Sound healing has been practiced for thousands of years including chanting mantras, shamanic drumming, and playing instruments such as gongs and/or singing bowls. Our relationship with sound and frequencies has greatly morphed with changes in our environment, and these ancient sounds are making a comeback to balance the overstimulation (particularly of urban life) and excessive screen time too many of us suffer from today. Meditation and mindfulness practices are proven tools to help us regain balance over our mind and bodies, specifically in brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking. Sound healing is a form of meditation that utilizes frequency and rhythm as tools to shift the brain into a relaxed state and expedite the shift of the body’s natural, internal healing mechanisms. This unique approach to sound allows the listener to relax their mind beyond the massage of the soothing physical vibrations. The following helps to explain what is happening to our brains during such a sound experience and the ways we can consciously support a relaxation practice.
Relaxing the Body
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) maintains the equilibrium of vital functions for the internal organs and digestive tract, including our heartbeat, breathing, and saliva production. It contains three parts including the enteric system, but this discussion will focus on the other two systems of the ANS.
The sympathetic wing (SNS), is the “fight or flight” response that monitors hunger, gauges excitement, and raises your heart rate to pump blood to the sensory systems keeping you wary of danger. The parasympathetic wing (PNS) is the anatomical mind-body connection that induces resting, digestion, and the blissful state in savasana we call “yoga glow.” Directly connected, as one wing engages, the other disengages.
Deep relaxation and natural healing occur when we can comfortably disengage our SNS and let the PNS actively engage to its highest potential. Our natural state is one of balance between the two sides, with the PNS engaged, and the SNS ready to activate at the sign of trouble, keeping us inherently relaxed but alert. Our senses transmit the information necessary to understand our environment and choose which side of the autonomous nervous system to engage.
By constructing an environment that supports PNS engagement through physical comfort and limited sensory stimuli during meditation practice, we give ourselves the best opportunity to relax and enter the slower brain wave states associated with self-healing.
Relaxing the Brain
The brain wave states are universally consistent throughout all genders, ages, and cultures. All brainwave states are present at any given moment and one simply predominates. Even during active beta state, sleepy delta waves are humming somewhere quietly down below. Meditators aim to descend from beta to alpha wave state, and when possible, to theta wave state. A simple way to assist this down-shifting is closing our eyes and giving our brains less to process, accompanied by deep breathing.
Complexity and unpredictability keep our minds and senses engaged. When we meditate, conditions should allow for the mind to relax without distractions. If sound choices used in meditation are too complex or the volume is too loud (stimulating), it will take away the likelihood of entering the slower wave states. Classical music keeps listeners in beta state, making it a great accompaniment for working and studying; but meditation music seeks the opposite by maintaining intentionally simple organizations of sound (if any) for the listener, aiding in the ability to let go of beta wave state.
EXAMPLE: The repetitious nature of freeway driving (you have good ideas, but can’t recall the last few miles) is a theta state, compared to the unpredictable nature of a bumpy country road (watch that ditch, pay attention!), which would require a beta state in order to perform the driving task safely.
Using Sound for Brain Synchronization
Brain synchronization is when both sides of the brain are lightly stimulated within a simple set of parameters allowing for alpha and theta states to predominate. This process is also referred to as entrainment. In music, simple, repetitive rhythms will relax the left side of the brain, which seeks to construct order. The ride side of the brain, which is always adapting to new information, can be soothed by only having to discern a frequency or limited tonal range, such as a gong or a group of singing bowls. When the brain can easily process the information, it enters alpha wave state, and after a period of alpha state, the brain can enter theta state.
Allowing the body and brain to relax enables us to re-direct energy for other regulation tasks, including stabilizing the nervous system and balancing hormones, which help us to maintain a sense of peace and internal equilibrium.
FUN FACT: Scientists studied the relationship between frequencies, musical notes and emotion (like the creepy soundtrack that let’s us know the killer is coming) and found no universal results across any ages or cultures, suggesting any emotion associated with sound comes from an individual’s experienced culture and repetition, not a frequency’s physical effect on the body (it would have to be really loud or emitting very close to the body). So next time you hear a dissonant tone that upsets you, remember it’s just conditioning from movie and TV soundtracks, commercials, and other media. Don’t let them control your emotions! Enjoy all vibrations equally.
Sound Healing comes from our ability to utilize sound for brain synchronization, which naturally relaxes our brains into alpha and theta wave brain states, allowing our body’s energy to be refocused on internal healing efforts not available to us when we are active or highly stimulated. By consciously controlling our practice space to support the engagement of our parasympathetic nervous system, we give our brain the best opportunity to relax. When meditating, the sound cannot be in charge. It is only a tool for practitioners to use as a drishti, a singular point to continuously re-focus on when the mind wanders too far. Reducing stress levels and unlocking the natural healing qualities of the body can be achieved anywhere with a little stillness and some good vibrations. Please listen to the sound baths featured on this page, as well as my album of meditation music focused on brain synchronization. Happy listening!
Updated by Johnny Scifo, Feb. 4th, 2017