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The Healing Power of Immersive Sound

By Howard Rose, Head of Health & Wellness at Spatial

The precise application of immersive sound could open a vast new frontier to improve our health and the practice of medicine. As the coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown, the health challenges we face are both global and highly personal. Addressing these challenges is going to require alignment of mission and the smart application of effective technologies. The demands are compounded by a long-term trend toward personalized medicine and a more humanized patient experience. Though sound and music have been applied to healing for centuries, the ability to deliver sound-based therapies at scale with high precision has long been limited by the capabilities of audio technology. 

Sound Therapy

The healing properties of sound have been studied for centuries and are gradually finding their way into mainstream therapies for physical, mental, and emotional health.  

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Hearing is essential to how we perceive the spaces we are in. It is how we construct meaning about the world and track changes in the environment. Sound can affect us both at a conscious and preconscious level; as a key to language and communication that links us to a social world and counters isolation. 

Our brains use sophisticated filters to prioritize sounds that are most meaningful. For those who are unable to filter sounds due to sensory or cognitive processing overload, the world becomes overwhelming and can feel out of control. To address these emotions, sound-based therapies incorporate music, rhythm, and movement to relieve the mind and body. Our experience of sound shapes our ideas, mood, performance, and ultimately our mental and physical health.

An important aspect of human hearing is that sound gives us a very detailed, three-dimensional understanding of our world. Conventional stereo audio breaks the world into two halves, left and right; though it has come a long way, stereo speakers and headphones still fall short of capturing the complexity of the world as our ears and brains truly experience it. Real-world sounds have dynamic direction, velocity, tone, and timbre – all playing out in the acoustics of real three-dimensional walls, forests, valleys, and cities. Our ears tell us so much about the world that we often don’t notice, and the sounds of music that we hear affect us deeply in profound ways.

These examples illustrate the medical potential of healing sound. Recent advances in our understanding of how we process sound suggest that we have only begun to scratch the surface of how we use dynamic sound-based experiences. New audio technology is opening doors to transformative therapeutic potential by making audio highly immersive, responsive, and can be finely controlled to deliver targeted therapies.

Applying Audio Technology to Open New Doors

The application of sound-based therapies has been limited in healthcare environments due to the lack of technology available to deliver highly controlled audio. Without sound, medical spaces are too often antiseptic and alienating. 

Today, digital audio represents a quantum leap in controllability and portability when compared to analog playback. However, digital audio players are still delivering one-way audio experiences with pre-recorded sound, offering little or no ability to respond in real time to changes in our needs or environment.

The Spatial platform delivers the key components of precision control, intelligent response, and immersive realism required to make sound and music therapy fit the demands of modern health care and help humanize the patient experience. The dynamic ability of Spatial to detect and respond to interactions enables delivery of complex, layered therapies tailored to the changing demands of the patient. 

Once Spatial is installed, it is designed to run 24/7, creating dynamic sound-based experiences driven by a computer simulation of a virtual scene. Unlike recorded music, Spatial soundscapes are dynamic and never repeat, just like the real world. A Spatial virtual scene could be a natural landscape of a beach or summer meadow that melts seamlessly into the background to subtly enliven and soften a hospital room. Spatial has begun to explore and apply the potential power of our platform for sound therapy and ambient sound with major hospitals and medical partners.

Battling Burnout with Immersive Sound Therapy

Hospitals across the nation have already begun to prototype and implement immersive sound therapy experiences using evidence-based approaches, such as auditory beat stimulation (ABS), to help frontline healthcare workers relieve stress and re-balance the parasympathetic system.  

Pilot Study: Wellstar Health Systems: Frontline health worker recovery rooms

Wellstar Health Systems, based in Atlanta, recently announced the installation of immersive sound environments to help its frontline healthcare workers reduce the stress and anxiety brought on by the Covid-19 crisis. The recovery room experience is centered around relaxation. The Spatial simulation is linked to lights and digital visuals that reinforce the mood and relaxing effect.

The environments designed by Spatial and HealthTunes will function as therapeutic spaces to relax and recharge in a tranquil, completely immersive audio environment. HealthTunes incorporates ABS into the sound experience. ABS works to influence positive brain states through a process of entertainment, by presenting the listener with low level beat frequencies that have been scientifically shown to help decrease stress and anxiety, increase relation and improve sleep.

According to Dr. Hank Capps, executive vice president and chief information and digital officer for Wellstar, “Evidence shows that experiential sound works effectively as a therapeutic tool, but it is vastly underutilized in practical settings. The immersive wellness rooms present an exciting opportunity for Wellstar to leverage the healing power of sound for our clinical team members.”

Spatial’s technology is responsive to biosensors and can link to various inputs and outputs (e.g., visual, olfactory, haptic, etc.). Thus, each patient’s experience is highly personalized and unique to their situation. Patients, along with caregivers, can control the experience using an iPhone or iPad. Once an experience is set in motion, Spatial’s real-time platform can integrate with monitoring systems to track progress and outcomes — providing a feedback loop that paves the way for improved and more diverse therapeutic research and applications over time. 

“The Spatial platform is a dynamic 3D experience, which makes it much more powerful and flexible for audio therapy purposes than a regular canned soundtrack,” said Walter Werzowa, Founder of HealthTunes. “A deeper sound immersion enables a higher efficacy of MusicMedicine.”

Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital

Earlier this year, the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Southern California prototyped ‘resiliency rooms’ for clinical team members. The rooms were designed on the Spatial platform by students from the California Institute of the Arts and Reimagine Well, a company that creates tech-enabled immersive experiences for patient care.

Upon entering one of these resiliency rooms, doctors and nurses are transported to an ultra-realistic, completely immersive setting of their choice. The 360-degree sensory experiences can simulate a tranquil mountain range or a serene peace pagoda, offering a quiet respite from the normal hustle and bustle of the day. Sensors enable people to interact with the soundscapes and change how they behave, and were designed with entropy and randomness to feel different every time. 

The low development cost and high flexibility of Spatial’s next-generation audio tools offer has made a huge difference in the deployment of sound therapy experiences at medical campuses. The ultra-high quality of the soundscapes and their ability to adjust based on their surroundings also makes this new technology incredibly effective in therapeutic settings. 

Thanks to innovative new companies in the audio space, the ability to deploy and scale effective sound therapy has become much more tangible.

Howard’s prime passion is to apply digital technology to make people healthier, more productive, and happier. At Spatial, Howard is leading development of the Platform and tools to transform the patient experience, vitalize and humanize clinical spaces, and enable new, digital modalities of treatment. Howard is known as an industry leading pioneer in clinical uses of virtual reality to relieve acute and chronic pain, treat mental health and PTSD, and accelerate public health campaigns. Howard was Story Advisor to the 2021 Emmy Nominated VR documentary, Inside Covid-19.

Healthcare Business Today is a leading online publication that covers the business of healthcare. Our stories are written from those who are entrenched in this field and helping to shape the future of this industry. Healthcare Business Today offers readers access to fresh developments in health, medicine, science, and technology as well as the latest in patient news, with an emphasis on how these developments affect our lives.

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