Music heals

JOURNEY IN SOUND: Musician Tommy Calloway, who created the various “sound journeys,” gives a tour of the chamber. photo by Carrie Eidson
JOURNEY IN SOUND: Musician Tommy Calloway, who created the various “sound journeys,” gives a tour of the chamber. photo by Carrie Eidson

Complete silence. All noise ceases upon entering the sound chamber. Once a patient is seated in the suspended chair, Mickra Hamilton, owner of Synchronicity Wellness and an audiology expert for the U.S. military, lifts them on a hoist, so that their ear aligns with a laser pointer. This is the point where the sound waves arrive from all five speakers — located above, below and on all sides of the chamber. The door closes and total darkness envelopes. Music begins to fill the chamber — the trickling of rain, rushing rivers and the beating of drums create various “sound journeys” that are intended to transport the listener to a calm and peaceful place.

While Hamilton says the sound therapy is beneficial for everyone, her passion is helping fellow soldiers heal from post-traumatic stress disorder. “You have to reconnect [veterans] with their emotions before they can look at what they went through,” says Hamilton. “That's what we do with music. Music just does it. You don't have to think, and you're transported to a place of awe and beauty — that makes you feel good,” she continues. “If you can get them in peace, they just want to be there as often as possible. And these PTSD guys can't get there.”

While the sound chamber isn’t yet open to the public, Hamilton has been quietly admitting clients — free of charge —since construction completed in December 2012. During this research phase, volunteers were invited to experience the chamber for 20-minute sessions over a 12-week period, so that Hamilton could study the effects of the music on the patients’ stress levels. A pilot study will be finished in late February, at which time it will be presented at the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. She also hopes to share her findings with the military, eventually making the therapy available to soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Dr. Cindy Ackrill, a licensed physician who specializes in stress management and has spent the last decade studying the brain, experienced the sound chamber firsthand. “It was really lovely,” says Ackrill. “We all know that music affects us. You listen to something upbeat, and your energy changes. I've often seen in neurofeedback conferences how they use auditory things to drive the brain, so I know there's interaction there. For me, it was a little bit like … an alpha-theta state. You know when you're just falling asleep or just waking up, and you're not really in present time? You're a little bit drifty — that's what it felt like.”

Bringing PTSD patients — as well as all patients with anxiety and stress-related issues — to that “alpha-theta” state is precisely what Hamilton is after. Part of her research focuses on biofeedback and neurofeedback techniques, which deal in heart-rate variability and brain waves, respectively.

She likens the “stressed” beta-wave brain-state to a fight-or-flight response that is never-ending. “What happens is that they'll hear a sound in their environment [such as a] car backfiring, or even a cup on a granite table [or] a door slamming, and the sound memory triggers them back to the state of trauma,” says Hamilton. “We understand the processes that occur in the brain, and in the heart and in the body, and so we're using that knowledge to get the heart open so that they can feel emotions again.”

Hamilton is convinced that music has a unique power for natural healing. And she’s willing to do the work to prove it, scientifically. “We have used music from the beginning of humanity to heal, to calm, to evoke whatever state of being we want to evoke,” she says. “So what music does with the brain,” Hamilton says, “is that it shifts the brain into a different place, into different wave patterns. It disconnects that place where you're thinking. Music moves through the right creative brain and it stops that monkey mind. If we can use the music to stop the monkey mind, then we can achieve that peace.”

The volunteers involved in her study range from stressed-out parents with demanding jobs to Vietnam veterans and meditation practitioners. One woman, who is recovering from a drug overdose, says the experience is different every time she goes in, but it is always deeply relaxing, and it takes her to a “different place.” (Several of the patients who spoke to Xpress requested that we not use their names.)

Another volunteer — meditation practitioner Christopher Matthews — says the chamber allows him to go deeper into a meditative state in less time. “It’s a unique combination of feelings,” he says. “You're suspended and you're also surrounded by sound, [which] supports meditation and being able to relax very deeply in that sound because you feel transported.”

Furthermore, he says, “any sort of meditation is always about calming or stilling the mind. Usually, it's some sort of inner focus, but the sound chamber was actually an outer focus that supported reaching that inner focus very clearly.” Matthews adds, “I think anytime you have a deep, mental focus — it stays with you for hours and days after that.”

More time and research will tell if the sound chamber becomes a method of therapy and healing embraced by the military and the medical field at large. In the meantime, Hamilton plans to host a grand opening Dec. 21 and will open the chamber to the public Jan. 15. Free consults will be available to the PTSD population to determine if they are good candidates for the treatment.

“It's the pioneers like [Hamilton], who get a cool idea and go with it, [who] advance the world,” says Ackrill.

And while the brain remains a complex and largely unexplored territory, the goals of the research are simple. “I think it's really about achieving peace,” says Hamilton. “And we know music can make that happen.”

Synchronicity Wellness is at 190 Broadway St. Learn more at synchronicitywellness.org, or call 279-6750. Mickra Hamilton serves in the U.S. military as individual mobilization augmentee to the executive director for the Hearing Center of Excellence, as well as military audiology subject matter expert to the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is an editorial assistant and staff writer for the Mountain Xpress. She can be reached at lmclellan@mountainx.com.

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