Neuroacoustics: The Healing Power of Sound
By Erik L. Goldman | Editor-in-Chief – Vol. 5, No. 3. Fall, 2004
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—The experience of sound is at the very core of human consciousness, and it can be a powerful tool for healing, said Jeffrey Thompson, DC, at the annual meeting of the American Holistic Medical Association.
For more than 20 years, Dr. Thompson has been exploring neuroacoustics and the therapeutic application of sound. His researches have led to the development of precise protocols for using sound to modulate brainwave patterns, affect sympathetic-parasympathetic balance, and synchronize the activity of the right and left brain hemispheres. He has applied these methods in stress reduction, cardiovascular disease prevention, management of depression, and a host of other conditions.
“It is akin to the picking of a lock on the neurophysiologic processes that the body already uses to heal itself,” said Dr. Thompson, director of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research, San Diego. His work with neuroacoustics is very different from other forms of music therapy. It is not about facilitating a patient’s musical self-expression, nor does it use music as a palliative. It involves direct application of specific sound combinations—unique to each patient, but precise and measurable—to entrain beneficial physiologic responses.
- Perception of sound begins in the womb, and it begins very early. “At 16 weeks’ gestation, we become aware of vibration, and life begins to filter into us.” The eardrums and the skin—sensors of vibration—are the first sense organs to become active. For a developing fetus, the intrauterine world is largely a world of sound. Sound travels 5 times more efficiently through water than through air, and a mother’s stretched abdominal wall is an ideal membrane for transmitting sound.
In many respects, it is through sound that a gestating human becomes aware of itself. In applying sound to healing, Dr. Thompson has found certain types of sounds—the heartbeat, respiratory sounds, passage of blood through vessels, organic bodily sounds—register deeply in the human nervous system. These “primordial sounds” are immediately recognizable to any person regardless of gender, culture, race, age, or social status; they are truly universal.
Recordings of primordial sounds can be used therapeutically to access aspects of consciousness and memory to which an individual is typically unconscious. In order to obtain these effects in adults, however, it is necessary to slow down recordings of womb sounds by several octaves (divisions of two). “A 16 week old fetus has a tiny little eardrum. Compared to that, the mother’s heart is huge, and the heartbeat is a very deep, gigantic sound. To re-create the intrauterine soundscape that a fetus hears, you have to slow everything down.”
- Much of Dr. Thompson’s work is based on two key principles: Firstly, that every tissue, just like every physical object, will resonate to very specific sound frequencies; Secondly, that there are mechanisms within the nervous system that synchronize neurophysiologic functions and cycles with coherent rhythmic pulsations from the external world.
Almost everyone has seen images of a wine glass being exploded by sound. The important point in such experiments is that only a certain frequency will explode a particular wine glass. It is not only a question of volume.
Every physical substance has particular frequencies at which it will become excited to a higher vibratory state. This is best observed with tuning forks: a fork designed to produce a frequency of 440 Hz can induce or “entrain” the vibration of a second fork of 440 Hz, if it is struck and brought into the vicinity of the second fork. A fork designed to produce a different frequency will not be able to induce this sympathetic vibration in a 440 Hz fork.
Dr. Thompson has found similar principles operating in the tissues of the body. Every organ, every bone, has a unique size, density and mass, and therefore, a unique resonant frequency. One aspect of his approach is to identify resonant frequencies of various tissues, particularly the brain and spinal column.
“My first attempts at this involved trying to do chiropractic spinal adjustments using sound. Each vertebra is a different size, density and mass, and like a wineglass, can be resonated with the correct sound. This causes the vertebra to vibrate back into its correct position. Similarly, cranial bones and cerebrospinal fluid can be influenced with sound resonances. The brain itself is an organ with a unique size, density and mass. So I started to ask, what would the effect be of exposing the brain to its own fundamental frequency vibration pattern?”
- The principle of coupled oscillation, “reflects a property in all things to sort of fall into step together,” said Dr. Thompson. It was initially described in 1665, by Dutch physicist, Christiaan Huygens. In observing the movement of pendulum clocks, Huygens found that when two similar clocks were in close proximity, their pendulums, no matter how they started swinging initially, would soon fall into a precise anti-synchrony (swinging precisely in the same rhythm, but in exactly opposite directions). This synchronized pattern of movement would emerge within a half hour, and remain stable indefinitely.
The significance of Huygens’ observations was not recognized for several centuries, and physicists today are still working out the mathematics to describe coupled oscillation. But the principle has been observed in the movement of subatomic particles, intergalactic nebulae, and on all scales in between, including biological systems.
