Neuroscientists have discovered a song that reduces your anxiety
Music has been a unique and fundamental part of human culture for untold millennia. We use it to induce relaxation, increase motivation, heighten intimacy, or just “space out” (think Pink Floyd), to name a few. From a social psychological perspective, steady rhythms can be used to induce trance-like states in individuals, or even groups of people; they can help bind us together with a spiritual feeling of oneness. Great examples of this can be found in the musical ceremonies of indigenous peoples and at concerts featuring electronic dance music artists.
The psychological impact of music has been the subject of research in labs around the world for quite a while. One of the best-known researchers in this area is Dr. Elizabeth Marguilis of Princeton (formerly the University of Arkansas). Her work has explored a variety of fascinating topics, such as how the brain attributes musicality to repeated sounds even when those sounds are not perceived as musical when they’re only heard once [Margulis & Simchy-Gross, 2014]. More recently, she has explored the effects of culture on the stories people imagine when they become engrossed in instrumental music [Margulis et al., 2022]. The impact of music on the mind and brain is fascinating, to say the least. How it and why we create music is an even more interesting rabbit hole… But that’s a topic for another day.
A recent study that explored music’s capacity to induce relaxation yielded a truly remarkable finding. Mindlab International’s Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson shared the results of a study they conducted in the UK to hunt down the world’s most relaxing song. It turned out that the most stress-relieving piece of music that we know of was produced by Marconi Union, an ambient band from England. Their song “Weightless”, which was created collaboratively with sound therapists, has no repeating melody and gradually slows from 60 to 50 beats per minute. This elicits what’s known as “entrainment”, a physiological phenomenon in which an internal process falls in line with the frequency of an external stimulus. In this case, the object of entrainment was heart rate, which was measured along with brain activity, heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing while participants completed complex puzzles.
Overall, the results of the study showed that listening to “Weightless” caused a 65% reduction in anxiety measures – an astounding effect! No other song tested to date has yielded such a powerful effect. This finding opens the door for a host of possible uses for entrainment, along with other methods for altering internal processes that seem beyond our control.
Entrainment is the basis for “binaural”, “monaural”, and “isochronic beats”, which are essentially rhythmic sounds, but delivered in a few different ways. Collectively, these forms of entrainment have been reported to affect both brainwave frequencies and cognitive abilities [Shamsi et al., 2022; Sharpe & Mahmud, 2020; Shekar et al., 2018 ].
Mindlab’s study collected brainwave data and reported massive changes in signs of stress, though it could be the case that an innovative method for assessing changes in neural patterns might be superior in some ways [Shamsi et al., 2022]. Specifically, researchers have discovered that assessing the Higuchi fractal dimension of brainwave patterns provides earlier detection of changes than common measures like EEG power (signal strength at different brainwave frequencies). Higuchi fractal dimension provides a measure of the complexity of brainwave patterns, and it could be a valuable method for other researchers to add to their toolboxes moving forward.
Considering just the findings we’ve mentioned so far (there are many others), it’s intriguing to think about other interventions that might be useful for creating changes in human physiology and functioning. One method is “neurofeedback”, which allows individuals to gain some degree of control over their own brain states. In a neurofeedback scenario, Information about how closely one’s current brain state matches a target brain state is provided to the participant or user – usually through auditory or visual feedback. This can be done using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measures activity across the brain by tracking blood flow and oxygenation. Basically, the more active a certain part of the brain is, the more oxygen it uses, which then causes more blood to flow to that area. So there’s a bit of a delay in the response – blood flow isn’t instantaneous – but the ability of fMRI to pinpoint the brain regions that are being used is fantastic.
The equipment needed for fMRI costs millions of dollars, though, so a much more widely used neurofeedback method is EEG. EEG, or “electroencephalography”, measures oscillatory activity (up and down wave cycles), and it has been shown to be effective in numerous areas of feedback research. (See Figure 1 for an example of a typical setup.) The examples of successful EEG neurofeedback include improved cognitive function, reduced ADHD and OCD symptomatology, and improvements in the symptoms of epilepsy [Weber et al., 2020]. Returning to our original theme of issues related to stress, EEG feedback has been successfully used to decrease the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), reduce the need for psychotropic PTSD medication, and improve emotion regulation in PTSD patients [Kelson, 2013; Noohi et al., 2017; Peniston et al., 1991; van der Kolk et al., 2016]]. PTSD can be an extremely debilitating condition, and it affects veterans at an alarming rate, so this kind of research is incredibly important.
Stepping back a bit to take in the larger view, a common theme of the techniques we’ve mentioned is that they use digital technologies to influence internal processes, producing reductions in stress, anxiety, and improvements in other areas. These changes, in turn, change how we interact with the world, respond to difficulties, and generally show up in our lives.
The methods that we can use to influence our brains and behaviors do not, however, need to be digital to produce results. Case in point, one method that we’ve already discussed has been around longer than the written word: Music. Another method that’s been around for a very long time is hypnosis, a thoroughly scientifically validated process in which positive changes to mental processes can be induced while we’re in a relaxed, receptive state [Jensen et al., 2017].
Another excellent method for gaining control over your internal states is the one that I personally use and teach to my students: NeuroGym’s “AiA” Innercise™. AiA stands for Awareness, Intention, Action. Here’s how it works:
Set your alarm for 55 minutes past the hour.
When it goes off, stop what you’re doing.
Now take 5 and ask yourself these questions:
- Question 1 – “In the last 55 minutes what was I thinking? What was I feeling? What was I doing?”
- Question 2 – “Were those thoughts, feelings and behaviors moving me towards my goals or away from them?”
- This is Important – Make sure you do not judge, blame, shame or justify your answers. Pure awareness of the patterns is all you need to understand.
- Question 3 – “What are my intentions for the next 55 minutes? How do I want to think and feel? What do I want to accomplish in that time?
- Question 4 – “What is the one thing I commit to accomplishing in the next 55 minutes?”
Now take action!
Repeat these 4 steps every hour. By persistently following these steps, you will train your brain to serve you at a high level. Remember that repetition is key, so commit to doing this for 100 days. This will alert your brain that what you’re doing here is important. If your brain is going to execute all of its responsibilities at a high level and with as much efficiency as possible, then this process needs to be hardwired. That means every time you do this going forward, it’ll become easier because your brain will make the relevant neural patterns more accessible and efficient. That’s the golden ticket you’re looking for. Once your brain adapts to this new habit, it’ll become second nature, making you the master of your time, energy, and life.
Figure 1: EEG signals are measured, patterns are assessed, and feedback is provided based on the degree to which one’s current brain state matches the target (desired) state. (Image from Micoulaud-Franchi et al., 2021.)