Life. Change. Delta waves??

Sceenshot TED talk change-curve

Change slows down as we age. But not for all of us equally. It seems delta sleep keeps us younger for longer, and we can induce delta waves artificially.

A while ago I watched a TED video with Dan Gilbert which centered on the fact that people poorly estimate their future change. (Not pocket change, but change in values, behavior etc.) A study asked a wide range of people either a) how much they had changed over the last 10 years or b) how much they expected to change over the next ten years. Then they matched the answers by age: The 18 year olds thought they would not change much by the age of 28, but the 28 year olds thought they had changed a lot since they were 18, and so on. This is the focus of the story.

But I noticed the shape of the curve they drew. Three curves actually, but they were very similar for a number of ways in which people change over the course of their life. The change is rapid at first, and declines gradually but with some noticeable steps, then declining greatly in old age. The curve is familiar, but it took me some hours to recognize it, because I had not seen it before, just seen it described in text form. Oh, and I had described it myself too. I often answer basic questions about sleep on Quora, and one of the things I explained was the function of “delta sleep”.

Called NREM stage 3 these days, this deepest sleep is less formally called “slow-wave sleep”, because the brainwaves that dominate the whole brain in this sleep stage are large and slow. The slow, regular brainwaves are called “delta waves” and technically waves below 4 Hz fall in this category. The dominant waves during slow-wave sleep however are usually 1 Hz or less, in other words less than one complete wave per second! They can go as far as 1/3 Hz, where one wave takes 3 seconds.

Despite the slowness of the delta brain waves, the brain is actually doing various useful things. One of them is related to learning. A study shows that people who have been training to learn a 3D maze during the day have increased blood flow in the same brain area during slow-wave sleep, compared to a control group that did not undergo intensive training. Another important thing that happens during this deep sleep phase is the release of Human Growth Hormone. In children this hormone triggers growth, as the name implies, but in adults it triggers regeneration. Basically it keeps us young and healthy.

We know that delta sleep is important, because bad things happen to test animals who are kept away from it. Their learning is impaired, but worse, their immune system is also weakened, and they lose the ability to deal with stress. Eventually they die early. Luckily the body goes very far to recover this type of sleep. If you stay awake for days, the body first recovers delta sleep and also REM sleep, the vivid dream sleep that seems important for memory and sanity. If you become chronically sleep deprived, the body will start running short periods of slow-wave sleep, so-called “microsleep”, while you are awake. Thoughtfully this is done when there seems to be downtime, when nothing particularly challenging is going on. Like at school, at office … or on a long stretch of road. Suddenly 10 seconds are missing from your life. If those seconds should have included some adjustment to the car’s trajectory, they may be the last 10 seconds of your life. So don’t go around missing delta sleep.


In babies, delta waves take up much of their sleeping time and some of their waking time. The waking delta fades later in childhood. Delta sleep remains fairly high in teenagers, and may appear in all the sleep cycles. (The first sleep cycle is from falling asleep to the end of the first REM sleep. The later cycles are from the end of one REM period to the end of the next. Each sleep cycle features first a slowing of the brain waves, and later the waves become faster again, until REM – vivid dream sleep – where brainwaves are as fast and irregular as during excited waking activities.) In children and teenagers, the deep delta sleep can occur in all sleep cycles, but is longer in the first cycles. In adults, delta sleep only occurs during the first sleep cycles, and is markedly longer during the first of them. Delta sleep continues to shrink during life, and in the elderly it can cease entirely, especially in men, or occur only some nights and not others.

There is a remarkable parallel between the decline of delta sleep and the complex process we call aging. But is one the cause of the other? Or is there some underlying process that causes them both? This is a very good question. If delta waves keep us young, we could stay young longer by increasing the amount of time our brain spends in delta sleep, or perhaps even in delta waves during waking time, which is rare but possible.

As it happens, there is a drug that can induce delta sleep. It seems to have no serious side effects when used clinically. Apart from the usual conservatism of the medical establishment, there is one big reason why it is not more widespread: It is the best date rape drug on the market. You are not going to get this drug on prescription or walk out of the lab with it in your pocket. All legal sources of the drug are strictly controlled. And as long as humans are the way they are, this is not likely to change, unfortunately. So we won’t know whether people who take this drug regularly live longer and healthier lives, as they would if delta sleep was the “fountain of youth” that some suspect.

