Hello, again, dear reader. Our investigation of alternative ways to heal and come home to ourselves continues as we explore the notion of sound as therapy. In order to do so, we must start with a side exploration of the brain and its different states of consciousness.
You have probably heard that the brain is part of our central nervous system, which means it is a hub of communication to the rest of the body. It governs both the voluntary responses, like picking up a pencil or walking to the refrigerator to grab a fizzy drink, and the automatic responses happening behind the scenes of our day-to-day experiences. This includes the breath, heartbeat, sleep cycles, digestion, and, importantly for this conversation, brain activity. These rhythm-based processes seeking harmony draw great influence from the stress and relaxation responses governed by the autonomic (or automatic) nervous system. Thus, our stress level directly influences all the automatic processes in our body. For example, shallow breathing and sporadic, pinball-machine-like brain activity communicate a stress dominant state to the body through the autonomic nervous system. Deep breathing and slowed brain activity communicate a relaxation dominant state. This activity in the brain can be measured using wave patterns and, for the type A personalities out there, categorized into certain frequency ranges (these ranges are measured in Hertz, or wave cycles per second):
- The Beta State (13-38 Hertz) is characterized by quick scratches of waves with just a bit of space in between each wave, signifying wakefulness and conscious thought. We produce brainwaves in primarily Beta frequency ranges when we are awake and working, problem-solving, or analyzing our surroundings.
- In an Alpha state (8-13 Hertz) our brain activity starts to form fuller waves with more space in between each wave, which is associated with a relaxed state; perhaps a light meditation or that lovely space between dreaming and wakefulness.
- During a Theta state (4-7 Hertz) our brains really slow down and produce the broad waves associated with REM or active sleep cycles. We can also achieve these frequency ranges during deep meditation, visualization exercises, or hypnosis.
- Finally, for our conversation, in the Delta state our brain activity produces the broadest and slowest wave patterns at 4 Hertz or less. Typically, we only achieve Delta during deep dreamless sleep, but some advanced practitioners and monks have been able to chill this deeply during meditation.
These days, our busy, fast-paced world seems to exist in a primarily Beta state of consciousness. Our brains work quickly within these frequencies while we work at our jobs or school, check off to-do lists, and put dinner on the table for our families. These are important aspects of our lives, but any overused state of consciousness causes imbalances. For instance, excessive Beta activity typically presents as excessive stress. This can manifest itself as chronic pain or fatigue and can even affect how we see ourselves and our world, contributing to states of dis-ease like depression and anxiety. Shifting states of consciousness in our day-to-day helps lift the stress of living in a primarily Beta or stress dominant state where we tend to identify too strongly with our thoughts and to-do lists. Accessing the deeper levels of consciousness that exist at slower frequencies (Alpha, Theta, Delta) enables us to live more fully as our truest and purest selves rather than as our stressed and overused thought patterns and belief systems.
There are countless ways to visit different levels of consciousness like meditation, breathing exercises, and even sleep. However, I am here to show you the alternatives in alternative medicine. First, it will help you to understand a bit about entrainment, which means falling into synchronicity. For example, Christian Huygens discovered that his pendulum clocks would start off-beat from each other but eventually entrain to the same rhythm. Similarly brainwaves can entrain with external frequencies like sound waves. The practice of sound therapy utilizes sound waves to shift our brain activity to the slowed down and chilled-out Theta or Delta frequencies. This can be especially true when the sounds are presented in a certain manner such as binaurally. When two different frequencies interact in this way, the brain perceives the difference in frequency, which can be as low as 4-7 Hertz. As mentioned previously, this is the actual range of Theta brainwaves and below the range of human hearing. So, amazingly, our brains perceive a sound lower than our ears can actually hear! To boot, our brains and, consequently, our bodies achieve a deeply relaxed and healing state. Ancient medicine and technology combine to provide several ways to bear witness to these sorts of sounds and phenomena.
- Sound baths are just that. When we allow our bodies to rest fully and bathe in the hypnotic frequencies formed by Tibetan singing bowls, crystal singing bowls, or gongs, our brains have all they need to entrain these frequencies and deliver the relaxation response to our bodies. Brian David Gilbert offers crystal bowl sound baths regularly in the community either through the Mind & Body Connection or at a local park on a nice day. You can find updates about sound baths on his Facebook page or Instagram @Brian-David.
- Alpha, Theta, and Delta wave meditations are like sound baths in that they both offer sound at frequencies meant to deeply relax the mind and body. You can find many versions of these meditations on Spotify or YouTube and are usually best taken with high quality headphones in order to receive the full therapeutic benefit of the binaural beats. These meditations either layer calming music with therapeutic tones or have little to no fluctuation as drones.
- Drones share important similarities to brainwave meditations because they convey specific frequencies to our brains for entrainment, and we can access them via the internet from any one of our various devices right at home. Drones, however, get right to the point and deliver only specific frequencies. There are no melodies or harmonies here, just chill, bass tones you can feel in your bones.
These methods of sound therapy offer ways to relax the mind even when that seems impossible among the sea of to-do lists and clutter. Simply sitting with certain sounds can help recalibrate the nervous system, our sense of identity, and our perception of the world. Layers of continuous behaviors and thoughts can fall away, allowing the true self to fully emerge, in this moment, now.