The Case for Supportive Sonic Environments
Imagine you’re being driven to the emergency room in a panic — a friend is holding you close in the back seat, as you’re trying not to vomit all over them. The 10 minute drive seems to take forever as every stop or turn invites a new wave of nausea.
Relief seeps in as you see the signs for the Emergency Room. Professionals — and pain medication — will soon be yours. Your friend picks you up and carries you as the nurse hastily pulls out a wheelchair.
As you open the doors to the emergency room, you hear the low hum of a deep drone of harmonious instruments, inviting you into a sense of ease and reassurance. A soft flute plays in the distance. You’re here. You’re safe.
After spending some time in check-in and the waiting room, you’re laid on a hospital bed and run through a series of tests. You’re told that you need surgery — immediately. Well, sort of immediately. First, you have to wait for an unknown amount of time in a hospital room with stark lighting. You’re impatient, still nauseous — and frankly, you’re scared. So you reach over to the right side of the hospital bed, and pick up a pair of headphones. You scroll through some soothing options, testing out relaxing piano music, soothing crystal bowls, the deep drones of gongs or the waves of the ocean. You breathe deeply as the sound washes over you, the medication starts to kick in and the anxiety abates.
These auditory improvements are within reach. They are simple, cost-effective ways to improve the patient experience and support healing and relaxation.
Hospitals are some of our key institutions in society; and they are due for an acoustic upgrade. Over the years, a mountain of evidence has accumulated demonstrating the ability of music to increase relaxation and aid the healing process.
Why We Need Supportive Sound & Noise Reduction in Hospitals
For the past five years, I’ve co-produced the largest sound baths in the country— 1400 person gatherings.
I fell into sound meditation or sound healing after a decade-long journey exploring yoga and meditation. Anxious throughout most of my youth and young adulthood, I became fascinated with the idea that there were tools and practices that could reliably bring me into a calm state. The more I dove into the healing arts, the more I realized how deeply and consistently we underestimate the crucial role of relaxation in helping our bodies recover.
As I learned about sound meditation, I was particularly shocked to discover that there were states of relaxation and ease I didn’t even previously know about. And they could be reliably reached with the right tools.
The deeper I’ve fallen into music and meditation, the more I observe how sound can be used to soothe or irritate. As our society embraces embodiment, the next frontier of design will be spaces that support our senses — with softer lighting, soothing sounds and more.
Introducing supportive sound into hospitals is the first priority. We will all eventually have a significant encounter there, one way or another, whether for ourselves or nervously attending loved ones. These will be critical moments in our lives. The more time you spend in a relaxed state during and after recovering from illness or medical procedures, the better — it’s during this relaxed state that most repair and rehabilitation happens. If you’re stressed, your recovery process will be compromised.
Noise adversely affects general health and well-being in the same way it affects chronic stress. No one deserves to recover from illness in a din.
For the purpose of this essay, I’ll define a “supportive sonic environment” as a space with an intentional reduction of noise and the ability to access soothing, harmonic sound (often music). We have an opportunity — to leverage major improvements in mental and physical health with small, inexpensive design choices. We need supportive sonic environments everywhere. And we critically need them in healthcare.
Let’s break down the two main steps we can take: the introduction of supportive sound and the reduction of noise pollution.
What Are The Positive Effects of Music?
Let’s start with the easy, low-hanging fruit of creating a supportive sonic environment — the introduction of soothing music.
According to Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, music can change physiology in profound ways. Gaynor claims that music can reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure and heart rate. Cathy Guzzettta, a writer on holistic nursing, reports that patients who were exposed to music for two days after their heart attack had reduced cardiac complications. Experiments have shown that music can decrease heart rate, increase immune cell messengers and drop cortisol levels.
Researchers at the Addiction Research Center in Stanford, California showed that music can act as an opioid, helping patients ease off heavy medication and boost endorphins.
Supportive, harmonic sounds have an anxiolytic effect— they soothe us and help us relax. Applied properly, supportive sounds help people enter parasympathetic states which are critical for healing and well-being.
