How are the brains driven by rhythm? What does research with shamanic trance reveal?

How are the brains driven by rhythm? What does research with shamanic trance reveal? - Omnipemf 3

You’re driving down the road and your favorite song starts playing on the radio. Unconsciously, you start tapping the rhythm on the steering wheel.

You’re at a party. Sitting down to chill, you discover that your foot is still moving along with the beat. I bet you know what I’m talking about. We love rhythm. There is something visceral about how our bodies react to music. Even more, entrancing. It’s joyous to move to the rhythm, to synchronize your body with the groove. But not only do your limbs synchronize: your brain does it as well.

From shaman ceremonies to modern labs

Humans have used rhythm ever since we’ve learned how to use tools. Shamanism, the most primal form of religion, relied heavily on ceremonies during which the participants were getting into an altered state of consciousness with the help of drumming. Rhythmic, monotonous beating on drums and other instruments made the participants of the ceremonies enter a trance in which they experienced ecstasy, distorted perception of space and time or even mystical visions.

How are the brains driven by rhythm? What does research with shamanic trance reveal? - Omnipemf 4

Goldes shaman priest in his regalia (Image source: Jackson, William Henry, 1843-1942 – Published as halftone in Harper’s Weekly, 1897, p. 807.)

In those indigenous tribes whose lifestyle and tradition weren’t completely spoiled by the contact with modern civilization, such ceremonies remained prolific. Observing this phenomenon, the XX century anthropologists decided to dig deeper into the subject.

Does rhythm have any effect on the brain?

The first lab experiments on brain responses to rhythm used stimulation in the form of a flashing light. Measuring the participants’ brainwaves revealed two interesting observations. Firstly, their EEG signal increased in amplitude. Secondly, presenting the individuals with lights flashing with a given frequency makes the brainwave rhythm change to mirror that bandwidth. The phenomenon was called photic driving. In fact, these experiments have set the ground for the development of PEMF technology a few decades later. The mechanism of action is quite similar: tapping into brainwave frequencies with the use of a rhythmic signal. Of course, using magnetic coils is much more subtle and noninvasive, compared to flashing lights.

Other experiments tried to achieve the same effect with sound stimulation. With little effect – until 1962, when Andrew Neher brought a drum to the lab. Previous experiments used clicks and single tones, which provided stimuli much less complex than a drum. There is a reason why drumming is so successful in creating changes in the brain. Every beat of the drum contains a wide spectrum of frequencies. Each frequency is transmitted along different nerve pathways, so in the end, a larger area of the brain is being stimulated. Inspired by the Vodoo ceremonies from Haiti, Neher used a rhythm of 8 to 13 beats per second, succeeding in creating changes in the brainwaves of his participants.

What happens? The mechanism is straightforward. Your nerves register each beat coming to your ears, so naturally, the firings in your auditory part of the brain match those of the drumming beat you hear. But this rhythm is likely to spread around the brain, driving the brainwaves towards the frequency of drumming.

Expecting to fly

Should you be concerned about getting into a trance state with rhythmic stimulation?

Don’t worry. You can’t enter a trance state accidentally. A shamanic ritual is a ceremonial and social experience.

Imagine that you are lying in a tent filled with the smoke of herbs. The flames of a fireplace cast slithering shadows to the walls of the tent. When the pulsating beat of a drum fills the space, you also hear the reactions of the other participants lying all around. They are gasping, moaning, some are crying… Most likely, you would think “Geez, I think I’m starting to feel funny too…”, wouldn’t you? Especially if you were coming from a culture in which experiencing trance states was a commonly expected outcome of taking part in a ceremony.

How are the brains driven by rhythm? What does research with shamanic trance reveal? - Omnipemf 5

Altay shaman with drum (Photo taken by: ethnographer Sergei Ivanovich Borisov,1908. Made into a postcard currently in Tomsk museum.)

In other words, the participants of shamanic ceremonies may be entering trance states because they expect it to happen, and their perception of their own altered state may be magnified by the fact that all the other people around them seem to be feeling the same.

The rhythm doesn’t create hallucinations. It merely drives your brainwaves into a frequency in which the other factors of a ritual may work. Think about it as creating a milieu in which the sacral atmosphere and the participants’ expectations converge, yielding a trance state.

Strikingly, the phenomenon of using rhythm to achieve trance did not die out with the decline of indigenous civilizations. It was preserved in folklore and religion. Sufi, the mystics of Islam use rhythmic drumming and dance to get closer to God. Pentecostal Christians in the US do just the same. And if you are still not convinced, consider modern trance music. All over the world, thousands of people gather to listen to pulsating electronic beats. They don’t do it just for the pleasure of enjoying a well-composed melody, but for the kick of dancing in ecstasy, in sync with the music, in sync with the others. Same phenomena, just the drums got digital.

Brains in sync

For some of you, it may be surprising that our brains synchronize with external input so easily. It shouldn’t be, however. What we know from brain imaging research is that neural synchronization plays a central role in human communication. When someone is talking to you, the parts of your brain which process sound oscillate with a frequency matching the speaker’s rhythm of syllable production. This resonance makes it easier to concentrate on the speaker, especially when you are in a loud room.

What is more interesting, when you are hearing a story your cortical activity mimics the one of your interlocutors. In the mechanism of “neural coupling”, discovered by Uri Hasson, brains can become wirelessly synchronized through a shared physical signal, such as sound or light. Uri invited a group of people to the lab and scanned their brains while they were listening to the same story.

Uri Hasson on TEDTalks, 2016.

It turned out that their brains became coupled, showing the same response patterns. Moreover, it happened not because of the rhythm of sounds they were hearing, but because of the story’s meaning. When the text was translated to the listeners’ native languages, their brains were still synchronized.

Putting it shortly, from a neuroscience perspective communication is synchronization.

Thank you for synchronizing with me while reading this text.

References

  • Neher, A. (1962). A physiological explanation of unusual behavior in ceremonies involving drums. Human Biology, 34, 151-60.
  • Hasson, Uri et al. “Brain-to-Brain Coupling: A Mechanism for Creating and Sharing a Social World,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16, no. 2 (2012): 114–121.
  • Eliade, M. (1964) Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy. New York: [no publisher found].
  • Huels, Kim, H., Lee, U., Bel-Bahar, T., Colmenero, A. V., Nelson, A., Blain-Moraes, S., Mashour, G. A., & Harris, R. E. (2021). Neural Correlates of the Shamanic State of Consciousness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 15, 610466–610466. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2021.610466

About the author

Mateusz Konopacki specializes in Psychology and Cognitive Science. He is an author of multiple courses and articles, as well as research on meditation and shamanic drumming. At the time when he is not explaining science to people, he is a screenwriter and a Yoga teacher.

Disclaimer

NeoRhythm has not been evaluated by the FDA. These products do not claim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions. Always consult your medical doctor regarding any health concerns.

 
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