Listen Then Look!

Humans are primarily visual creatures with large amounts of brain resources assigned to processing visual data.  And rightly so, how else would we have found our way down from those trees in Africa long, long ago…in a galaxy far away? (But that’s another story.) 

Human embryos hear long before they see – months before.  The first sense to develop in the womb is our ability to hear.  Why? Early in our womb experience we hear and bond with our mother’s voice.  That’s because when we jump out of the womb, we can’t see very well, but we can hear and we immediately locate and focus on the re-assuring presence of that voice we’ve heard for months.  That voice represents nurturing care and is our refuge in a very strange new world. 

We then immediately begin to learn language. And our prodigious language-learning skills would make any polyglot supremely envious.  Again our sense of hearing and our ability to discern and interpret sounds is developed far sooner than our other senses. 

We also quickly discern the friendly, nurturing sounds (parents, and grandparents baby-talk from threatening sounds (sudden, loud sounds and grouchy strangers who don’t like children). 

Most spiritual traditions place sound as the most important force in their cosmology.  Across cultures deities create their world through words of command, mystical songs, mantras and music of the spheres.  Why this recurring theme of Sound as the most important force? 

I believe there was a lot of intuitive knowledge going around back in the early days of spiritual practices that realized the power of sound to affect the human physiology.  Just look at the fun ‘Mystery Schools’ of the ancient Greco-Roman world.  Members would blindfold the initiates, give them hallucinatory drugs, take them into a subterranean room and scare the hell out of them with loud sounds that blended animal with other-worldly sounds contrived by priests tripping their brains out on hallucinatory drugs and ‘making music’ with a lot of weird noise.  (I know some of you are fondly thinking back to your college parties that resembled the above scene. BTW Frank Zappa scared the hell out of me when I was a high school sophomore – we didn’t call it a Mystery School.) 

Fast forward 2,300 years and we now have extremely sensitive equipment that can measure the subtlest changes in our physiology as we listen to music.  We know that it takes about 7 minutes to feel the effects of music.  There is no ‘music center’ in our brain.  When we listen or play music, many regions of our brain fire in a sequential, orchestrated order. Respiratory and heart rates are affected as is the limbic area of our brain (a holdover from our reptilian ancestors). 

When you walk around today you hear music everywhere and your brain filters most of it out as ‘useless data’.  But 2,500 years ago the world was a very quiet place and when you heard music, your brain and nervous system were ‘charmed’, or scared out of your wits if you were at the Mystery School hazing ritual. 

Sound is the most important sense in that it has deeply profound effects upon our physiology.  Infants know this, the ancients understood this truth, and anyone who rides the New York subway (a modern Mystery School) knows that earbuds elevate their experience from barely tolerable to blissfully ‘checked out’. 

James Schaller, CMP is a clinical musician and consultant who trains caregivers how to use therapeutic music, and consults with healthcare facilities to create soundscapes that benefit patients and staff.

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