Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 60 / MAY 1985 / PAGE 52


Relax Stress Reduction System

Arthur Leyenberger

Requirements: Commodore 64 (disk or cassette); Atari computer with at least 48K RAM (disk or cassette); Apple II-series computer with at least 48K RAM and a disk drive; IBM PC with at least 64K RAM, a disk drive, color/graphics adapter, game controller adapter, and color monitor; or an Enhanced Model IBM PCjr.

Relax is an interesting and unusual product for personal computers—it combines biofeedback and computer-generated graphics to help you learn how to reduce stress. It's the first in a new line of products from Synapse designed to use the capabilities of your computer to help monitor and improve your health.

Relax lets you monitor your stress levels by graphically depicting muscle tension on your computer screen. Tiny sensors inside a headband continuously measure this tension. The headband connects to a control unit that converts the readings into signals the computer can understand. This biofeedback technique is known as an electromyogram (EMG) because it measures the electrical activity in muscles.

When you're tense, electrical activity increases. When you relax, it decreases. The control unit lets you vary the rate at which readings are taken. For example, a fast sample rate is supposed to reveal your unconscious reactions to stressful stimuli. A slow rate gives a more general index of reactions. In either case, the results are seen immediately on the screen.

Solid Documentation

Relax comes with a workbook and manual to help you understand and interpret your reactions to stress. The workbook includes documentation on the Relax system and forms for producing your stress profile. This profile helps you set up a plan to reduce stress and evaluate your progress. The documentation and tutorial were written by Dr. Martha Davis, a clinical psychologist at the Kaiser Foundation in Los Angeles. She runs stress reduction classes and has written several books on the topic.

There's also an audio tape that teaches you deep relaxation exercises and meditation techniques. The tape guides you through Relax's three tension-relaxation programs and lists some hidden causes of stress. A calm, reassuring voice insures that you are comfortably relaxed during your training session. Just thinking of the narrator's voice can have a calming effect later.

Relax also has some entertaining games for measuring your ability to control stress. One game is a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns against a background of soothing music. As you relax, the patterns and colors change, blending together into a more harmonious image. Subdued colors like blue and green fill the screen and rounded shapes emerge. Occasionally the screen divides and each half moves away vertically, above and below the centerline. Then a new pattern forms at the center of the screen. The sensation is almost hypnotic.

When you're tense, the kaleidoscope shows bright colors like red and orange. Instead of rounded shapes and patterns, the screen fills with straight lines and sharp-cornered figures. New patterns form at the top and bottom of the screen and move to the center.

The kaleidoscope is designed to let you get in touch with your body and the way it feels at various levels of tension and relaxation. By learning to recognize your states of stress, hopefully you can transfer that awareness to everyday life.

Subliminal Messages

A second game offers the greatest challenge to your stress control. On the screen, a balloon drifts over the countryside. You control it by tensing and relaxing your body. As you relax, the balloon floats higher. You earn points by touching clouds and avoiding flying arrows. You gain more points for subtle changes in your tension level than for gross changes. This enhances your ability to recognize and control body stress cues.

Relax also allows you to program subliminal messages to reinforce your relaxation responses and attain your objectives. The messages are briefly flashed on the screen during the graph program and can be "seen" only by your subconscious mind. Although the effectiveness of subliminal messages has been debated for years, some people maintain that they really work. Typical messages might be: "Relax" to lower your stress level; "Clean Air" to help you quit smoking; and "Think Thin" to help you lose weight.

Relax is an original product for personal computers. However, like any other self-help device, computerized or not, you must spend time learning how to monitor your own behavior. Then you can apply the techniques for change. The goal of Relax is not just to monitor but to teach you how to reduce stress.

Synapse is already discussing enhancements and new features for Relax. One idea is to provide body sensors in addition to the headband. These sensors could be placed anywhere to measure electrical signals from various muscles.

Another application for the Relax system is to use it as a general-purpose input device. For example, Chicken, a previously released Synapse game for Atari computers, can be played using the Relax headband instead of the paddle controllers. Other games that require paddle inputs could also be played by subtly controlling your stress level. If the game requires you to press a fire button, you could attach both the Relax headband and a joystick with a Y-connector.

Relax may signal a new era in home computing. For the first time, your computer can potentially be used to better your health.

Synapse Software
5221 Central Avenue
Richmond, CA 94804