Sept 5 - Sept 11, 1996 / Volume V, No. 36
-- Duke Russell
Because the FDA regulates hearing devices, the group isn't allowed to officially make the claim that it helps deaf people hear. But, says Anchorage resident Dr. Nick Begich, "It's a sound/hearing enhancement device that works for everyone," including many deaf people he's tried it on. Furthermore, the neurophone's backers say even more dramatic applications - including computer interfaces, stimulation of the brain's visual centers and electronic telepathy - may be on the horizon. Currently, it's being marketed largely as a learning device and brain enhancing tool.
The device, a small white box with the words "Flanagan Neurophone Thinkman" emblazoned on the front, has a sound input and output port, and an on/off button. The circuitry is frozen in carbonite to protect the secret of its design. The headphones are a modified Radio Shack model - two brass electrodes, similar to those which produce sound in musical greeting cards, are wired where speakers used to be. The body completes a series circuit between the two electrodes, causing them to vibrate and send an electrical signal through the skin.
The same effect can be accomplished by completing the circuit with a paper clip or other conductor. However, when the electrodes are placed in contact with the skin, the sound actually appears to be coming from inside one's head - especially when the electrodes are placed on the neck or temples. According to Flanagan it can take some users (especially the deaf) about a week to learn how to hear with the device, most people experience the effect right away.
Although one would suspect the device works based on an already-known phenomenon of bone conduction (where sound vibrations are carried through the bones, in turn vibrating the small bones of the inner ear), Flanagan says a different and far more useful effect is happening. He claims the device bypasses normal hearing channels, transferring information through a more efficient and direct route.
Though contemporary science has yet to thoroughly evaluate the neurophone, Begich's recently formed Earthpulse Press is marketing the device in connection with a book about its benefits. This plan of marketing a book and technology at the same time is at the center of Earthpulse Press' strategy - a strategy Begich says will lead to the rollout of four to five more book/product combinations over the next two years.
Placed on the shelf for decades, the neurophone recently made a resurgence in Begich's first book, "Angels Don't Play This HAARP," for which Flanagan wrote the forward. His second book, "Towards a New Alchemy: The New Millennium Science" (which he says was written in a week), details the neurophone as well as a number of other inventions as it explores the frontiers of what Begich terms 'the new science'.
This new alchemy incorporates Eastern thought and so-called new age science; encourages a broader, more interdisciplinary line of inquiry; and in part places the complex and expensive task of evaluating new technologies in the hands of the consumer. Begich explores these new strategies largely through the story of the neurophone, which is both explained and advertised in the book's pages. The book also discusses a few of the upcoming Earthpulse-marketed inventions, including electro-acupuncture, microcrystals and pyramid power. And it introduces three personalities working together to create the 'science of the future' - Dr. Patrick Flanagan, Dr. Regio Makela, and Dr. Nick Begich.
Future versions of the neurophone, say its backers, may allow computer virtual reality interfaces, telepathic communications and much more. In the worst case, it could be a useless gizmo that sells for $600 to $1200, depending on who you buy it from.
Dr. Patrick Flanagan invented the neurophone in 1958 when he was 14 years old. Portrayed in "New Alchemy" as a boy genius who invented (among many other things) a better ICBM launch detector in elementary school, Flanagan received a good deal of media attention even then. Unable to get a patent on the device until 1967 because the patent office didn't believe him, they eventually recanted when, according to Flanagan, the neurophone allowed a deaf patent office employee to hear. On the strength of his demonstration, and with his attorney present, the patent was issued immediately.
Flanagan later worked on human/dolphin communication at Tufts University, where he incorporated the neurophone into his work. The device enabled researchers to reduce high-frequency sounds to the audible range, and a small-vocabulary language was developed.
Soon after, Flanagan filed a patent for a digital version of the neurophone which was not immediately issued. Instead, he says, the Defense Intelligence Agency slapped a secrecy order on the project that would last five years - during which he was unable to work on the project or discuss it with anyone. According to Begich, Flanagan wasn't alone - by 1968, over 750,000 patents had been stolen from the public by such means.
According to Flanagan, the neurophone works by using the skin's electrical properties to send coded impulses through nerves in the skin. This supposedly bypasses the auditory nerve, which we all use to process sound. When we say someone is 'nerve deaf', this is the nerve we're referring to. The neurophone's circuitry handles this encoding for you.
"The digital neurophone converts sound waves into a digital signal that matches the time ratios codes understood by the human brain," says Flanagan, adding that educational tapes played through the device are "very rapidly incorporated into the long-term memory banks of our brains."
Flanagan's language is sometimes difficult to digest, and his full explanation of the neurophone is largely beyond the scope of this article. "The [high-frequency, amplitude modulated] neurophone is really a scalar wave device since the out-of-phase signals from the electrodes mix in the non-linear complexities of the skin dielectric," he writes.
