The concept of Sound Healing blends modern science with ancient wisdom for the benefit a range of ailments. Practices like overtone chanting, mantra, Icaros, gongs, drumming, prayers and crystal bowls have been used for thousands of years and today’s science is starting to understand how and why it benefits holistic health. On a mechanical level, modern medicine already uses ultrasound for diagnosis, to promote cellular differentiation, and to heal fractures.
We are energetic beings, composed of cells that are composed of wave-particle atoms of energy. Everything in our universe is energy, and therefore has a vibration. The frequency at which we normally vibrate is called resonance, all waveforms produce sound even if it is out of reach of what we can audibly detect. Things that are dense or solid have lower frequencies than those that are liquid or soft. Thus bones and teeth have a lower frequency than organs and tissues. Our emotions and thoughts on the other hand, vibrate at an even higher frequency than our physical body. This can be measured using an EEG – electroencephalogram.
It’s been scientifically proven that sound can have effects on our autonomic, immune and endocrine systems, as well as the neuropeptides in our brain. Neuroscientist Candace Pert has demonstrated that our mind (more specifically our thoughts and emotions) and body are not only connected, but communicate beyond our conscious awareness, with thoughts having an effect on our immune system. Additionally, our physical being also communicates and responds with our physical environment beyond our conscious awareness. The theory is that everything has its PRF – prime resonant frequency. This is the frequency at which an object absorbs an energy more readily. The PRF of a heart for example is around 100 Hertz and a typical cell is around 1000 Hertz.
Sound and Sacred Geometry
Bach incorporated intervals into his music that bore the same relationship to each other as the numbers in the Fibonnaci series, creating golden mean proportions to his tunes. Just as sacred architecture, ancient and modern, display a visual harmony, so music displays a vibratory harmony. Perhaps it’s a rhythm that can sway our bodies back into a better balance.
Palliative care and chronic pain studies are peppered with alternative modalities from the likes of Mozart (reducing the electrical activity associated with seizures in epilepsy), crystal and Tibetan singing bowls, and Hindu Sanskrit chanting. In his book, The Healing Power of Sound, Dr. Mitchell Gaynor discusses some of the amazing anecdotal differences witnessed by integrating music, vocalisation, and meditation into holistic patient care.
Dr Hans Jenny has demonstrated how matter responds to sound using cymatics. This is the use of ‘pure tone’ or ‘sine waves’ within the audible spectrum to produce beautiful physical patterns in a medium like liquid or sand. Likewise Nobel Prize Winner Dr James Gimzewski of UCLA, California has taken a revolutionary approach to studying cellular function: using an atomic force microscope to listen to sounds emitted by cells.
Every cell in our body has a unique sonic signature and communicates to its neighbours. The focus of this new science is called sonocytology, by mapping the pulsations of the cells outer membrane, the ‘song’ of communication is identified. This could be used as a diagnostic tool to identify healthy and injurious cells, and to therapeutically maintain homeostasis.
Sound Healing and Holography
The science of holography states that the whole is contained within the part: to heal one part, you need to work with the whole system. Likewise, systems theory teaches that changing one part affects the whole system. When you experience a physical symptom or an emotional condition your whole system needs to be considered to bring you back into balance – the physical, psychological and environmental.
Resonance and Entrainment
Resonance is when one vibrating object can force a second into vibrational motion. Entrainment is a physical phenomenon where the frequency of one object changes to match another object, coming into harmony. An example of this is when ticking clocks are placed in a room together – they eventually come into a rhythmic harmony, beating at the same time. Perhaps this is also why women tend to sync with each other when menstruating.
Binaural Beats and Psychoacoustics
Typically when we think of music, we think only of the emotional or psychological effect on our thoughts and feelings. However, it also affects our nervous system at different levels of awareness (psychoacoustics). At the mundane level, we hear sounds around us without giving them much consideration. However they can also cause our brain waves to slow down or speed up.
In the 70s, biophysicist Gerald Oster showed that when a tone is played in one ear and a slightly different tone is played in the other, the brain creates a third internal tone called a binaural beat. The theory is that this syncs the waves in both hemispheres, entrainment shifts our brainwave state by changing the rhythm and frequency of the brainwave patterns.
This is why during a sound healing session, the normal waking (beta) state shifts to relaxed (alpha) state, or meditative (theta) state. Some people experience a type of conscious sleep, where they are self-aware not in the physical sense, but in a more general sense. This can bring up some interesting mental images from the subconscious and was a favourite trick of artists like Salvador Dali – who would often draw from these lucid and liminal realms.
Others may fall into a deep (delta) sleep where they are not aware of the physical body or mental images. Healing and reprogramming is optimal in the theta and delta state, where it is impossible to be stressed or agitated and one is highly suggestible. You can also download ‘binaural beats’ which are designed to help put your brainwaves into these states, reproducing the effects of meditation.
The Soundtrack To Life
In 2008, the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine published a review of 20 studies of brain-wave entrainment and patient outcomes. The conclusion was that brain-wave entrainment is an effective tool to use on cognitive functioning deficits, stress, pain, headaches, and premenstrual syndrome.
Soothing sounds and singing or humming in particular, have been shown to stimulate the vagus nerve which works on the parasympathetic nervous system involved in rest and digest, and slows the breathing rate. Humming and the therapeutic use of tuning forks stimulate the release of nitric oxide, which is involved in the healthy functioning of organ systems. Maintaining a long hum on exhale is one of the easiest forms of sound healing self-practice.
We’ve all experienced the healing effects of sound, whether its a song that soothes the heart in the midst of a breakup, Tibetan bowls to tame the monkey mind, a mother cooing her baby back to sleep or the sounds that affect us slightly more aggressively in the urban jungle. Even if we were to spend time in an anechoic chamber, we would be privy to the thrum of our heart beat and inner electrical systems.
Healing and Intention
Science is a beautiful language for what we can measure, repeat and observe. However there’s often more to the story than this. Healing refers to wholeness: a union of mind, body and spirit. As with meditation, rarely do two people ever have the exact same responses to sound. The intense vibrations of a sonic gong may be heaven to some and a sonic assault to others. People report a broad array of experiences, from deep relaxation and bliss, to dream like visions, or agitation and restlessness throughout.
Similar to the role of imagination and belief in the placebo effect, the experience becomes less of a passive immersion and more of a potent remedy when both the giver and receiver hold an intention for the sound. Steven Halpern PhD, composer and sound healer, says that “sound is a carrier wave of consciousness”. Set a timer for 5 minutes and with each exhale, let out a relaxed hum on one long, sustained tone. Now set another 5 minutes and do it again, adding in an intention, perhaps a part of the body you want to send the vibration to, or a quality you would like to work on cultivating.
Some great spaces in London: