If we seek solace and peace in the sounds of nature and in our houses of worship, what happens to us the rest of the time when we are bombarded by sound at every turn? It seems like no matter where we are these days, it is impossible to escape the sound of traffic, sirens, the phone ringing… just the din of everyday life, which has become louder and more pervasive than ever. How is this new world of ceaseless sound affecting our bodies and our minds?
We invite you to embark on a journey with us to explore some fascinating perspectives that shed a light on our relationship with sound and music.
Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, the Founder and Director of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research in California (www.neuroacoustic.com), is recognized as a worldwide expert in the field of acoustic pacing frequencies that are incorporated into musical sound tracks. A consummate musician and composer in his own right, he has established a method for using modulated sound-pulses that change states of consciousness for optimal “Mind-Body” healing. Dr. Thompson believes that the sounds in nature resonate with us because they take us back to the beginning of our journey and our primary senses.
Matter&Beyond: Why are sound and music so central for us, both culturally and personally?
I don’t think I’ve found a single culture on earth which at some point hasn’t used sound as a prominent technique in healing, in religious rites, or as a means of attaining a change of consciousness in one way or another. I think the tradition probably dates back to the first use of sound as a soothing or healing means for mothers; that is lullabies for babies.
M&B: Is this our earliest experience with sound? Is this what you call primordial sounds?
If you go back to before the lullabies, we’re talking about womb experiences and it’s one of the primal things we all share; this is what I call primordial sounds. Certain type of sounds have the same influence on anyone who hears it, no matter what age you are, what sex you are, what culture you were brought up in, what language you speak; womb sounds fit that criteria.
M&B: Why is it sound, but not the vision?
Because at 16 weeks, when the fetus is very small, the nervous system is developed enough that all the senses are functioning; however it is dark, so the eyes aren’t working, no information is being received and the nose and the mouth are filled with fluids, so there is no tasting or smelling, but sound travels through water five times better than it does through air; therefore the ears are working but amplified by five times, and the largest sense organ we have, the skin, is a huge sense organ for vibrations. Thus, we’re experiencing vibration and sound for nine months in the womb and that sound environment is a very specific type of environment; the amniotic fluid sounds, the watery bubbly sounds, the mother’s heartbeat through the placental artery, respiratory sounds from the diaphragm, noises of the internal organ; it’s a rich complex, three-dimensional sound environment that is exactly the same for everyone of us; we all experienced this in the same way.
M&B: How does the fetus perceive this sound?
Remember the fetus is small and the ear is small; the eardrum is extremely small. If the eardrum was blown up to the size of my eardrum and the mother’s heart was blown up in proportion it would fill this room. So what kind of sound would such a heart make? It wouldn’t be the sound that you would expect it to be listening to the adult’s heart with a stethoscope from the outside; it would be a very large, slow sound, a large thumping sound.
M&B: How is this related to the use of sound in therapy or for relaxation?
Most of us who have gone on vacations and have explored nature feel a peaceful, beautiful return to nature; why?
Because if you take the sounds of the amniotic fluid and you slow those sounds down, they sound a lot like the ocean. The size of the sound waves compared to the eardrum would make these watery sounds sound like they have also slowed down. So many of the watery sounds in the womb sound like other sounds that we can hear later in nature. This can spark a similar kind of primordial recognition which is beyond the control of the rational thinking mind.
So when we build up these kinds of sounds on a soundtrack you can then push the button and the body will automatically go back to what it felt like to have a natural experience; when we combine the sounds of nature with music this makes a relaxation tape. So I would say that the sounds of nature provide secondary primordial sounds, as not all of us would have heard the same natural sounds in our lives.
The idea is to extend the power of the primordial recognizable components of sound in order to create a physical response. The technique is to connect with a primal recognition at a subconscious level; this will tap into experiences that you have had in the womb and at other times.
M&B: You not only use sound for relaxation, but also in order to combat stress. Could you please talk about this?
When a person has a fight-or-flight response, a stress response, we know very precisely what happens physiologically. The very first thing, the most sensitive organ, to respond to stress is the heart and thus when we look at the heart waves we can gain important information.
M&B: Why the heart and not the brain?
The reason for this is that the heart is the perfect system in the nervous system; it is called the autonomic nervous system or the automatic functioning nervous system; it knows how to organize and control my organs and glands and body chemistry and perform biomechanics that I’m not aware of and can’t control.
My rational-thinking brain can control physical body movements and thinking processes, but there’s another section that controls the automatic functioning of how my body runs. There is another control of this autonomic nervous system, which has two large branches of nerves that innervate all the organs and glands; these two branches of the nerves are the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system.
While the sympathetic nervous system switches on, the parasympathetic switches off and mobilizes energy from the higher brain centers, from my digestive system, from my elimination system and from my immune system, it pulls that energy into my muscles to fight for my life.
This is when the brain freezes when you take an exam. You’re frightened about the exam; it is your final exam and you’re frightened that you’re not going to pass it or that you’re not going to do well. That fright causes the sympathetic system to switch on and drain the energy out of your brain; this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t have a brain left, because all the energy has gone to your muscles. At the moment the sympathetic system switches on, it mobilizes the pituitary which signals the adrenal glands; these fires adrenaline, the adrenaline starts the heart and the respiration and a number of other things. At the same time it suppresses the pancreas and lets loose extra glucose so you can fight for your life more and so what you end up with is the very first thing that happens.
M&B: What is the normal stress response and how do we return to a normal state?
When a person is required to carry out special tasks, like running or fighting for one’s life, then the sympathetic nervous system has to switch on, mobilize the energy from various places and send it to my muscles. If I am injured, but I survive and win, then the parasympathetic system is going to switch on and build up; that energy will be sent to my immune system, healing centers and recuperation areas for my muscles; when this is finished these are basically switched off, because we don’t need this energy anymore. This is certainly the normal way of functioning.