The neurophone has been proven to circumvent the auditory nerve, says Flanagan, through a number of tests. First, nerve deaf people can't hear through bone conduction, but they can hear with the neurophone. Second, he says, people with nerve damage to their skin can't hear when the electrodes are placed over the damaged section, but can hear when it's moved to a region with working nerves.
The final proof was a 'beat frequency test' conducted at Tufts during the dolphin research. This test measured cancellation of sound in the inner ear. When the same sound was played through a neurophone in one ear and a speaker in the other, there was no cancellation. This comes as little surprise (and little proof) to my humble and inexperienced judgment, because the sound characteristics of the neurophone are completely different from speaker-produced sounds, and thus shouldn't produce such a cancellation.
Nonetheless, Flanagan suggests that in addition to new channels of hearing, the neurophone is a powerful tool for brain entrainment and brain synchronization. Brain entrainment is when the frequency of brain waves is altered by external forces; brain synchronization occurs when both hemispheres produce the same Electroencephalophograph readings.
Begich first became acquainted with Dr. Flanagan through Flanagan's writings, and wanted to hook him up with another researcher and friend, Dr. Makela. Both Makela and Flanagan have degrees from the Open International University for Complementary Medicines in Sri Lanka, in 'Medicina Alternativa'. Through the process of connecting the two researchers, Begich's own work was recognized by the Open International University, and he was awarded an honorary MD in Traditional Medicine.
The New Alchemy
Begich doesn't call this the new alchemy for nothing. At first glance, the neurophone smacks of fringe science and snake oil. Searches on the web about the product turn up 'weird science' ranging from UFO abductions to crystal healing. "New Alchemy" has sections dealing with such new age topics as electro-acupuncture, pyramid power and bioelectric energies contained in water. Advertisements proclaiming "THE AMAZING NEUROPHONE", call upon many concepts which stand outside of contemporary western science.
But, as Begich is quick to point out, some of the best discoveries went beyond known science, and some of the best inventions were proven by the fact that they simply worked. "You do the new alchemy differently - you do it," says Begich. "If you look back at all the best inventions of humanity, they weren't sitting around theorizing. Industry, airplanes, the light bulb and many other great inventions came in that way. The best inventions came from the mavericks - not professional, bureaucratized scientists. "
The politics and the expense of doing contemporary science have hindered creative new directions, says Begich. "[Earthpulse] forgot about peer review - we forgot about the stumbling blocks towards getting this technology out," he says. "Instead, why not try it for yourself? If you're not satisfied, you get the money back. We want to take complex science, simplify it, and put it in the hands of the people."
This commitment to transferring technology directly to the people draws some criticism from mainstream science. But Begich says science is stale and far too driven by military objectives. A broader line of inquiry and more direct access are what we need to revitalize our scientific strategy, he says. "Some straight-line scientists resent us because we do science in our own way," he says. "But good science is thoughtful; and we're into good technology that does something decent."
Though he realizes the community's need for analytical investigation, Begich knows that getting tied up with too much bureaucratic research procedures would interfere with his ability to put the neurophone out. "People want more research, but more than that, they want access to the technology," he says. "And we don't just want to write about it - we want to provide it."
Evaluating the Neurophone
Despite the fact that few contemporary scientists are familiar with the principles of the neurophone, and despite the high cost of research, a number of evaluations are ongoing. In addition to tests like the beat frequency test and the preliminary work on dolphins, a number of unscientific trials have yielded promising results.
"In Alaska, we did a lecture series and let people try the neurophone afterwards," says Begich. "300 people tried it and it worked on everyone. Some were partially deaf, but everyone experienced enhanced sound."
According to Anchorage neurologist Dr. Tom Gordon, "The scientifically fair thing to do is to look at a double-blind, randomized study," to eliminate the possibility of placebo effects. Yet, self-reports can be a powerful indication that many consumers at least like the device. If Earthpulse sells them with a money back guarantee, and most customers are satisfied, who cares if it's 'scientifically proven' to work? The group is in the process of designing a "scientific survey instrument" to gauge customer satisfaction and to hone the group's marketing strategies.
In my first five minutes with the neurophone, I could tell it did something, though exactly what was beyond my expertise. With the electrodes attached to my neck, it did indeed appear as if the sound were located inside my head, though the quality was far from perfect. Furthermore, the actual effect on my brain was difficult to gauge.
Though the neurophone interferes with EEG readings because of its electrical interference, Begich says that when used and removed for the EEG, it's been demonstrated to entrain the brain into different states (alpha, delta or theta waves predominating, depending on the type of sound played). Furthermore, the brain waves in both hemispheres are synchronized - a condition the literature suggests is good for learning, says Begich.