And here our story could have ended. But there is another, more cumbersome way to induce delta waves – or any frequency of brain waves that can occur naturally – and I have mentioned it repeatedly over the last few years. It is called brainwave entrainment.


Brainwave entrainment means that we use an outside impulse to synchronize brainwaves to a particular frequency. Sound, light and even touch can be used for this, but sound is by far the most common, cheap and convenient. There are several different sound effects that can be used as well. In the beginning, binaural beats were most popular. This is the coolest of the bunch, as you send sound to each ear with a slightly different frequency. The brain starts to resonate to the difference between the frequencies. So you could play back a speech or a piece of music but having altered the frequency slight on one ear, and simply listening to this would gradually induce the specific frequency of brain waves.

Other systems such as monaural beats and isochronic tones exist, and isochronic tones are actually considered the most effective, but they tend to be clearly audible unless masked with other more complex sounds. If you buy pre-packaged sound tracks you will normally find that they have some kind of soundscape like rainfall or other nature sounds that take the edge off the repetitive sounds that trigger the actual entrainment.

At first it takes up to 8 minutes to entrain the brain so that most of the brainwaves resonate to the same frequency across almost the whole brain. With practice this time can be lowered significantly, so that one slips into a familiar frequency more easily.

Brainwave entrainment can happen during sleep or while awake. Because delta waves only occur naturally during sleep, there is a tendency at first to fall asleep when these are induced while you are awake. With practice you become better at staying awake, but that may not necessarily be what you want. Certainly if you use brainwave entrainment as an aid in meditation, then you should practice while you are rested and train yourself to remain awake. But if you want the deep sleep effect, you would want to put on the delta soundtrack when you are going to sleep or taking a nap. If you suffer from insomnia, brainwave entrainment is awesome: If you fall asleep, good. If you stay awake, you still get the deep restful brainwaves.

I should caution here that from my own experience and that of my friends, some trippy and unpleasant side effects can appear if you start doing deep brainwave entrainment suddenly without gradually building up to it with shorter periods and less deep frequencies. Migraines, double vision, nightmares and temporary loss of short-term memory can appear during or after use, although this does not happen to all and is always temporary. For this reason I recommend starting with alpha wave entrainment, which induces waves you normally have during relaxation and when falling asleep. The brain is used to having these experiences, so side effects are likely to be harmless and often pleasant: A feeling of weightlessness, seeing lights while your eyes are closed, sudden bursts of memories or emotions, or sometimes a feeling of “energy” running along your body. But most of the time nothing, or just a sense of peace and relaxation.

With some months of practice, you should be able to use delta wave entrainment with no side effects, like I do. I did not actually get into this for reasons of longevity, and certainly not to change. It was pretty much scientific curiosity that made me try out Holosync, and later Lifeflow, and eventually making my own tracks using Gnaural, a public domain software that is not very intuitive to use but totally free and fairly flexible. After satisfying my curiosity, I continued because it helped with a completely different problem for me: Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, a situation where the patient does not become sleepy until the morning, and has a hard time staying awake early in the workday. By using delta brainwave entrainment I could go to bed earlier, and if I did not fall asleep I would still get a decent degree of rest from meditating with the entrainment. Ironically, knowing that you don’t  need to fall asleep is the best cure for insomnia.

I remember mentioning around New Years (after I started with delta wave entrainment in spring), that I had changed so much that year. But I was not sure whether it was because of the brainwave entrainment, or the “Happy Science” books by Ryuho Okawa, or the mostly Christian spiritual literature recommended on the One Cosmos blog. All of these things kind of heaped up in that year. But would the books have made the same impression on me if I had less delta waves in my life? I don’t know. I am just a single person (literally so) and there is just too much outside influences for my personal experience to prove or disprove anything. (As skeptics say: The plural of anecdote is not data.) In order to know more, we need many more people to try this course of action.

The way I see it, there is very little to lose. If you have the patience to start easy, there should be no unpleasant side effects, and it is in any case totally harmless. On the other hand there are the benefits of better learning, better health, and a subjective experience of having more time (because time does not just fly by without you learning from it). It may not be a magic pill, but it is close enough that I recommend it. Unless you think change could only be for the worse – after all, perhaps you are already close enough to perfect. ^_^

Honey, I shrunk the economy!

Screenshot Tonari no Kashiwagi-san 2.5

Life isn’t so bad after all! Just ask the Japanese, they aren’t dead yet after two decades of economic stagnation. They haven’t even stopped making manga and anime.

For several generations now, economic growth has been seen as not only desirable but the natural state of things. The occasional wild-eyed hippie, radical environmentalist or other fringe voice from far outside the halls of economics will sometimes fantasize out loud about the zero-growth society, but it is not really taken seriously. Well, perhaps it is time to redefine growth: In an age where so many things are growing smaller, why not the economy?

There is a kind of “speed blindness” after all these decades of economic growth. When we learned that Japan had zero growth for over a decade, we imagined people wearing ten year old clothes and driving ten year old shoes, because they had not had any economic growth in that long. But what it really means is that they can’t buy more expensive clothes or more expensive cars than they could ten years ago. That is not a leading cause of death exactly, not in the rich world at least.

It’s been over 2 decades now in Japan, and Europe is approaching its first. Europe is a bit different because it is not really a country, there are some countries in which poverty really is spreading and biting ever deeper, notably in Greece, but also Spain is struggling with half of young would-be workers falling outside the official economy. (Some of them are working in the underground or black economy, which is traditionally large in southern Europe. Still, there is definitely a problem.) In northern Europe, growth has resumed, just not very fast.

The USA is a special case again: The nation as a whole has economic growth, but pretty much all the new money flows to those who are already rich. Depending on how you look at it, ordinary workers have either no growth or they are earning a little less over time. While household income is holding up compared to 40 years ago, there are now more household members working outside the home, so that the individual income is somewhat lower than in the previous generation. (This may explain some of the behavior of those who were young 40 years ago.)


So, 40 years ago, could you buy a tablet that you could bring with you anywhere and
-read a million books for free, anywhere, at your whim, instantly
-buy a million other books (many at a discount), anywhere, at your whim, and read them instantly without increasing your luggage weight or your shelf space at home
-listen to a million songs and melodies, anywhere, at your whim, for free or nearly so
-watch thousands of movies for around $10 a month (or free if your conscience failed you)
-let you talk to people around the country or around the world, for free
-let you read or watch news from anywhere, anytime, at your whim
-let you keep up to date with what your old friends and acquaintances were doing
-let you play games varying from chess to complex role playing games
-and more?

I think not. Even in the late 1990es, which was a pretty cool time all things considered, Supergirl and I had to traipse to the local video store and pick out a movie that happened to not be rented out at the moment, pay a modest rental fee, lug it back home and play it on the VHS machine. Later we had to trudge back to the store and give them the box back.

Today, I can watch a Japanese animation at the same time it airs in Tokyo, but with English subtitles. With American movies there is a substantially longer delay, because Americans think with their flagpoles, evidently. But it still beats having to wait until the local video shop guy decides to update his inventory. And there is no need to struggle up and down the steep hill between home and the shop on an icy road in the middle of winter only to find that they don’t have the movie we wanted to see so we have to make do with another.

So how do economists measure the value of this radically improved convenience? How do they measure the improvement of the saved time and money? They don’t. On the contrary, this is called economic “contraction” or “negative growth”. The basic idea in economics is that the more money people spend, the better. (But at least they adjust for inflation, or things would go horribly wrong very fast.) There is no way in classic economics to adjust for the fact that people spend less money because they need less. This idea is not only hard to measure, it is also utterly alien to the profession and the human mind in general. After all, normally, when we meet our needs easily, we promote a want to become the next need, and a wish to become the next want. The human mind is a highly efficient factory of desires, cravings, wants and wishes. So after a few days of saving money, you don’t really feel richer anymore. But you are. If some circumstance was to disable the new technology, and you tried to revert to the old, you would suddenly need more time and money to fulfill the same needs. That  you would definitely notice.