Thus, there are certain normal ways in which the body should function when a person is okay and normal. When the patient comes in and lies down on their back we hook them up and look at what’s happening in the autonomic nervous system. Normally when you lay down for three to five minutes your system should relax. Gravity isn’t affecting you, your heart doesn’t have to do extra work to pump the blood up to your brain; as a result the muscles relax and the sympathetic system and parasympathetic nervous systems should be at a level playing field. Now they can conserve their energy and this state of balance in the autonomic nervous system is known as homeostasis. The best state of health you can have is in homeostasis, where you’re not using energy in an unnecessary way. Homeo means unity, one, within my body, while stasis is a perfect state of rest.
M&B: What are the results of your studies to date? How many of us return back to homeostasis in three to five minutes?
Clinically what I see is maybe two patients with a normal response; I’ve been checking every patient with the real time heart rate variability system now for 7 years. This means thousands of patients; in all of that time I have seen one, maybe two patients with a normal response. I hook the patient up, and see what the response is. Most people’s response is abnormal; what this abnormality says is that after five minutes they have not attained a balance, and they have a good strong, healthy, dominant sympathetic stress response which never stops.
M&B: What do you think is the reason for this?
This state is constant because of the artificial, extremely stressful world that we have artificially created for ourselves. It wasn’t supposed to be like this; you are supposed to wake up in the morning and grab your spear and go catch a rabbit and that’s your workday; when you get there and you see that rabbit the sympathetic system turns on and the heart rates increase, the same thing happens with the rabbit, and it’s all going to be over in a couple of minutes. You’re going to catch the rabbit or he’s going to get away and then everything goes back, the clutch pushes in. Let’s say you get the rabbit, and the clutch pushes in; everything is fine and you are going to go home. Now you hear a growl behind you and there’s a saber tooth tiger looking at you, thinking about dinner; now the sympathetic system switches on, the heart rate is up, and you are running and he is running. It is all going to be over in a couple of minutes and either you are going to get away or you’re not.
But what I’m talking about here is that the nervous system, at its core, and its stress response are both designed for a sprint and not a marathon; but what we have had in the twenty-first century and throughout the twentieth century is a marathon of stress; but these are the kind of stresses that we can’t see, i.e. invisible stresses. They’re electromagnetic frequencies; the walls in this room, television channel frequencies, military frequencies, microwave frequencies, air pollution, food pollution and traffic jams when going to work to a job that doesn’t pay enough money for a boss who has the emotional development of a three-year old are all problems for us. The stress goes and then it’s back again; it’s time to get dinner for the kids and watching 7:00 news. This doesn’t stop; the nervous system’s solution to surviving this is to invent a mechanism of merely stepping on the gas, switching on the emergency sympathetic system on and bulldozing your way through the stress for the rest of your life with great momentum; but at nighttime, when it’s time to go to bed the nervous system doesn’t want to let go of this momentum that it has built up to get through the day.
M&B: And this has devastating effects on our health?
You can’t keep running in high gear for the rest of your life without some horrible consequences; the body’s not designed for it. You can only do this for a few decades before your heart or your brain blows up, the two biggest killers in Western society are heart attacks and strokes – there is also high blood pressure and diabetes. But what can we expect if our sympathetic nervous system is all the time working, which means by definition that our heart pressure is up and the pancreas is suppressed, so there is extra glucose being sent out? So people who don’t have the constitution to handle the stress blow a fuse; they have no way to handle the stress and as a result they have immune system problems, digestive problems, and problems that come from that colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases, allergies.
M&B: You are using sound in order to help people return to their normal healthy state. How does this work?
I’ve come up with a way to use sound to force the autonomic nervous system to push in the clutch, removing us from a place of high stress from which you can leave by using sound; we do this by using the heart-rate variability to see how bad the heart rate is and then explore various precisely tuned sound frequencies which will actually force the nervous system to push in the clutch. There will be a very specific tone for every person; this is like a glass vibrating if I sing the right note. An opera singer can sing the right note to make the glass vibrate. Well, now let’s imagine that your autonomic nervous system is the glass and we’re going to explore various sound frequencies that are very precisely tuned to find out which one affects your autonomic nervous system function; when we find it the response will be like pushing in the clutch and sending it into a state of relaxation. So we hit the right note and we get the response; this is what I’ve been looking for. Now we can see this phenomenon clinically. Once we’ve got the tone that’s associated with the pushing in of the clutch of the autonomic nervous system we can use that therapeutically through a specially designed sound table that I have made; this consists of low-frequency sound components which drive the low frequencies right into your cells via headphones. This relaxation mode is introduced to your nervous system over an extended period of time. We can burn this sound onto a CD and you can take it home and work with it at home on your stereo; it is like an internal training program. Every time your nervous system pushes in the clutch, the ability to push in the clutch grows, just like working a muscle in a gym.
This is a kind of high-tech stress reduction training program for the nervous system with sound. This is one of the three components I mentioned earlier; there are three parallel processes using sound for healing. This one is the idea of using the physical resonance to cause an effect on the nervous system to relax people.
M&B: This is what is called a sound table, right?
Yes, the sound table I needed had to have specific requirements, which is why I had to make my own to attain the exact clinical results I wanted. The power in the table actually delivered more power to your body than I wanted to be delivered. Therefore, I had to be able to have the sound that was coming from the table split into the right and left speakers, but none of those that were available on the market could do that. So I had to have it specially designed. As a composer, musician and audio engineer I was able to design the sounding board of that table and the transducers so that a lot of free sound could be delivered and spread out, therefore it is much more effective and delivers the sound to your body via headphones. Thus there is a lot going on in that table that you cannot see and this is what makes it work properly.
Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond.