HARMONIC OVERTONES IN THE WHALE-SONG CHAIR
By David Marsh
An enduring memory from school-days is when the man who recorded the huge gong ring at the start of every J. Arthur Rank film came to lecture one evening on `Instruments of Percussion', to a filled school hall. He brought his great gong with him and played a roll so voluminous that soon we were covering our ears. Then mercifully he stopped: explaining that were he to play it louder, the glass in the windows of the (then new) school hall would shatter.
Many of us will remember the experiment with 2 tuning forks. When one was struck, it set the other off in sympathetic vibration. Sound is a physical thing, as we are reminded every time someone's bass notes come trundling merrily through house walls. We all know loud, harsh sound can be bad for us; what we don't so often think about is that sound can also have healing properties.
Finland has now presented us with the concept of physio-acoustic therapy. Administered through a comfortable reclining chair, the user is bathed repeatedly with pure, coherent (patterned & harmonious), sinusoidal sound waves. This physio-acoustic methodology (PAM) was designed by Petri Lehikoinen, professor of clinical psychology (also a music therapist) and Aulikki Niffinen, professor of Medicine at Helsinki University Central Hospital. Sine-waves are produced by a specially designed computer together with six loud-speakers built into the chair. Waves of varying pitch, frequency and tone sweep up and down, and down and up the body; muscle groups and other organs tingle with vibration in sympathetic harmony as their own resonance frequencies are approached; the effect is like having a massage right the way through the body.
Some users say it is like swimming with whales, for the computer generated sounds are not dissimilar to whalesong. Others say it is like flying: practitioners of yoga say the effect is like YOGANIDRA or psychic sleep. Simultaneously soothing music is played either through earphones, or through the chair itself. The experience is relaxing, as muscle tissue looses tension, blood flow improves and pain is eased.
The results of 15 years research and development into PAM or treatment by harmonious sound wave patterns, by this Finnish team are now available in UK. The physio-acoustic chair, an approved medical device, is being used in over 100 hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, old people's homes, health clubs and alternative and complementary clinics in UK alone; it is also in various countries around the world; including Canada and US, where it has FDA approval; as it is here BSI approved.
The medical team developed PAM initially for patients with brain damage and various forms of handicap, such as spina bifida. The equipment makes three medical claims. It improves blood flow (and therefore lowers blood pressure); it relieves pain, stress and psycho-somatic pains; and it reduces muscle tensions. It also makes for better sleep.
Case studies from Helsinki University include patients with dangerously high blood pressure (200+ / 140). A general relaxation programme comprising of daily treatments of 20 minutes, resulted over a 6 monthly period, of blood pressure of 120 / 85.
Nine neurotic patients received ten thirty minute sessions. Stress levels were evaluated with 12 different methods, including measurement of blood pressure, pulse and pain, depression and anxiety evaluation: during the therapy all the tests showed a decreasing tendency. Statistically significant decreases were observed in the feeling of pain, tension and anxiety. Pulse and blood pressure also showed a decreasing trend (1).
A handicapped patient - with dystonia tetraplegica (whole body spasticity) received five 20 minute treatments per week. After three weeks this was reduced to 3 sessions per week. After five months the twisted body position was almost symmetrical. Feet and wrists were spontaneously relaxed. Therapy was stopped after one year for seven months; there was no deterioration in the physical condition. No other therapy was applied during this trial (2). Studies conducted in several institutes for handicapped people in Finland show that physio- acoustic treatment is beneficial for handicapped patients.
Whilst medically speaking only the three claims (above) are made, anecdotal evidence suggests it is effective with persistent back pain, and with some Alzheimers and MS sufferers. But it would seem that as a stress-buster this extraordinary piece of equipment could make its name.
How does it work?
Muscle, and other tissues, have their own peculiar electro-magnetic and audio frequencies at which they resonate. Approximate resonance frequencies were estimated and loaded into the computer, which was then programmed to create sound-waves which vary up and down from the fixed pitch - of muscle, or other tissue groupings. The sound waves `sweep' up and down all over the body, via the reclining chair. It is a relaxing and emotionally pleasurable experience.
The manufacturers say `no significant adverse effects have been found. Some patients may experience nausea or vertigo during the first treatments. However patients with confirmed or suspected cardiac problems, women who are or maybe pregnant, and patients taking psycho-tropic medications should get approval of their physician prior to using the physio-acoustic therapy system'.
PAM inventors were particularly interested in the borderland areas where the body has an affect on the mind - and where the mind has an affect on the body.
Music has been a common form of therapy in many cultures over the centuries; Aztecs, Mayans, Yogi's, Shamans, etc, have all used sound for healing those distressed in body, mind or spirit. Dr Richard Williams (see below) suggests that `perhaps the best-known application of sound in the healing arts has been in the field of music therapy'.