Armed with a loaner neurophone for a week, I set about to evaluate the device myself. This proved more difficult than anticipated. The original plan to gather a team of experts to evaluate the device fell apart because few people in the world (let alone Anchorage) are expert in bioelectricity, electrical engineering, brain electrochemistry and all of the other disciplines that the neurophone crosses. Additionally, much of the research in this area has been ignored or criticized by mainstream scientists, and many people I contacted were instantly ready to dismiss the product.
Gordon, for example, refused to sit on the panel. "It sounds like bunk to me," he says, adding however that he isn't truly qualified to judge the device. "A panel of experts won't tell you anything anyway. A panel of experts convicted Galileo."
Earthpulse is working to get research grants from the state to investigate the potential for enhanced audiology programs in the schools, and the potential for deaf hearing enhancement. Begich says much of the research out there is encouraging. "All the research points to brain coherence as being good for learning," he says. "Attention Deficit Disorder kids have been improved through brain entrainment and brain biofeedback. Any time you get more capability to control your own physiology, that's good."
Gordon is skeptical. "People who aren't neurologists tend to be much more excited about brain entrainment," he says, noting that while the phenomenon can be produced, its benefits (if any) have not yet been well-established.
Given that the only way to validate the claims is further research (or more awareness on the part of mainstream experts) , I took the neurophone down to Dat/Em's electrical engineering workshop. In exchange for a few Alaskan beers, their technical crew hooked the neurophone into voltmeters, read the technical descriptions and took the thing apart in an attempt to determine how the thing ticks.
Though they had little experience with brain biochemistry, the consensus was that the device probably did what Flanagan's patent says it does - modulate sound at the highest frequencies of human hearing and turn it into electrical impulses that excite the skin. Though they desperately wanted to tear the device apart, we couldn't afford the $600 required to purchase one.
Begich was raised in a political family, and the skills he learned through his early years have served him well - Begich is a fabulous communicator. But about 10 years ago, his interest in science led him on a different path. "One day, I resigned every job, every political committee, and put everything downstairs in boxes," he says. He gave up his job with the Anchorage School District, resigned as president of the American Federation of Teachers, and turned to the new science.
Begich and his wife Sheila founded Earthpulse Press in January of 1995, after running an alternative think tank called The Change Agency for a couple of years. Their plan from the start was to market new technologies in concert with books about them, but HAARP put all that on hold.
"Everyone wants to typeset me because of my family - my interest is in science," he says. "Politics was a requirement in our family, but it's not a limiting factor." If anything, politics was an asset - especially as Earthpulse discovered the HAARP issue. "HAARP interrupted our planned course. We gathered huge amounts of data - it was very demanding," he says.
Begich's chance discovery of the HAARP project took he and Sheila on an unplanned roller-coaster ride through military secrets and fringe bioelectrical science. Though he took a beating on some of the claims he made in "Angels," it was the secret to Earthpulse Press' almost-overnight success, and has caused HAARP project managers to account more fully for their actions. "We know how to take an issue and move it. We've been doing this for three generations," he says.
According to Begich, HAARP provides only 10% of Earthpulse's income but 50% of the work. Yet the intangible benefits of national media attention verge on priceless. "We've been on a couple hundred stations with radio airplay - 1,000 times this month in over 500 markets," he says. An initial public relations effort of faxing and mailing was all the group needed to sustain their momentum. After HAARP broke, says Begich, Earthpulse never opened their file again.
With "Angels" finished, Earthpulse quickly moved on to their second book, "New Alchemy." The first production run of neurophones was 500 - Begich says they sold 450 in the first two weeks, along with 4,000 copies of the book. 1,000 more neurophones are on the way. Yet from the beginning, Earthpulse Press' success was not ensured.
"This wasn't an opportunity, it was a huge risk," he says. "We mortgaged everything. We figured at the worst, we'd lose some money and work it out. We ended up selling $150,000 in books." And though he's been criticized in local media, he points to projects like HAARP, which received no criticism despite gross ethical problems. "No one gave us $200 million and asked people to trust us with it," he says.
With 25,000 HAARP books sold and 15,000 more on the way - with the neurophone out and selling well, Begich is looking forward to the future. "I'm excited to be able to do this from Alaska - the moon," he says. "This is the kind of technology everyone was hoping would come here - and there's a potentially huge global market."
In addition to further neurophone enhancements including electric telepathy, brain biofeedback and state-supported research, the group plans to bring Dr. Makela's electro-acupuncture work forward in their next book, "The Electric Spark of Life." "We're looking forward not backward," he says. "We're not afraid of time, because we know it's in our favor. "
Begich's success, especially with "Angels," has empowered him tremendously. "We took it much farther than we thought was possible," he says, "but now we know what's possible."