Mindful Monday: Mindful Journeys of Listening

If music be the food of love, play on
— Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night, Shakespeare

Reading Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, gave me a huge appreciation for the ear and listening—and it made me think about how mindfulness applied to listening and hearing might be healing. I believe that all of the senses get affected with trauma. They are either dulled from overstimulation, or heightened to the point of hypervigilance. While his book doesn't directly address PTSD or repeated trauma I believe the information in his books is invaluable for healing trauma.

The book itself is on neuroplasticity, or “the property of the brain that enables it to change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience" and all the ways that brains can heal from all sorts of disease and injury. I will be writing more in depth about his books tomorrow, but there was one chapter in particular that made me want to explore it for Mindful Monday—Bridge of Sound –The special connection between music and sound.

In this chapter he introduces us to Dr. Tomatis and Dr. Paul Madaule who treated disorders from dyslexia to autism to TBI with music. But not just any music. Music that has been filtered to highlight the distinctions between frequencies. Helping the brain make the distinctions between the frequencies and be able to amplify or tune in to different frequencies allows us to hear accurately. It allows us to be in a crowded room and tune in to conversations.

What they discovered in their work was that the ear was ‘not a passive organ, but the equivalent of a zoom lens that allows it to focus on particular noises and filter others out.’ This ‘active listening’ is created with the muscles in our ears—the stapedus and the tensor tympani. These muscles, when they are working properly allow us to hear both high and low frequencies. But when they aren’t working well, for example, babies who have had chronic ear infections often have weaker middle ear muscles, they let in only low frequencies, and miss higher frequencies, which includes most of human speech.

Our brain controls the muscles in our ears and without the muscles in our ears being able to work properly, we don’t differentiate sounds, and our brains don’t have clear maps of information. Instead of clear information, we get too much noise. Sound overwhelms our system.

But the job of the ears is not just for hearing—the ears have two different jobs. As Doidge states,

“The cochlea, or ‘the ear of hearing’…processes audible sound at higher frequencies…and the vestibular apparatus or ‘ear of the body’ processes sound at lower frequencies. People experience these lower frequencies as rhythmic because they are slow enough for the listener to perceive the intervals between the individual waves. These frequencies often induce body movement.”

This ‘ear of the body’ is what helps us know where we are in space, helps us balance and have ‘timing.’ When we become more attuned listeners we are not only strengthening our hearing, we are strengthening our capacity to move, to act, to be still. Both Tomatis and Madaule found that the people they treated with music for learning problems improved not only their hearing and speaking but also their ability to move, to walk—and also their ability to regulate themselves—sleep, relax, know when to pause. Rhythm and timing. Not just hearing. The music that was used the most was Mozart. Doidge noted that Maudele liked Mozart because it a pure language of music—Mozart composed so young that his own language didn’t interfere with the semantics of his music—making Mozart more of a universal musical language.

Some Practices for Mindful Monday:

Last  week for Mindful Monday we looked at playing with sight, and today, I want you to do the opposite today, close your eyes. Take a deep breath and tune in to the sounds around you—for a minute, two minutes, ten minutes—whatever you can manage. The sounds you are hearing could be voices, or the sound of the wind or cars or birds outside. Breathe and just tune in. See if you can shift your attention from sound to sound. Not judging the sound but just playing with listening to it. Notice what the effect listening has on your mind, your breathing, your posture, your muscles. Notice what its like to open your eyes again.

For the fun of it, after reading the chapter I listened to two pieces of Music: Pachelbel’s Canon and then a Violin Concerto from Mozart. While I was listening I closed my eyes and tried to listen to all the notes that were playing—and I found it not only challenging but really fun. Music is often background and not foreground, and listening that carefully, with my eyes closed I could hear parts of the music I hadn’t noticed. And if you could believe it, I could feel the challenge in paying attention, to focusing.  It really did feel like I was using muscles to pay attention and really hear all of the sounds.

So if you have the time, an ipod, computer, Youtube, or the old fashioned vinyl… listen to a piece of classical music—with your eyes closed –and notice what it feels like to listen, notice all the notes you can hear—notice what your thoughts are, what your breathing is like. Notice what you feel like in your body. What images form in your mind. What you feel when the song is over. It’s a chance to explore sound and listening in a new way. And to help out—I’ve included two links below. Enjoy.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015

Pachelbel's Canon

Mozart Violin Concerto 1