Sinusuidal sound (or sine) waves are used because of the purity of their sound. Coherent sine waves are used, which means that the waves are patterned coherently in-phase (and harmoniously) together: (incoherent waves which overlap, scramble the purity of the sound).
In addition, coherent sine waves create harmonic overtones (which incoherent waves do not), so whilst the basic frequency of the music is in the range of 27 - 113 cps or Hz, the resulting harmonic overtones can have frequencies as high as 5 X 10 to 10th (acoustic frequency) and 6 X 9 to 15th (electromagnetic frequency). In theory there is no limit to the amount of harmonious overtones created by coherent sine waves. Such high frequencies are found, amazingly, in the resonances of cell membranes and intracellular microtubules (3).
When in such excited atomic states, biological tissue appears capable of storing energy, to be released later when needed for high energy tasks, such as speeding up enzyme reactions. So acoustics actually make cells work, as well as giving them periods of relaxation: scientifically it is classified as a form of exercise, like jogging. This aspect of the therapy is useful for patients who cannot exercise.
An important part of the therapy is the music played during the session (take your own favourite calming, music and earphones). The collective effect of the ensuing brain functioning on the body, together with the effects of a deeply relaxed body on the brain, probably contain the secrets of its success.
PAM is now being used in the corporate market place. Back strain is a common problem in large production units, and this is a particular area of success with PA treatment. Several multi-national companies are at present considering its potential - both for the shop floor, the offices and for lowering blood pressure and executive stress.
One chief medical officer , has welcomed the clinically approved chair. He explains `There are many conscientious people who find it difficult to relax, even for a few minutes. Long-term this is not healthy for them, or our business. The physio-acoustic chair, placed in a quiet room is a valuable tool for promoting relaxation and helping them recharge and re-focus. As well as reducing muscle tension it has helped reduce back pain, neck pain, headache and migraine in those who have tried it.'
Dr Richard R. Williams from the Center for Health, Psychology and Medicine, Kalamazoo, Michigan has used PAM in conjunction with hypnotherapy. As the unit can be operated either by one of any 8 preset computer programmes, or manually by the therapist, the level of sound can be adjusted to accompany suggestions of `going deeper, deeper, deeper', with lower, slower and louder sound waves. This encourages very deep states of relaxation.
It is efficient in getting patients into low `theta' state, an extremely relaxed mind state; that state in which we have `twilight dreams' just before and after sleep. In `Twilight Training' (originally developed by Dr Thomas Budzynski) the patient is bathed with theta waves from tip to toe. This induces the subject into relaxation and his/her own theta state. (It is of note that the `signature' frequency of our planet, known as the Schuman frequency -7.8 Hz - lies within the EEG range of activity identified with the theta state).
At this stage Dr Williams introduces a biofeedback loop, so the patient can learn (willingly and enjoyably) to relax; whilst watching the EEG readings, as pulse rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate start slowing down. They soon learn how to do this at will.
When the EEG detects the subject is in theta state, it then takes over control of the activity of the physio-acoustic input. As the subject goes more deeply into theta, the strength of the sound waves increases accordingly. PAM is thus brought into the biofeedback loop in such a way that it both encourages, and is encouraged by a developing state of awareness. Once the subject is in deep theta state, post-hypnotic suggestions can be planted; or imagery training for improving health or sports targets can be introduced whilst in a deep theta state.
This system has been used by Olympic athletes in Finland and America, where it has helped speed healing times. It also provides a useful tool for imagery and positive planning sessions. Complementary therapists using hypnosis could possibly find new horizons with this clinical innovation.
Hypnotherapists find its use helps subjects to attain more quickly the deeply relaxed `theta' state (just above REM deep-sleep state, on EEG scale) in which there is both heightened creativity and suggestibility.
A number of complementary therapies such as yoga, herbal medicine and acupuncture - to name but a few - are effective in relieving stress; but most require some sort of effort. The opposite is the case when lying, gently resonating, on a comfortable couch, with relaxing music singing in your ears; not only is minimum effort required, but no reading nor will-power; it is also a delicious experience. Anecdotal (only) reports speak of the occasional mystical experience.
New techniques, or clinical equipment, often invite initial resentment. However, those involved at the cutting edge of the healing arts will be amongst the first to recognise an ally.
Such highly sophisticated clinical equipment poses two important questions. could this (almost self-perpetuating) system of feed-in / feedback / feed forward create a new direction in the field of self- regulation and its integration with medicine?
1. Naukkarinen et al, 1990; Lehikoinen, 1990).
2. Lehikoinen, 1990; Leppala, 1990.
3. Adapted from Smith and Best 1989; Smith 1981.