, let's look at the spectral coherence across neighboring EEG channels.  The plot below shows strong coherence at these low frequencies (3.9 Hz) across all pairs of channels except for the 1/3 pair (front left) and the 2./4 pair (front right).  Why are these not coherent yet the others are?  I don't know.  The 1/3 pair and the 2/4 pair do have the largest physical spacing of any of the pairs, but I still find it surprising.  I mean, even the cross-hemisphere pairs of electrodes (the 1/2 pair in front and the 7/8 pair in back) show good coherence, but not these 1/3 and 2/4 pairs.  I'm not sure what it means (the front's response is independent of the whole rest of the brain?) but I'll be sure to keep an eye on the 1/3 and 2/4 coherence in the future to see if there is a trend.

Spectral Coherence Between Neighboring Electrodes During the Eyes-Closed Blinking Light Test.
Click to Zoom.

Conclusion:  OK, what have we learned?  We learned that my buddy looks pretty cool in that red EEG cap.  And we learned that his brain is a mysterious place that emanates lots of cool signals.  His willingness to be my guinea pig gave me lots of data from which I have made lots of nerdy graphs.    Here's what I learned from the graphs:

  • His eyes-closed alpha waves are similar to the others that I've measured
    • Similar frequency (~10 Hz)
    • Similar amplitude (~4 uV RMS)
    • Similar spatial distribution across the head (strongest in the back)
    • Similar coherence pattern (back-left and back-right, but not cross-hemisphere)
  • We successfully induced visual entrainment with the blinking light (3.9 Hz)
    • Similar amplitude as the eyes-closed Alpha waves (~4 uV RMS)
    • Entrained brain waves appear all over the head
    • Entrained brain waves are coherent everywhere except front-left and front-right
    • The blinking light suppressed the PDR Alpha response

But what does it all mean?  Does it mean that the sleep-modification app on his smartphone will do anything?  No, this data and analysis does not speak to that question at all.  The goal here was just to help me (us?) learn about sensory EEG entrainment in general, and about my friend's individual EEG response in particular.  Now, that we've done the easy thing and gotten a bit smarter, we can maybe move on toward the harder thing (auditory entrainment) to try to answer the question as to whether the sleep-modification brainwave app is doing anything.  Now I have a better idea of what to look for.

So, thanks for reading.  This is so fun!  (for me at least...)

Next Steps:  In this follow-on post, I use a computer screen instead of a blinky light.  I show that I can entrain brain waves at a variety of speeds.  This is the first step in making an entrainment-based BCI!

Follow-Up:  I used visual entrainment to control a six-legged walker...with my brain waves!


  1. Hello Chip,

    as always I enjoy reading your work. I have a question and a concern. First the concern, some form of epilepsy are photoresponsive so one has to be real carefull in front of who they are flashing lights, maybe adding a warning would gard you from any legal problems ;-)

    And my question is; are your data accessible in raw form as i would like to see them in an other form then a spectogram. I'm a soon to be technician in EEG and ECG and in clinics we look at amplitude over time.

    Also I backed the OpenBCI project on kickstarter and can't wait to get my board (with accelerometer now!) and try to walk in your foot steps! ;-)


    1. Good call regarding the risk of seizure risk. I added a warning.

      Regarding sharing the data, it's a great idea that me and my OpenBCI friends have been discussing for a while. We're trying to find the best way to do it in a smart, scalable way...a way that hopefully allows others to contribute, as well as myself.

  2. oups just realized it is uV over time ;)


  3. Chip-

    Regarding the auditory entrainment, you might know this already, but I believe it's typically done with a binaural beat... so they're actually playing a 1000 Hz sound in one ear (for example) and a 1010 Hz in the other, since of course you can't hear 10 Hz

    Neat stuff. It seems like the effects of the visual entrainment are stronger and more robust than for your meditating friends :)

    1. Yeah, definitely beat frequencies (you can't hear down to the 10 Hz frequency that would be necessary to induce Alpha, for example).

      In implementing the beating stimulation, I've seen it written up down both ways -- either using monaural beating or using binaural beating. In the literature that I've read, monaural is generally more effective, but YMMV.

      Have you played with it at all yourself? Definitely interested to hear if you felt an effect!

  4. Hi, liked the homebrew experiment! I have been using a light and sound brain entrainment tool for a couple of decades, and really did not have much success, mild sensation etc, until combining it with some other sounds. I do believe the major effects are from the beat frequencies, both aural and auditory. If your next stage was to check out what a controlled light/sound beat frequency does to entrainment, I think the EEG testing would be great.

    Thanks for the Blog!

  5. Hi Chip, I would interested in have chat with regarding your work. I have made a device using PIC clicker to control a couple of LEDs. I have been experimenting using different CPS (hz) from 1hz to 14hz. My Email is i would love be able to call you to discuss my results.