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The rhythm of the night: How music can help insomnia
Insomnia is the product of mental or emotional pressure.
Lying awake at night, I have sometimes found myself turning this idea over in my head. Like millions of slumberless souls, I have suffered with regular bouts of insomnia, which, in my case, were triggered by overworking, psychological pressure, and obsessive thoughts. Insomniac sleep deprivation provoked in me a profound anxiety, shades of paranoia, and the promise of depression. However, during one tempestuous summer a few years ago, I found an aural way to silence it.
Beleaguered in the stifling intensity of two interim jobs, I worked too much, too hard and too long; stress-ridden and marooned in the city, I fell over the edge into a nightly insomnia. Like quicksand, the more I tried to sleep and ignore the freneticism of my racing thoughts, the harder it became to drift off – I couldn't say how I partook in Miłosz's becoming. I tried everything, from books on balmy midnight sleepwalks to friendly lectures on temperance. Nothing worked. A sleeping pill prescription was complicated by side-effect trepidation spawned by my state of nervous distress; my mental health suffered and I feared a repeat of depressive episodes. In the past, I had used music to modulate my emotions, so I trialled a kind of self-directed musical hypnosis. Finally, here was something that hit a chord.
After weeks of wakeful anxiety, in the soft strains of music I found a medium that regulated my mood, toned down the stress and tuned into my sleep patterns. Not a total cure for my affliction, but certainly a vital accompaniment. After the temporary projects eventually flourished to a crescendo, music had become the requiem to my insomnia.
This should not have come as a surprise to me considering the scale to which I delved into psychiatric research on the topic at the time. "One of the features which makes music a low-cost alternative to sleep medication is the distracting function of music," explains Helle Nystrup Lund, a Danish PhD researcher and music therapist at the Unit for Psychiatric Research at Aalborg University Hospital, whose current research is focused on whether music can improve sleep quality for patients suffering from depression and insomnia. "Stress and depression are likely to be followed by worries and thoughts," she tells me. "Thoughts and restlessness are preventing sleep initiation. Music may distract from feelings and thoughts and help the individual to fall asleep. Calm music supports relaxation and this is also helpful to improve sleep."
Sleeping in uncertain times
For me and millions of others, insomnia is the product of mental or emotional pressure, which can increase stress levels and engender a tortuously vicious cycle. The recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it its own collateral miasma of stressfulness and sleeplessness, a factor reinforced by a scientific paper in the Journal of Sleep Research detailing the quarantine's inimical effects on stress-inflected insomnia and emotional regulation.
While it may seem negligible compared to the widespread devastation of the coronavirus, issues ranging from epidemiological fears of infection to the economic worries of personal finance are preventing proper sleep. As a 2012 research paper from Korea University suggests, such worries can aggravate the triggers of insomnia, inducing the body to secrete excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol and leading to the hyper-alertness that breeds insomniac states. Quality sleep is not a panacea and cannot resolve all the acute nightmares of the pandemic; however, as subjective experience can attest to, music can be a practical leitmotif for a healthy regimen of rest.
Jimi Tormey, a musician who has also suffered with insomnia, tells me of his own sonic self-medication: "I find that repetition is one of the key musical elements that helps me sleep, but dynamic percussive sounds somehow feel 'closer' to me, which can be disruptive when trying to get to sleep," he affirms. "To silence sleep-preventing thoughts, I listen to minimalist composers and albums that have an overall sense of regularity and calmness to prevent spikes in tempo or timbre." His account seems to be pitched in unison with scientists at the University of Fribourg's Division of Cognitive Biopsychology and Methods, who have empirically proven that relaxing music can aid sleep. According to their investigations, soundscapes, classical music and ambient noise can all help to dissolve stress by inducing mental relaxation and muscle sedation.
But what is music? The definition is infamously elusive. We might say that music involves expression and auditory texture, sonic experiences and tone colour – conventionally, we could call it the art of successive and ordered sounds. For the purposes of this discussion, the term 'music' will be in the key of sleep: from ambient beats and dreamy soundscapes to a piano's delicate strains or the cadences of a sitar.
Take, for instance, the melodic framework of the raga from the Indian musical tradition. Derived from the Sanskrit word for the act of dyeing or colouring, the term also signifies the imbuing of positive emotional states. Psychological research led by the National Brain Research Centre in India shows that ragas use different combinations of musical intervals, scales, tonality and tempo to inject rhythmic colour and elicit emotions in the listener. "Neelambari" – an ancient and ubiquitous raga – has long been thought of as a sleep-inducing lullaby, particularly in the context of the southern, Carnatic musical system. Despite some internal disputes about its soporific effects, the hypnotic pulses and cadences of the piece certainly connote a general sense of sleepiness.
