Just minutes after I remove my boots inside the entrance of the Globe Institute of Sound and Consciousness in San Francisco, founder David Gibson asks whether I’d like to experience the sound table.
“Absolutely,” I say. Gibson, a sound engineer and musician, leads me past knee-high crystal bowls and U-shaped tuning forks into a warm, candlelit back room. The table looks like a massage table, except the mattress is made of amethyst crystals, which, Gibson told me, reverberate at the “right” frequency. I lie down and gaze at mandala designs on the ceiling fabric. Ambient music fills the space: wind chimes, waves, a string quartet. Then, subwoofers start vibrating bass rhythms into my toes, thighs, back, shoulders and head. As the music builds, the pulses intensify—and I begin to relax.
After six minutes, the music fades and the vibrations stop. My body and mind are buzzing. “You feel totally blissed out?” Gibson says, grinning, and I have to say yes. But what, if anything, just happened to my body—and, more importantly, to my brain?
Sound healers, like Gibson, say can use sound frequencies to manipulate brainwaves, altering consciousness to treat anxiety, depression, stress… even attention deficit disorder. Gibson, who has spent the last 15 years studying sound, says clients, who pay hourly rates from $25 to $185, have had amazing results, that sound treatments have alleviated chronic pain and decreased the tremors of Parkinson's patients.
These healers say their practice is rooted in the laws of physics and neuroscience, so I decided to find out what neuroscientists thought about their bold claims.
We lives in an ocean of air particles. When something vibrates, like a guitar or your vocal chords, it sends invisible ripples cascading in all directions: sound waves. When the waves hit your eardrums, they tickle tiny hair cells in your inner ear, igniting electric pulses across networks of neurons. Voila! Your brain hears sound. By using certain frequencies, sound healers say they can coax the brain's neural networks into particular rhythms, like an audible prescription for your troubles.
Neuroscientists will tell you that yes, playing a sound might cause certain neurons to pulse at that frequency. But they disagree about what the brain rhythms mean, and if they mean anything at all. It’s not as clear-cut as sound therapists claim.
Some neuroscientists are beginning to explore the healing potential of brainwaves, but they’d never call themselves sound healers. Instead of crystal bowls, they use electrodes to send electromagnetic pulses to the brain to see if changes in brainwaves affects memory, motor skills, or perception. They think brain rhythm interventions could be a therapy, but say it’s in the “very early days.”
“New brain imaging technology has provided evidence that different circuits of the brain have preferred frequencies at which they oscillate,” says cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata of University of California, Davis, who uses music to understand how the brain organizes human behaviors.
Since discovering these oscillations in 1929, neuroscientists have struggled to understand whether each band's frequency corresponds to a cognitive or psychological state. Yet sound healers confidently contend that they relate to a person’s level of consciousness, citing studies that associate sound with reduced anxiety and sharper performance.
Some researchers have linked certain brain functions such as memory, motor skills, and perception to specific brainwave frequencies. Neuronal networks that fire between 8 Hz and 12 Hz pulse in the alpha frequency, an important rhythm for perception and attention, says neuroscientist Gregor Thut of the University of Glasgow, U.K., who uses electrodes rather than crystal bowls to get subjects' brains to pulse at certain rhythms.
But when you remove the external stimulus, Thut notes, the internal brain rhythms take over again. And despite the therapeutic reassurances made by the Globe Institute's staff, Thut says, the field of neuroscience is just beginning to explore whether brain rhythm interventions could be used as therapy.
Sound healers often use rhythms called "binaural beats" embedded within soothing, relaxing music to try to influence a client's brain. Binaural beats form when two tones at slightly different frequencies play at the same time. In headphones with the right ear tuned to 1,000 Hz and the left tuned to 1,010 Hz, we can’t hear the distinction. But as the sounds move through our auditory neural pathways, the brain perceives an underlying beat at a low frequency of 10 Hz—the difference between the two tones. Sound healers engineer binaural beats to trigger specific frequencies that influence desired states of consciousness, according to research cited by the institute.
When Gibson treats people with Parkinson's disease, he has them sit on a vibrating sound chair, which rotates to activate responses in the heart rate while playing music embedded with binaural beats. Gibson designs the music with several tailored features, including specific frequencies, types of sounds and harmonic intervals. Gibson saw his clients' symptoms improve, he says. He also points to NIH-funded research that examined vibroacoustic music as a way to alleviate certain symptoms. Why does it work? "It’s hard to say," says Gibson, "because we haven’t really done the science to break it out.”
Here, science soon may have some answers. Parkinson’s disease affects the neurons that maintain the internal timing needed to control our arms and legs smoothly. Studies on how music and rhythm affect muscles have suggested that music may be a therapy for Parkinson’s symptoms.
“Even when you’re passively listening to a rhythm, you’re engaging motor networks,” said Theodore Zanto of UC San Francisco, who studies how our perception of rhythm relates to memory and attention. “And so in the context of Parkinson’s disease, it’s not incredibly surprising that music therapy helps them, because the music is effectively engaging the motor system.”
Zanto though says there is no convincing research backing up sound healers' claim that binaural beats affect mood or cognition. He could find no studies linking binaural beats to healing that adequately controlled for other factors that might explain the benefits to patients, such as the soothing music itself or a placebo effect.
“I don’t want to completely take it off the table as a possibility, but I’m really skeptical,” Zanto says. Without controlled experiments, he says, there's no evidence that your elevated mood after a sound therapy session comes from binaural beats doing something in your brain. “These things really need to be teased apart and controlled properly to fully say that there is something special about sound healing,” he says.
Whether sound healing is legit or not — people are doing it. The Sound Healers Association has over 3,500 members. The New York Times linked sound healing's rising popularity in LA to the growing yoga community there and a new generation of young people discovering the Integratron, a white dome in the Mojave Desert built between 1957 and 1977 that offers sound baths to thousands of visitors per year.
I can’t deny that sound healing sessions make me feel something. At the end of my session at institute as I lie on the floor with my eyes closed, someone struck a metal bowl with a hard gong. A deep waaah-waaah-waaah wafted through the room. When the last note faded I held onto the silence with intense focus. A focus that is rare in our overstimulated world.
We may not have the science to prove it—that sound is responsible for the calm awareness I felt, but whether it was the ritual, lying on the ground, or sound waves themselves, I certainly experienced some good vibrations.
In high school, my view of science was covered by a paper bag and published by McGraw-Hill. I couldn’t see the forest for the boring text about the trees. Instead, the ocean taught me to marvel at nature. I watched the horizon bend into swells, saw fog layers come and go, and splashed in fluorescent green water during red tides. The ocean put it in terms I understood: Dude, science is rad!
While studying Earth science in college, I was fascinated by the interconnection between the atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. I was also struck that people feel a disconnect between humans and the natural world, as if we live in an isolated anthrosphere. By telling stories that weave together humans and nature, I hope to encourage us to reconnect—in terms everyone can understand.