According to ancient Vedic wisdom, the known universe began with sound, and out of sound came movement, energy, and matter. Today we know that sound is a sequence of vibrating waves that travel through air or water, and modern science tells us that all the particles that make up the matter in the universe are in a state of vibration. I find these two facts compelling and connected to the idea described in Vedic philosophy that the vibrations of sound can change molecular structure and create form.
According to the medical science of Ayurveda, which is rooted in this ancient Vedic philosophy, sound has a profound effect on our physiology and can be used for healing. The healing power of music has been recognized for thousands of years in Ayurveda, and current scientific research seems to be confirming this concept.
Medical Study Points to Healing Power of Music and Silence
Just as some kinds of sound, such as music, are thought to have healing properties, other persistent and annoying sounds (also known as noise) can have the opposite effect. Many of my patients have told me that the constant noises that pervade hospital wards hardly make for a calming, restorative environment. Most people find it hard to rest with the din of machines, televisions, carts, and gurneys humming, droning, and rattling around them. This is especially true in the intensive care unit, where electrical beeps and alarms are constantly sounding. An interesting study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) speaks to the power of sound in our environment and how it can affect patients. The authors evaluated two groups of intensive care patients: one group listened to music they selected themselves, while the other group used noise-cancelling headphones to block out background noise. These two test groups were compared to a control group of intensive-care patients who received the usual care with no sound intervention.
The researchers found that the patients who listened to their own music, as well as the patients who blocked out noise with headphones, had less anxiety compared to the patients who had no intervention. More interesting, the patients who listened to music used less sedative medication compared to both the headphone-using group and the control group. This suggests that simply blocking out excess noise benefitted all patients, and that there was a difference between simple noise reduction and listening to music.
Although the JAMA study was small and looked at a limited population, the results support the observations of ancient healers that stimuli entering our bodies – in this case, through our ears – can affect our physiology. These findings bring to light the importance of studying how sensory input affects healing. If inexpensive and safe interventions like decreasing noise or listening to music can help patients reduce anxiety and limit their need for sedative drugs, that’s a step forward in making hospitals the calming and restorative places we’d like them to be.
Developing Sensory Awareness
At the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program and Journey into Healing workshop, we teach people to become aware of what is entering their bodies through all of their senses. This can be done through sensory-awareness practices and mind-body integration tools such as meditation and yoga. All of the energy and information that enters us, even in the form of sound, needs to be processed and “digested,” much as our food does. When we increase unpleasant and uncomfortable sounds in our environment, but don’t have a balance of nurturing and pleasant sounds, we begin to feel the stress response in the body.
We can learn much from the ancient healing traditions that turned to the use of senses for healing. Centuries ago, these traditions recognized that we are connected to our environment. They observed the benefits conferred or the harm done by exposure to sensory stimuli. Modern science has given us powerful insights into the mechanisms of this phenomenon, allowing us to treasure our time-honored gifts with new understanding.
- Effects of patient-directed music intervention on anxiety and sedative exposure in critically ill patients receiving mechanical ventilatory support: a randomized clinical trial. Chlan LL, Weinert CR, Heiderscheit A, Tracy MF, Skaar DJ, Guttormson JL, Savik K. JAMA. 2013 Jun 12; 309 (22):2335-44.
- Instituting a music listening intervention for critically ill patients receiving mechanical ventilation: Exemplars from two patient cases. Heiderscheit A, Chlan L, Donley, K. Music Med. 2011 October 1; 3(4): 239–246.