"We don't choose to hear or not in the same way that we can choose to close our eyes," explains Chris Waller, a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose work focuses on music in carceral contexts. "Therefore, as Michel Serres suggests, to make our sonic environment feel stable and secure involves 'ear work,' which means determining what is meaningful sound and what is noise, and what the meanings behind those sounds are," he informs me. "Given that music has such a rich internal logic, often very consistent and symmetrical, it can be a useful resource for the mind to grab onto and construct a predictable sonic environment out of."
Some findings support the notion that classical music has a positive effect on sleep due to its impact on the parasympathetic nervous system – the network responsible for the body's 'rest and digest' responses. That listening to music can be evocatively somnolent is, of course, far from a novel phenomenon. For centuries, classical composers have honed the ability to convey feeling and emotion in their listenership. In the Western canon, the invocation of sleep-inducing emotion plays out in a slightly different key. Often called the 'poet of the piano,' Frédéric Chopin's poignant intensity and romantic finesse single him out as a composer of particular emotional refinement and therefore the perfect amplifier for insomniacs. A fellow insomniac, Chopin ironically complained that, "meanwhile, my manuscripts sleep and I can't sleep" in a letter he wrote in 1838 from his winter sojourn in Mallorca.
His famous "Nocturnes" – so named for an evocation of the night – follow in the formal tradition of languidly melodic compositions and are often cited as practical preludes to sleep. In my own times of manic wakefulness, I have often depended on his 21 emotive solo piano pieces for a source of equanimity, with their soothing refrains, serenade-like lyricism and dreamlike legato. "The nocturne is oneiric," echoes Matthew del Novo in The Metaphysics of Night. "The start of No. 6 in G minor is particularly sleepy as if the notes are shaking drowsiness from them…the notes themselves going off – but not very far – to look for melody, like a mind that wanders into a fantasy by which it is carried away," he writes. "The slowing pace allows one to drift and Chopin's talent for ending without ending, in the way one never registers the moment one falls asleep is evident here." His undulating analysis here describes almost exactly the way I have experienced them – each Nocturne like a peregrination of the mind.
It is not just Chopin's pianissimo that can exorcize the spirits of sleeplessness. There are reams of popular classical sedatives – from the languorous tempi of Erik Satie's "Gymnopédies" and Claude Debussy's "Rêverie" and "Clair de Lune", to J.S. Bach's measured violin concertos. Indeed, according to psychological research conducted in the Department of Music at the University of Sheffield, classical music is overwhelmingly the most prevalent genre of music used for sleep. While it is the prevailing prescription, this is because much of it is gently ordered and immersive. Indeed, any slow music of around 60 to 80 beats per minute (BPM) can help us sleep.
As well as euphonic musical structures, ambient soundscapes and the recorded sounds of nature can also be a welcome tonic for those suffering with insomnia and other somnipathies. One example is the sonorous trend of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, which use sonic triggers to induce low-level euphoria and purportedly help with sleep – as is the case with Maya Lane, a postgraduate student in medical anthropology. "I have anxiety that gets worse at night and causes my insomnia. It really heightens all my senses – things like someone talking, a door closing or the pipes in the house can make me feel completely on edge.
"I've realized I need something to completely distract my brain away from concentrating on these sounds and help me sleep," she tells me. "I either listen to the Sleep Whispers podcast – someone telling stories in a whisper ASMR style – or the Headspace [a popular mindfulness app – ed. note] eight-hour soundscapes, which are things like rainforest noises, rain and storm noises. I'm not sure if they cause euphoria, but they definitely help relax me and take my mind off trying to sleep."
By harmonizing with slow tempos and languid rhythms, both hypnotic sounds and music can lower blood pressure, slow down breathing and encourage the deceleration of heart rate – a synchronization that mimics some of the body's 'falling asleep' processes. As myself and others have discovered, a bedtime routine with a regular relaxing soundtrack sends clear signals to the body to initialize sleep mode and synchronize biological clocks with environmental cues (so-called zeitgebers) such as light. However, the therapeutic or soporific aspect of music is mostly effective in improving sleep indirectly via relaxation. This may help with anxiety and stress-related insomnia, but other bio-physiological sleep disorders such as sleep paralysis and more physical breathing-related issues including sleep apnoea will be unresponsive or less likely to respond directly.
Considering that we spend one third of our lives sleeping (or attempting to do so) the importance of sleep for supporting physical and emotional well-being rings clear as a bell. The echo of an echo: "Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world." After sleeplessly hearing his words, I finally understood the true import of Miłosz's maxim. His reminder that we contribute to the world in ways that might forever be unknown to us is like a somniloquy, a sleep-talking motto about self-awareness. How ironic, then, that my secret of sleep was the opposite: to be blissfully drowned in sound, to be unaware of oneself.
But to be awake, to be besieged by insomnia, does not always correlate to an increased perception of the self. Even as modernity seems to be characterized by the condition of insomnia, it is vital that we listen to our own biological rhythms, to our aural textures of music, and that we keep time with the physiological acoustics of sleep – the rhythm of the night.
Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.
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A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>