Sound Healing Getting Its Foot in the Door
Jun 30, 2019 02:00AM
Some medical practices have come and gone—thankfully, getting bled by leeches isn’t standard practice anymore—while others have withstood the test of time.
Sound healing is one such practice. From the didgeridoos of the Australian aborigines, used in healing rituals, to the healing vibrations described in Ayurvedic texts, sound has a multi-thousand-year history as a remedy.
“Sound is already being used to stop tremors and in helping to figure out where cancer is in the body,” says Danielle Hall, a sound therapy practitioner and owner of SoundEmbrace. Hall was recently invited to speak at the Georgia Public Health Association Conference alongside presentations such as “Another Pill to Take: Drug Interactions Associated with Tuberculosis Medications,” and “The 2019 Legislative Session’s Impact on Public Health.”
While stopping tremors with a form of sound healing called ultrasound thalamotomy is all well and good, there is another world of sound healing, one based more directly on the practices of past civilizations.
Sound baths, for example, immerse individuals with waves of sound generated from a variety of instruments, most commonly crystal bowls or Tibetan singing bowls. Sound baths have a variety of reported healing properties.
“I have quite a few people come for insomnia. A lot come for pain relief and stress relief,” said Hall. Others come for spiritual guidance or to work through complex emotions.
Besides being a practitioner, Hall is also a researcher into sound healing and has used her quartz crystal singing bowls in sound-bath case studies of her own. In one study she presented at the GPHA conference, 18 men and 22 women who suffered from anxiety and/or depression, or had attempted suicide, participated in six group sound-bath sessions over six weeks. Before and after every session, they were asked to rate their levels of physical pain as well as report on the emotions they experienced.
At every session, people reported leaving with less pain than they came in with. In fact, all the participants who reported feeling pain reported a reduction in pain. In the final session, only one participant reported any remaining physical discomfort. Many also reported feeling calm, relaxed or energized, and 87.5 percent reported falling asleep during their sessions.
These effects can be explained by the changing of brain waves and an understanding of how our brains can be influenced to produce those waves. The brain produces certain electrical pulses at specific frequencies; some of these brain waves help us learn, some keep us alert, some help calm us down and so forth. Delta waves, for example, are present in deep sleep. So, if a person is struggling with insomnia, sounds with delta frequencies are played. Additionally, if a person’s brain has difficulty producing delta waves, it can relearn how to make them after it has been exposed to sounds that emit delta wave frequencies. Due to the brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to adapt—sound healers can help retrain the brain to minimize old habits and take on new ones.
As Mandara Cromwell, founder of the nonprofit International Sound Therapy Association (ISTA), puts it, “With these sound baths, we allow people to calm down” and get away from the fight-or-flight response in the brain.
Unfortunately, while this explanation has been scientifically studied, not much else about sound healing has been.
According to Cromwell, the problem is, “It’s a field that no one wants to invest money in.” Certainly, it would seem hard to monetize. According to one study, sound healing “may be a feasible low-cost, low-technology intervention for reducing feelings of tension, anxiety, and depression, and increasing spiritual well-being,” yet research is slow to come out.
There is anecdotal evidence, however. Cromwell describes a recent study that demonstrates sound’s regenerative effects on blood cells, but it has yet to be published. The study, carried out by Sungchul Ji of Rutgers University and John Stewart Reed, an independent researcher, showed that in vitro blood that was exposed to music showed a higher viable red blood cell count than blood that was kept in a quiet environment for the same length of time. Cromwell admits that the study was not directly related to sound baths, but says, “It does point to the fact that somebody is looking at this very seriously.”
“Maybe drugs and surgery shouldn’t be the first thing that we go to when people are stressed out,” Cromwell continued. Still, sound healing has been reaching a wider variety of people, and most report positive outcomes.
Sound healers such as Hall work with a variety of people, including the corporate office of Chick-fil-A, but they weren’t always able to reach such a diverse audience.
“What has really helped the culture,” explains Cromwell, is “all of the yogis that came over in the 60s and 70s.” As yoga continued to gain in popularity, she says, “A lot of yoga centers started having us come in and do sound meditation.” Organizations such as ISTA also teach classes and train other sound healers. Many of the people in those classes are medical professionals who might then tell their patients and coworkers about sound healing.
If Hall’s invitation to speak at a well-regarded public health conference is a clue, sound healing is on the verge of going mainstream. Those who experience it like it.
Both Cromwell and Hall echo the belief that more research needs to be done in their chosen field. As Cromwell points out, stressed individuals spend “a thousand dollars a year” combating their state of mind, yet it’s possible that a cheap alternative for alleviating pain and stress has been found in sound healing.