On the biological plane, the principle is known as biosynchronization. Examples include circadian rhythms governing metabolism, synchronization of menstrual cycles among women who live closely together, and movements of fish schools and flocks of migratory birds. Essentially, it is about saving energy: when part of a coherent group momentum, an individual conserves energy.
Since the emergence of encephalography, researchers have studied brainwave patterns and how they respond to external stimuli. A vast body of data shows that brainwave patterns and therefore, aspects of consciousness, synchronize with external stimuli. US Navy researchers in the 1950’s showed that brainwave patterns could be controlled by strobe light stimulation. They termed this phenomenon “Sensory Evoked Potentials,” and it underscores the fact that the brain’s internal rhythms follow the strongest immediate external pulse patterns.
Sound is one of the most powerful means of entraining brainwave patterns. “Brainwaves will time themselves to external sound pulses, if we provide those pulses at specific brainwave speeds,” explained Dr. Thompson.
For example, normal daily awareness, the so-called Beta wave pattern, is characterized by electrical activity at 13-30 cycles per second. If someone in their ordinary state listens to sounds pulsing at 4.5 cycles per second, a frequency characteristic of Theta brainwave states, his or her brain will naturally synchronize to the sound, thus inducing a theta state. Theta is, essentially, “where the brain goes when it is dreaming,” explained Dr. Thompson, adding that many ancient shamanic healing practices are based on using sound to induce Theta states or “waking dreams.”
Similarly, various meditative states have characteristic EEG thumbprints. Much of Dr. Thompson’s work consists in using sounds with sympathetic resonances to specific brainwave functions to influence a patient’s state of consciousness.
- In 1973, Dr. Gerald Oster, a biophysicist at Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York, started a minor revolution when Scientific American published his paper called, “Auditory Beats in the Brain.” Dr. Oster was exploring the neurologic implications of a phenomenon called “beating tones” or “difference tones,” long recognized by musicians and physicists. Beating tones occur when two tones are closely, but not precisely tuned to one another. The difference between the frequencies of the two tones becomes audible as a pulse.
Dr. Oster reported that the same phenomenon occurs when people listen on headphones to tones tuned to within 18% of one another. When the two tones are fed separately into the ears through headphones, the brain detects the out-of-phase relationship between the two notes, and a “perceptual integration of the two signals takes place, producing the sensation of a third “beat” frequency,” Dr. Oster explained in his 1973 report.
“The difference between the signals waxes and wanes as the two different input frequencies mesh in and out of phase. As a result of these constantly increasing and decreasing differences, an amplitude-modulated standing wave—the binaural beat—is heard. The binaural beat is perceived as a fluctuating rhythm at the frequency of the difference between the two auditory inputs.”
In other words, if the left ear is given a tone of 100 Hz, and the right ear is given a tone at 105 Hz, the brain will perceive a “binaural” beat of 5 Hz.
The most provocative of Dr. Oster’s findings was that the brains of his subjects would entrain to these binaural pulses, producing mild alterations in consciousness. Since publication of that original paper, a host of investigators have looked at how binaural beats affect brainwave activity. They have found some fairly consistent patterns.
Binaural beats in the Delta (1 to 4 Hz) and Theta (4 to 8 Hz) brainwave ranges are associated with relaxed, meditative, and creative states (Hiew, 1995), and can also induce restful sleep. Binaural beats in the Alpha range (8 to 12 Hz) tend to increase Alpha waves (Foster, 1990); those in the Beta frequencies (16 to 24 Hz) have been associated with reports of increased concentration or alertness (Monroe, 1985) and improved memory (Kennerly, 1994).
Beyond just entraining brainwave patterns, Dr. Oster also found that binaural beats invariably induced synchronization of electrical activity in the right and left hemispheres, something that rarely occurs in ordinary waking consciousness. This is explained by the fact that each ear is physiologically “hardwired” to both hemispheres. Each hemisphere has its own olivary nucleus, which processes sound signals. When someone perceives a binaural beat, there are actually two standing waves of equal amplitude and frequency present, one in each hemisphere. These two standing waves entrain portions of each hemisphere to the same frequency.
“By entraining brainwaves with binaural beats using headphones, it is possible to float the brain in this state of hemispheric synchronization for prolonged periods. Each time we do this, it is like exercising a new brain function, which makes the brain more able to engage this function as it’s normal repertoire of behavior,” Dr. Thompson said.
