Can you really spring clean your mind with music? That’s the latest wellness idea from a top neurologist, ANNA MAXTED tunes in
- Research shows music can act on the brain in a similar way to psychedelic drug
- It can have immediate mental health benefits for depression or anxiety
- Neuroscientist Dr Mendel Kaelen is a leading expert in this emerging field
- Wavepaths is a wellbeing company which uses music as a therapeutic tool
The music fills my head, and spirits me away. It’s eclectic, evocative, a beautiful arrangement of sound.
At certain points, a sonorous instrument plays. It tweezes out emotions beneath the surface of my consciousness, and I feel so sad, my eyes well. Then slowly, the tone lifts and I feel soothed.
This is a ‘deep listening’ session, developed by a London-based neuroscientist from research into the role of music in psychedelic therapy. It’s an immersive experience designed to improve mental health, enhance self-awareness and promote relaxation.
It seems to be working.
Deep listening isn’t the same as losing yourself in a favourite song or symphony, although both can profoundly affect how we feel because of the way music works on the brain. (It can spark memories, release happiness-inducing endorphins, help us process feelings, and more.)
The concept is already being used to generate a calming ambience in some hospitals, clinics, even classrooms. Deep listening is constructed to be more powerful than casual listening, creating a ‘sonic environment’ that can positively change how we see ourselves and the world.
This is possible as scientific research shows that music, tailored to the individual, can act on the brain in a similar way to a psychedelic drug. It can have positive and immediate mental health benefits — whether for patients seeking clinical help for depression, anxious students, or those who feel dispirited.
Neuroscientist Dr Mendel Kaelen is a leading expert in this emerging field, and my deep listening session is courtesy of Wavepaths, the wellbeing company he co-founded primarily to train therapists to use music as a therapeutic tool.
This is possible as scientific research shows that music, tailored to the individual, can act on the brain in a similar way to a psychedelic drug. It can have positive and immediate mental health benefits (file photo)
This month it is launching an introductory version to the public. Remote deep listening sessions (one-to-one or group) will be on offer, booked via their website wavepaths.com, from £10.
Dr Kaelen says: ‘We are studying how we can leverage the potential of music to a degree that it can become that therapist, that healer, that companion people can access at any point to have a bit more control about how they feel and relate to themselves and others; how music can become that agent for change.’
Prior to the pandemic, there was a waiting list of hundreds wanting to experience a deep listening session at their London venue, complete with softly-lit room, amazing sound system and comfortable chair.
Now they have created a digital service (an app is forthcoming) and my trial takes place via Zoom. I plug earphones into my laptop and talk to psychotherapist Tom Shutte, my ‘Wavepaths Guide’. At their physical venue, he says, biometric sensors adapted the music to the person — and they know which sounds work best with regular clients. They have a curated library of music.
With new clients, he asks what they need. One wanted to get in touch with his grief, so Shutte set the Wavepaths technology to generate music to suit. But, he says ‘it’s also possible just to give someone an experience’.
Then he leaves me to it. I lie on a yoga mat on my bedroom floor and immerse myself in the music. For a while my emotions have been muted. The pain at all the suffering is there, but I’ve shut it away. Like many, I’ve kept going and tried not to feel too deeply.
Soon enough, the music has accessed buried feelings. The sound feels as if it’s lancing a boil. I wasn’t aware that this depth of grief was within me. And yet, the emotion isn’t overwhelming. Its release feels controlled and as the melody softens, I’m overcome with tiredness, almost lulled to sleep. Then it rises again, discordant, and I feel some anxiety. The music changes again — it’s rousing, and I feel OK. By the end of the 60-minute session, I’ve run the gamut of emotions and feel exhausted but calm.
What is going on? Dr Kaelen tells me this all started with his research interest in the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca. He found it fascinating that when these drugs were given to patients, the mental health improvements could be immediate and lasting.
Yet the psychedelic drugs didn’t appear to be the key element helping patients recover, rather it was the states of mind they facilitated. Scientists realised that ‘it’s not the drug facilitating these outcomes, but certain qualities in the experiences people have — such as autobiographical insight, or the access and release of pent-up emotion’.
Dr Kaelen noted that during the peak effects of the psychedelic therapy, patients listened to music. In fact, music was the only stimulus that was constant. ‘It became clear that music was not merely there in the background to provide some calm and reassurance, but it had an active therapeutic role,’ he says.
His research found there was no correlation between the intensity of the drug and patient recovery, whereas the profundity of their experience of the music revealed a strong relationship. ‘One guy had been depressed for 35 years. He said the music drove the most beautiful experience in his life.’
Neuroscientist Dr Mendel Kaelen is a leading expert in this emerging field, and my deep listening session is courtesy of Wavepaths, the wellbeing company he co-founded primarily to train therapists to use music as a therapeutic tool (file photo)
This sets a high bar, and while my deep listening session was relaxing and cathartic, I don’t feel hugely different. I’m a fan, yet I wonder whether listening to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake would have had similar effects.
Dr KAELEN assures me that change can be subtle. ‘We tend to interpret this idea of transformative experiences as powerful experiences where you end up in tears and your life is changed, but it can be subtle — it can be a new perspective, a reconnection with a memory, or greater clarity on a problem.’
This can lay the groundwork for improved mental health as our perspective and experiences influence our state of mind. This is because as well as explicit learning, through recalling memories and semantic knowledge, our brain learns by experience, or doing (implicit learning), say, riding a bicycle or tying our laces.
But, Dr Kaelen says: ‘That also applies to the way we perceive ourselves, the way we build our belief systems around our confidence, our capacity to love, or be loved — the foundation for living a fulfilled life.’
In particular, we are shaped by experiences with strong personal and emotional significance says Dr Kaelen. And, ‘music is one of the most impactful ways to facilitate that experience’, he adds. ‘I sometimes refer to music as a transformative technology because it’s a technology that changed the fabric of our society, our culture and human nature. It has literally changed our brains.’
As Dr Kaelen says, music can be celebratory. It can relax us, but if we think of its roles in religion, ‘it’s likely that one of its earliest functions was its capacity to change our consciousness — to facilitate an experience that changes us. It has massive potential to change the way we perceive ourselves and the world.’
My mood is reset by my session. I feel like I’ve had a mental spring clean. (That my family was forbidden to disturb me didn’t hurt either.) I suspect it’s most effective as a process, rather than a one-off, so book another session. Meanwhile, I clamp on the headphones and listen to John Rutter’s All Bells In Paradise on repeat while making dinner. Briefly, lockdown’s ennui is banished and all is well.
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