This is not the only way in which the new reality collides head-on with economics and the old common sense. For instance, if you buy a paper book, you don’t only pay for the content. You pay for people to cut down trees, other people to drive the wood to the paper mill, factory workers to change the wood into paper (and by the way you also pay people to make chemicals used in the bleaching process), drivers to drive the paper to the printing press, workers at the printing press (and workers making ink), drivers to drive the printed books to the warehouse and possibly to your local bookstore. Oh, and people who make the trucks used to drive all this stuff for hundreds of miles, and the refinery workers and oil drill workers, and the people making machinery for the factories and so on.

All of this hectic activity from mining and drilling and lumbering to manning the cash register in the bookshop, all of this is economic activity and makes the world a better place according to economics. Well, isn’t that true? Aren’t we doing something wrong when we are putting all these nice people out of work?

No, not really, because all this work (some of which destroys pristine nature, extracts resources that can not be put back, poisons the air and changes the climate) is now unnecessary. If we truly believe that it is virtuous to pay people to perform unnecessary work, then we can hire the laid-off workers and divide them into two teams: One that digs holes at some convenient location, and one that fills the holes. It is just as useful, safer, and has minimal impact on nature.

Now you can say that there are reasons to have paper books, and I won’t stop you. Perhaps you regularly spend a lot of time away from electricity, or screens give you a headache, or books just smell good. Nothing wrong with that: We still have vinyl records, even though they were replaced by CDs and the CDs by lossless electronic music formats. And despite way too many cars, riding still remains popular, because, horses! Most people who have a dog does not need it for hunting or herding, and most cats are not there for keeping the rodents down, not anymore. So there will likely be paper books around for quite some while, although some genres are likely to bow out.

But there is a rapid rise in affordable books which do not require lumberjacks, and this is measured by economists as an economic contraction, a downturn, even deflation since the prices go down. Deflation in particular is a terrifying concept that we should worry about and flail and wail, a problem that politicians should spend our money to counteract somehow, even if they don’t understand what it is.

This was just one single example, and you can expect to see much more of it in the future. For instance, solar panels are doubling in number every two years, and the price is dropping by 22% over the same time, on average. Back of the envelope calculation says that roughly in the time frame 2020 – 2025, the exponential growth of solar will sweep fossil fuels out of the tropical, subtropical and temperate zones. Oil, gas and coal will simply not be able to compete: Even with the cost of batteries to keep the power overnight, we will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn coal. Gas-powered cars will go the way of the vinyl records, although obviously it will take a decade or two for them to fade away.

Receiving clean power from the sky at a fraction of the cost instead of ripping off the topsoil, fracturing the land, polluting the groundwater and belching smoke into the air … do you know what economists will call this? You should know by now: Economic contraction, downturn, deflation. Somebody do something!

You think this is bad, wait until the food synthesizers appear (my target time is around 2040, but it could easily be a decade earlier). With the planet overflowing with cheap electricity and a little more progress in nanotechnology, the food synthesizer will break down simple organic material like grass or leaves and rearrange the peptids and lipids on a molecular level to produce whatever food we have programmed it to, somewhat like a 3D printer but with organic molecules and far higher complexity. There is nothing wrong with cows, but it will be cheaper and simpler to just put the hay in your food synthesizer the night before and get meat and milk when you need it. (Not that you actually need meat, but a lot of people like it.) The end of 10 000 years of agriculture as we know it. Cows reduced to pets. (Goats are better pets, by the way, they are awesome. Ask me about goats any day.)

Now this may sound like science fiction, and currently it is. Then again, the 3D printer was science fiction ten years ago. But what if it really happened? What if you could make dinner from the leaves you raked yesterday? Economists would describe a Great Depression the like of which has not been seen since the dawn of time. Let us face it, if we all became immortal, the economists would worry about the undertakers. It is called The Dismal Science for a reason.


In conclusion, traditional economics (and the politics that depend on them) are out of date. Certainly we could wish for ever more economic growth, and for the poor among us it certainly would not hurt. But for most of us, what we should really hope for is more of the “shrinkage” in which ever more expensive goods and services disappear in favor of simple or outright invisible solutions, where the things we need just are there when we want them. I for one welcome our new electronic underlings.