Sound Vibrations & The Brain: New Connections & Paradigms
“And he called the medicine which is obtained through music by the name of purification”
-Iamblichus referring to Pythagoras’ activities in his Crotona School (from T. Taylor’s The Life of Pythagoras)
This article focuses on two interconnected theses: first, that audible sound vibrations play more of a role in brain function than previously estimated, and in fact may be directly responsible for initiating certain brain states which in turn may be controlled or triggered by characteristics of different vibratory phenomena (amplitude, magnitude, ratios, partials, timbre); second, that music, as organized sound, was used by ancient civilizations for just this purpose: as a means of directing vibrations to different perceptual and physiological “centers” for purposes of healing and gaining higher states of consciousness. It is this music, based on natural and biological energies, using interval relationships in natural proportion or based on an overtone series, which was most likely the basis of musical systems prior to 600 BC.
A change in fundamental human consciousness at this point coincided with a change in musical theory, which had social, cultural, political and metaphysical consequences. By investigating these events, we may develop a clearer understanding of how our musical system got where it is today, and what the possibilities for the future are.
Terence McKenna’s book Food Of The Gods makes brief mention of the provocative idea that vibrations and specifically the vocal vibrations associated with human use of language cause a cleansing of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF): CSF continuously bathes the brain, (see illustration) washing out chemical waste. It is hypothesized that the skull vibrations caused by vocalizations are primarily responsible for “agitating” the CSF, thereby increasing its cleansing power much like a washing machine agitates clothing. It follows that a brain with less chemical waste will be capable of higher thought forms and deeper concentration.
If this is so, it may be one of the reasons why Homo Sapiens evolved thinner skulls than did other competing hominids. A thinner skull would transmit proportionally more vibration into the CSF:
“Vibrations of human skull, as produced by loud vocalizations, exert a massaging effect on the brain and facilitate elution of metabolic products from the brain into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)…The Neanderthals had a brain 15% larger than we have, yet did not survive in competition with modern humans. Their brains were more polluted, because their massive skulls did not vibrate and therefore the brains were not sufficiently cleaned. In the evolution of modern humans the thinning of the cranial bones was important.”(Jindrak)
It follows that vibrations associated with all human vocal sounds would conform to this hypothesis; chanting, humming, or any external vibratory phenomena such as drumming, bell chiming or other sound related rites, which could also effect sympathetic vibrations in the skull. These and other types of sound use have been an integral part of human culture since earliest times. In evolutionary terms, cultures which engaged in these activities had the benefit of improved brain function, and consequently, better survival strategies. As one of many biological survival mechanisms, Homo Sapiens has retained the instinctual need for skull vibrations. Music and other sound rites today may simply be another product of millions of years of evolution.
The mantras chanted in Tantric Yoga and other meditative/ritual chanting would in fact be far more “vibratory” to the skull than speech.
“The root words man (mind) and tra (instrument of) are joined to produce the Sanskrit word mantra. The specific usage of this term is reserved to describe the relationship of sound to subtle mental dynamics. In Tantrism, sound is understood to be the most powerful instrument of mind, and the Tantric tradition serves to unite the inner and outer worlds. Sounds themselves are of primary concern; that is, consonants and vowels rather than their combinations to form words as is done in a conventional language.” (Pankaj) [Italics mine]
Vocal vibrations are indeed at the core of other esoteric traditions, and chanting/singing are certainly a major part of almost every religion. States of higher consciousness associated with religious ecstasy usually coincide with chanting and vocalized prayer. Could these phenomena be caused by just a physio-mechanical cleansing or do vibrations have some other direct affect on portions of the brain/nervous system? In yoga, the centers or chakras are defined in terms of areas of the body. Since these areas are in direct control of the brain/nervous system, it follows that vibrations affecting certain parts of the brain would consequently affect centers in the body. There are 8 “transcendental ecstasies” that can be achieved through mantra yoga : (1) being stopped as though dumb, (2) perspiration, (3) standing up of hairs on the body, (4) dislocation of voice, (5) trembling, (6) fading of the body,(7) crying in ecstasy, and (8) trance.” (Prabhupada) The Tantric tradition suggested to me that these vibrations were perhaps acting directly on parts of the brain receptive to sonic vibration.
Next: Chakras »