Last week I wrote about the power of the voice, how the voice connects us and enables us to expand. Our voice is really quite a unique power, in that it gives us the ability to emanate energy in the form of sound. Sound is technically a kind of vibratory energy that flows as a mechanical wave of pressure, and it moves the things it comes into contact with. When it moves the ear drum, we perceive it as sound. When it moves the body of a string instrument, it causes a resonance in that instrument. If it moves a wine glass vigorously enough, it can cause the glass to shatter. Not only can we broadcast sound energy, we can precisely control the frequency of this broadcast. It’s really amazing, if you think about it.
As a resonant form of energy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that sound can affect human health. Persistent noise can disturb us, raising stress levels, increasing blood pressure, and disrupting sleep. Nobody likes the sound of a jackhammer or a barking dog, but even more subtle sounds, like the whirring of our refrigerator and furnace, have the potential to irritate us. I remember a night several years ago when I suddenly became hypersensitive to a humming sound in my house. Not able to track it down, I went to my breaker panel and started turning off circuits. Only after I had turned off nearly every one was the house finally silent. The next day the sound didn’t bother me anymore, but it made me aware of just how much noise pollution we’ve become accustomed to, and it made me feel for those who never get a break from this form of sensitivity.
On the other hand, different forms of sound can influence our moods in a positive way, even producing transcendent states. My mother-in-law, a nurse who owns hospices in Utah and Montana, was a pioneer in the use of music-thanatology to help dying patients feel better. Music-thanatologists use harps and their voices to produce live music in response to the patient’s state, creating sounds that are alleviate pain and emotional discomfort. Even more profound is the music’s alleged ability to assist the patient to ease into their transition out of their dying body.
Once, I was in San Francisco for an important acupuncture seminar and I came down with the flu. I felt absolutely horrendous. My chest and head were full of phlegm and my body ached like I’d just come out of the ring with Muhammad Ali. I was staying at the apartment of a classmate, and I felt kind of guilty about being so ill in her tiny space. I didn’t want to get her sick, but she was very relaxed about it. She told me that when her boyfriend came over, he’d do some sound healing on me.
Now, I’m open to pretty much any healing modality. I’ve tried some things that mainstream folks would never believe. But, honestly, the reason you don’t hear much about most fringe modalities isn’t because of a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies to suppress them, but because they’re subtle. As it happened, I had done sound healing before. One of my former teachers was a practicing shaman, and she taught a group of us how to use our voices to direct our energy at a recipient, using certain tones to first “open” the patient’s energetic field, other tones to rectify whatever was out of balance, and then a third series of tones to “close” their field and sort of seal them up. It was really a beautiful thing to be part of, but I must admit, the effects were hard to measure. So, while I thought it was nice that my classmate’s boyfriend wanted to help, I wasn’t exactly full of optimism.
When he arrived, he had five or six didgeridoos with him. He told me to lie on the floor and he looked me over, poked around a bit, and then selected one of the didgeridoos. Next, he ceremoniously laid a towel over me. I asked him what the towel was for. “Spit,” he answered.
As I closed my eyes, he began playing the didge, aiming the end of it a few inches away from my chest. I could feel that primal earthy drone reverberating through my body, right into the floor. As he moved the instrument around, I felt as if he was breaking up and dispelling the heat and congestion in me. After a while, he selected a different didge and as he playing this one, it felt as if a different layer was being addressed. This went on for perhaps half and hour, and then he removed the drool-soaked towel and asked me how I felt. Hmmm, I thought, this was a really nice thing of him to do for me. I should probably be kind. “Good,” I replied. Wait. Good? Yes. “Good! Really good! Much better!” I exclaimed. I think I was as surprised as I was relieved. And that’s the power of healing intention mixed with resonant energy.
Meanwhile, even the scientific community has found medical uses for sound, particularly ultrasound. Ultrasound refers to sound waves in frequencies higher than our ears can perceive, and we use its vibratory power to soothe sore muscles, to break up kidney stones, and to visualize things in the body such as a growing baby. The most exciting use of ultrasound I’ve heard of recently is in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). A key feature of AD is the presence of sticky protein fragments called amyloid beta which clump around and damage the nerve cells of the brain. In a recent study, mice were bred to develop these amyloid plaques, and as the disease progressed, they forgot the path they had previously learned to get through a maze. At this point, the researchers directed ultrasound waves at their heads, which cleared the amyloid from their brains without causing any damage, and 75 percent of the mice regained their memories!
Another effect of sound on the brain can be seen in the application of binaural beats. Binaural beats are created by playing tones in the two ears that vary slightly in their frequencies, which creates the perception of a pulsation or beat. As we listen to a binaural beat recording, the brain is gently coaxed to produce brainwaves that match the frequency difference of the two tones. Recordings are aimed at inducing specific states, such as the theta waves that signal a deep level of relaxation.
While we may not have the ability to produce ultrasound and binaural beats with our mouths, the fact is our voices have healing potential – both through the sonic energy we emanate and the ideas conveyed by our words. Hindu mantras are something of a convergence of these concepts, where the combination of the tone and its underlying meaning are thought to work together to produce a spiritual experience or therapeutic effect.
Next week we’ll explore how words figure into this equation. Until then, I encourage you to tune in to the sounds around you and feel how they affect you. Do certain people’s voices feel different to you than others’, and if so, can you tell if it’s due to the timbre – the tonal quality – or the significance of their words, or something beneath the words themselves? If you’re feeling less than optimal, are you able to tune in to an unpleasant bodily sensation and then sing or tone into this part of your body? What do deep tones do? What do high tones do? Are you able to shift the sensation in some way? I’d love to hear your feedback. ;)
Dr. Peter Borten