One soothing sound can save an aging brain

Repetitive, rhythmic prayers have been a tradition in many cultures around the world for ages. And now research shows their effects go beyond spiritual enrichment.

In fact, it turns out the sorts of self-generated sounds used in these types of religious or spiritual rituals can improve a critical function you need every moment of the day—your working memory.

Working memory

If you’ve ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went in there in the first place, you’ve experienced a lapse in your working memory.

Working memory is your brain’s ability to hold temporary information about the immediate tasks in front of you—like remembering an address, the name of a person you just met, or to turn off the stove after you’re done cooking.

Unfortunately, aging is often accompanied by a slow decline in your working memory, and, as a result, an increase in those notorious “senior moments.”

One of the reasons behind this decline is a reduction in an important neurochemical called norepinephrine—which plays a key role in:

  • Increasing alertness
  • Keeping you focused on tasks—so you can finish the grocery list…folding the laundry…or remembering why you’re standing in the pantry
  • Initiating when to fall asleep and when to wake up, helping you feel refreshed and ready to go in the morning

But there’s good news: Sound is your body’s built-in “tool” that naturally supports the production of norepinephrine—so you can stay sharp, focused and alert.

I’ll tell you exactly how to do it in a moment. But first, I want to tell you how it works.

“Riding” the pathway between your brain and body

Starting at the bottom of your brainstem and running all the way through your gut is an elaborate pathway in charge of a multitude of bodily functions—this is known as your vagus nerve.

And only recently have researchers come to understand how stimulating the vagus nerve can improve several different aspects of health, including:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Balancing key parts of your autonomic nervous system
  • And stimulating the production of neuroprotective chemicals—like norepinephrine

In fact, in a 2004 study, researchers at the University of Virginia were amazed that subjects were able to strengthen their memories with simple vagus nerve stimulation.

They called their discovery: “The “missing link” between the hormone epinephrine outside the brain and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine inside the brain.”

Thankfully, strengthening your vagus nerve and prompting it to produce more norepinephrine is easy. All you need is the sound of your own voice…

Refreshing your brain’s supply of the “memory mastermind” norepinephrine

Anytime you make a vocal sound—like singing, chanting, humming, and even gargling—your vagus nerve vibrates. That’s because the vagus nerve wraps all-around your vocal cords.

It’s this stimulation that activates the cascade of health benefits I’ve already mentioned.

Here’s an easy sound exercise you can do daily to stimulate your vagus nerve and support the production norepinephrine:

  1. Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted, make yourself comfortable and close your eyes.
  2. Take a moment to note how you feel physically and mentally.
  3. With your mouth closed, slowly inhale through your nose.
  4. Then exhale through your nose and simultaneously hum. Your lips should stay closed and your hum should last the full duration of your exhalation.
  1. Repeat 4-8 times or as long as you feel comfortable doing so.
  1. When you’re finished, take note of how you feel.

Please remember it doesn’t matter whether you’re “in tune” or have a “good” voice. The benefits come from the process of making sound.

Just make sure you do these exercises regularly so you can continue to strengthen your vagus nerve. As you increase the duration and frequency, you’re sure to feel the positive effects.


Sources:

Stimulating the vagus nerve: memories are made of this. https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr04/vagus

Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC61046/

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About the author

Jim Donovan M.Ed., is a professional musician and educator. He's an Assistant Professor at Saint Francis University where he teaches music and how the power of sound can help you experience a healthier life.