No, seriously: Stop what you’re doing, thinking about and reading and just listen for 60 full seconds. I’ll wait.
Did you do it? I just did, as I sit on a friend’s balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Briny Breezes, Fla. I heard the rustle of the palms moving in the wind, the crash of the waves, the call of the seagulls and what may have been the cry of an osprey fishing for brunch.
But those were not the first sounds that abducted my attention. The first sounds were the clamor of the single-engine airplane passing overhead, a truck on a distant road and the beeping of a construction vehicle backing up a half-mile away. The unpleasant sounds of civilization trumped what should be the aural domain of nature.
So why should we care about which noises dominate our consciousness? Because although we normally pay far more attention to our visual, tactile and even olfactory senses, what enters our ears on its way to the brain likely has far greater impact on our health than the stimulation of other senses.
Indeed, noise has been an important environmental concern for humankind throughout history. Ancient Rome passed laws limiting the allowable sound levels from ironclad wagon wheels clattering along the pavement stones at night. In medieval Europe, horses and horse-drawn carriages were banned from the streets after dark to ensure inhabitants a peaceful night’s sleep. Ahh, the good old days.
No such luck now. Today an estimated half of the European Union lives in areas deemed acoustically unpleasant, if not plain unhealthy. The World Health Organization has studied and categorized injurious effects of environmental noise into six arenas:
- Noise-induced hearing impairment
- Interference with speech communication
- Disturbance of rest and sleep
- Psychophysiological, mental health and performance effects
- Effects on residential behavior and annoyance
- Interference with intended activities
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has even suggested a correlation between low birth-weight babies and high sound levels, as well as abnormally high rates of birth defects when expectant mothers are exposed to elevated sound levels (such as typical airport environs).
So if this manmade environmental noise is bad for us, are there sounds that are actually beneficial? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Medical journals are just starting to publish research demonstrating how pleasant sounds alleviate chronic illnesses that have proven resistant to conventional therapies.
Case in point: Researchers have found that singing, drumming and playing piano result in significant improvements in young adults with autism.
Listening to recorded music, too, has been shown to alleviate stress and enhance healing, but making music ourselves is an even stronger neurobiological influence. Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab found that trained musicians tested better than non-musicians in the ability to pick out speech and communicate in noisy environments, and the Institute for Music and the Mind at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, found that preschool children taking music lessons demonstrated greater brain electrical responses in sound recognition tests compared to youngsters with no music training. Israeli researchers discovered that drumming games and singing games helped hearing-impaired toddlers who had received cochlear implants recover hearing and speech skills more quickly than speech training that did not involve music.
Sound as medicine has also been shown to reduce Parkinson symptoms, induce sleep in people with fibromyalgia and help stroke patients recover speech and movement. Indeed, music therapy has played a significant role in enabling former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to retrieve vocabulary lost after her tragic brain injury.
There is no doubt that surrounding ourselves with positive sounds and reducing unpleasant noise can bring us to a healthier place—for both body and mind.
Article contributed by Dr. Bill Benda.