“Using sound in these ways, it is possible to make profound changes in brainwave patterns and states of consciousness, observable on brainwave mapping equipment (EEG), as well as positive changes in the body, measurable with blood tests, bio-feedback equipment and other sophisticated procedures. We are also able to influence the core balance and functioning of the brain and central nervous system as a whole,” said Dr. Thompson.
- One of the most important aspects of his approach is in using sound to balance a patient’s sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. Dr. Thompson makes extensive use of both EEG and heart rate variability (HRV) monitoring. The latter is a form of spectral analysis of cardiovascular activity, providing an accurate assessment of autonomic function. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to assess HRV in real time, allowing investigators to correlate changes in sympathetic and parasympathetic tone with changes in brainwave activity.
“Most overly stressed people show sympathetic dominance all of the time. They are unable to relax, cannot wind down, and have difficulty sleeping,” he explained. People with clinical depression show a different pattern, characterized by high levels of both anxiety and inhibition. They usually show both high sympathetic and high parasympathetic tone, “like having your feet on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time.”
In working with a patient, Dr. Thompson’s first step is to find specific resonant frequencies that affect shifts in autonomic activity and brainwave patterning. He does this by recording the patient’s own voice, and then playing it back in a slow sweep from very low to very high frequencies, while the patient is lying on a specially designed sound table. The table contains transducers able to produce low-frequency sound vibrations in the range of 20-500 Hz. The sound table delivers sound not only to the ears but to the spinal column, muscles and skeletal elements as well.
“Bear in mind that the entire posterior one-third of the spinal cord consists of nerve tract bundles whose sole purpose is transmission of vibrational sense data to the brainstem, cerebellum, pons, medulla, hippocampus/limbic system (emotional processing areas) and various areas of the cerebral cortex. The sound table allows us to deliver sound directly through the body, and an entirely different aspect of the nervous system is brought into play, with the possibility of a much deeper response.”
He believes it is important to use a patient’s own voice, because it is entirely unique and thoroughly innate to that person. “There’s something deeply recognizable about my own voice to my unconscious mind. The harmonic overtone patterns of my own voice tell me about my tissues as a whole.”
When exposing someone to his or her own voice at various frequencies, Dr. Thompson monitors the EEG and HRV patterns very carefully. “I’m looking for a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic activity. It occurs at unique frequencies for each person.” Once he identifies which “note” produces the shift, he makes 3-D recordings of the patient’s voice singing the key frequencies. He can then pitch-shift the recording up or down by octaves (multiples of two) to affect different tissue types.
“There is a direct relationship between this fundamental sound frequency that causes a balancing of someone’s body systems and various specific brainwave states of consciousness,” he said. “There are five brainwave frequencies for healing which can be calculated as octaves of a patient’s fundamental healing tone.”
After identifying the patient’s key frequencies, he then creates a therapeutic plan using particular combinations of frequencies for physical symptoms and others for emotional work, stress reduction and sleep. In addition to the weekly office-based sessions and sound table work, Dr. Thompson also gives his patients CDs of their voices for use with headphones for at-home daily entrainment practice.
Though he began his career as a more or less conventional chiropractor, music and art were always essential aspects of Dr. Thompson’s life, and it was natural for him to consider ways in which they might be applied to healing. His initial experiments with sound in the late 1980s convinced him that this was a worthy direction.
“The responses I was getting using sound frequency work began to outshine anything I was getting from chiropractic manipulation, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture or anything else I was practicing at the time. It had the smell of someone coming up against his purpose in life.”
The decision to sell his thriving chiropractic practice and establish an independent clinic and research institute devoted exclusively to neuroacoustics was not an easy one. But it is one that has been extremely fulfilling in the long run.
He emphasized that there is something fundamentally satisfying, not to mention therapeutically powerful about working with sound. “You’re orchestrating all the powers the brain has for healing. As things begin to clear up, the patient gets back in touch with who he or she really is.”
This, he stressed, is the ultimate goal, regardless of the specific clinical condition an individual patient presents. “Ultimately, it is not about fixing symptoms, it is about waking up. Healing the symptoms is the booby prize. When people have true healings, it is a reflection of the fact that they’ve woken up.”
Re-printed with permission from Erik L Goldman, Editor
(Editor’s Note: As a Conference Presenter, Dr. Jeffrey Thompson spoke on the Healing Power of Sound at the 2004 American Holistic Medical Association Conference in Albuquerque, NM. Inspired, Mr. Goldman interviewed Dr. Thompson for a greater grasp of the concepts presented. Mr. Goldman’s well-crafted article is accurate and shows excellent journalism.)