Your parasympathetic state is your rest-and-relax response. It’s in this space that our heart rate lowers, our breathing slows and our bodies can digest. That is why a key factor in healing and recovery is to spend as much time in this state as possible.
Anesthesiologist Ralph Spintge, MD, one of the world’s leading researchers in the use of music in medicine, summarized the physiological impact of music in medical treatment:
“Physiological parameters like heart rate, arterial blood pressure, salivation, skin humidity, blood levels of stress hormones like adrenocrticotrophic hormone ACTH, prolactin, human growth hormine HCH, cortisol, betaendorphine, show a significant decrease under anxiolytic music…..EEG studies demonstrated sleep induction through music in the preoperative phase. The subjective responses of these patients are most positive in about 97% of 59,000 cases. These patients state that music is a real help to them to relax in the preoperature situation and during surgery in regional anesthesia.”
Noise Reduction a Critical Need
“Hospital noise is a steadily worsening problem, with levels regularly exceeding international recommendations.” Noise levels over 100 dB have been measured in intensive care units, the equivalent of loud music through headphones and the point beyond which damage to hair cells in the ear can occur.
“Excessive noise can impact patients' ability to rest, heal and recover, and has been linked to the development of ICU psychosis, hospitalisation-induced stress, increased pain sensitivity, high blood pressure and poor mental health.”
Sound is a vibration that propages as a wave through air. There’s nothing new-agey about being able to feel and be affected by sound. Our bodies are being affected by sound waves — and sometimes the effects are detrimental.
Some of us are more attuned to sonic nuances than others. Yet all of us feel sound and are affected by sound — stand next to a bass speaker if you’re not so sure.
Sound is one of the most “political” of choices — when you propagate waves through the air, you’re affecting all those around you. You can enjoy this imposition when walking by musicians in the park or be deeply irritated by your neighbor’s construction.
We can all agree that one person’s music may be another person’s noise–there is no measure that is entirely objective. For this essay, however, we want to create an objective framing we can work with — “noise” is persistent, loud and inharmonic.
Volume is just one aspect of what creates noise. According to this article on hospital noise pollution, “noise is often incorrectly associated with high sound pressure levels (SPLs). For example, a dripping tap may have a low SPL but still seem noisy.”
Another aspect of noise is disorganization. Most of the sounds that we consider to be musical abide by a particular pattern — the harmonic pattern. If you look at a wave form of, say, meditative music, you’ll notice smooth curves and a harmonic pattern that’s pretty predictable and soothing to the nervous system.
Sound that is inharmonic is distracting — your mind is doing the math, and the math doesn’t add up. That’s irritating and can cause a state of tension.
“It has been postulated that noise acts as a nonspecific biologic stressor eliciting reactions that prepare the body for a fight or flight response. For this reason, noise can trigger both endocrine and autonomic nervous system responses that affect the cardiovascular system and thus may be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.... Acute exposure to noise activates nervous and hormonal responses, leading to temporary increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and vasoconstriction.”
Noise is detrimental to our physical and mental health — and slows down the healing process for patients. Limiting noise can have a profoundly therapeutic effect.
Supportive sonic environments can help us remain calmer, focus more easily, and heal more quickly. As we’ve explained here, simple, inexpensive changes can alter medical environments in a positive way.
Simple Recommendations For Hospitals and Clinics
I hope to see supportive sonic design become commonplace in hospitals and clinics in the next five years. Creating sonic sanctuaries, anywhere and anytime, inspired me to co-found an online sound healing platform called Sound Meditation Presents. We’re focused on creating the highest-quality soothing sonic experiences that deepen meditation and encourage well-being.
If there’s anything my company can do to contribute to this effort, contact me here.
Written by Simona Marie Asinovski, co-founder of Sound Meditation Presents.
 (PDF) " Noise Pollution & Human Health: A Review ". ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319329633_Noise_Pollution_Human_Health_A_Review
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