Music and the heart -- 11/15/23

Today's selection -- from Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross. The physiological impact of music on the human body:

“A cardiologist [at Stanford] named Sean Wu had been puzzling over a question about the [heart]'s structure. He wanted to generate heart tissue in the lab in order to create models that would help explain certain cardiac diseases. Eventually, he hoped to be able to create heart patches for patients with weak cardiac walls or with damage from heart attacks. 

“With more than an estimated 37 trillion human cells in our body to work with, scientists are having excellent success generating human tissue in the lab, for everything from brains and bladders to muscle and skin. This new field known as biomaterial design is merging the disciplines of materials engineering and biology in order to grow tissue outside of the body in a lab. 

“Heart cells are special, though. First, they are incredibly complex and challenging to create. Heart cells are also densely packed, which allows them to work in tandem and beat. If they are designed too far apart they won't sync. Too close together, they could smother and die. And so, from an engineering perspective, hearts are the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building, of organs. You may imagine what you want to build, but you need incredible structural engineering to make it happen. 

“A colleague at Stanford, an acoustic bioengineer named Utkan Demirci, had an idea for Wu. Move the heart cells with sound. Demirci is among a growing number of biomedical researchers tapping into aesthetics, like sound waves, to design cellular structures. Because sound waves move molecules, they can travel through different media--like solids, gels, liquids, and gases--made of molecules. They are versatile. In this case, Demirci put heart cells in a gelled substance, and by tweaking the acoustics he created different sizes and shapes of sound waves (imagine a small ripple amping up into a tidal wave). The cells rode the waves across the gel and into the extraordinary patterns. 

“As Demirci triggered acoustic waves on a microscale, he and Wu watched the heart cells dance into patterns. They could adjust the patterns within seconds by tweaking the acoustics. ‘You change the frequency and amplitude, and the cells move into a new spot right in front of your eyes,’ Wu said in 2018. 

“The work Demirci and Wu were tapping into is called cymatics--the science of visualizing audio frequencies. This process was discovered by Swiss medical doctor and pioneer Hans Jenny, who coined the term and published the first volume on the topic in 1967. Jenny explained in his book Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena and Vibration that ‘acoustic effects of sound waves is not an unregulated chaos. It is a dynamic but ordered pattern.’ 

Resonance made visible with black seeds on a harpsichord soundboard

“After their discovery, Stanford University tweeted out the quilt-like image and asked: Is it art or is it science? 

“It is, wonderfully, both. Researchers are removing the ‘or’ to make it ‘and.’ Art and science together are potent medicine, capable of radically transforming our physical health. 

“Think about this experiment the next time you feel moved by your favorite song. You are literally changed, on a cellular level, by aesthetics. In the case of the red quilt, sound caused heart cells to move. All stimuli that we encounter--visual, auditory, somatosensory, gustatory, olfactory, and others--change the structure and function of cells within our brains and bodies. They do so in fundamental ways, including altering cell cycle, proliferation, viability, and binding of hormones. And when we make those aesthetic inputs multidimensional, we open the door for healing to occur. 

“One of the most important developments in the arts-meets-science approach to physical health has been the ways in which researchers have begun to identify key neurobiological mechanisms. Mechanisms are the many chemical and physical activities that underlie how things work in your body. Digesting your latest meal, for instance, happens because of multiple mechanisms, from saliva production in the mouth to chemicals in the stomach to the ways nutrients are absorbed. We understand how and why the body digests food. And by better understanding the mechanisms engaged when using the arts, practitioners are able to design and enhance interventions with greater precision. 

“In a 2021 study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, Daisy Fancourt and her team studied the mounting evidence for the benefits of leisure activities, such as participating in the arts, on human health. They identified and mapped more than 600 mechanisms--from improving respiratory and physical function to enhancing immune function and developing group values--that occur both in our individual bodies, as well as at the group and societal level. These mechanisms are broadly grouped into psychological, biological, social, and behavioral. 

“Another critical point that Daisy and her fellow researchers made in this study about arts and mechanisms is related to the idea of complexity science. ‘People have often viewed the field of arts and health as needing to operate like the field of pharmacology,’ Daisy explained. For example, a drug has an active ingredient with maybe one or two biological mechanisms of action and these have predictable outcomes. ‘Whereas, our clear point in this paper is that in complexity science, you recognize that there are hundreds of ingredients, hundreds of mechanisms. They all work bidirectionally, not just unidirectionally and they're moderated by external factors.’ 

“This summarizes quite nicely why the arts have such a potent effect on our health: Whereas a pharmacological treatment works on one, maybe two, pathways, the arts have the ability to trigger hundreds of mechanisms that work in concert. 

“‘This point is really important to get across,’ Daisy says, ‘because sometimes people have seen the complexity and the 'messiness' of arts and health mechanisms as a weakness where in fact, it is the very heart of why the arts work. It's just that we've been applying an overly simplistic biomedical lens on something that needs to be seen with a complexity science lens.’

“Today, the arts are being used in at least six distinct ways to heal the body: as preventative medicine; as symptom relief for everyday health issues; as a treatment or intervention for illness, developmental issues, and accidents; as psychological support; as a tool for successfully living with chronic issues; and at the end of life to provide solace and meaning."



Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross


Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us


Random House


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment