Scientists Create Lullabies From Brain Waves

Some time ago I had a record album that seemed magical. It put me to sleep within minutes.

Now, it turns out that it may not have been magic at all, but science.

Researchers at the University of Toronto's sleep clinic have found that the human brain creates its own internal music, and that same music can be used to fight a common problem that affects millions of people across the continent: anxiety insomnia.

By playing their own "brain music" back to them, researchers were able to get persons with sleeping disorders to fall asleep more quickly, and to sleep more soundly, according to psychiatrist Leonid Kayumov, director of the clinic.

Of course, this "music," which consists of an audible "printout" of sleep-inducing brain waves, doesn't exactly sound like Barry Manilow, and you can't buy it at your local record store.

‘Odd’ Lullaby

"It sounds odd," Kayumov says. "You wouldn't recognize it as music. Sometimes there are harmonic frequencies, sometimes it's total cacophony." Sometimes, he adds, it sounds a little like Chinese, sometimes it sounds a little like a melody.

"I find some people have nicer music," he says.

But each of us produces our own brain music, and each is different.

Kayumov, who discussed his clinic's research at a recent annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Society in Seattle, says up to 40 percent of the general population suffers from some kind of insomnia, and most of those problems "may be related to stress anxiety." Balancing the checkbook, or dealing with a problem at work or home, may keep us from falling asleep in the evening, or cause us to wake up a long time before the alarm clock goes off.

Kayumov and his colleagues excluded people from the study who have severe neurological disorders that keep them awake, and concentrated instead on ordinary folks who have trouble sleeping. Ten persons who had suffered from insomnia for at least two years were selected for the study, and they were taken into the lab in the university's Western Hospital and hooked up to a portable device that zeroes in on brain waves.

Promising Results

The device produces a graph that looks a little like an electrocardiogram, but it portrays brain waves, not heart functions. The two are different in that brain waves are a much faster frequency, producing about 70 fluctuations per second.

"Basically, it gives you kind of a printout of the brain," he says.

That printout is fed into a computer, which produces an audio track that corresponds to the frequency and patterns of the brain wave. And that, he adds, is the music of the brain.

"What is music?" he asks. "It is organized sound oscillations which change in rhythm, volume, amplitude, tones and so on. The same analogy applies to brain activity. It's electrical oscillations. And using computerized algorithms we convert them into sound. So it's a printout of the brain, but expressed in sounds."

Each participant was given a recording of the sound and sent home with instructions to listen to it just before bedtime if they have trouble falling asleep, or during the night if they can't stay asleep. Four weeks later, they returned to the clinic for further testing.

The participants showed dramatic improvement over placebo participants who listened to someone else's brain music instead of their own.

"For the placebo group, the improvement was only about 15 percent as compared to 75 to 85 percent for the experimental group. So it's a highly significant statistical difference," Kayumov says. It also shows that brain music is highly individualistic.

It worked, he adds, because the sleep music was lower in frequency than other brain waves and induced kind of a relaxed, meditative condition. In other words, each subject's brain recognized its own lullaby and reacted accordingly.

The "music" was so different from other brain waves that the researchers are now experimenting with creating sound tracks that will help curb such things as bed wetting among children.

Even far more serious mental problems might be helped by similar techniques, he says.

"Even the diseased brain has such enormous reserves that we can use the brain activity, even from a diseased brain, to heal it," he says. An anti-anxiety response, for example, can be produced even in someone who is seriously impaired by reproducing sounds that stimulate relaxation.

Relaxation in a CD

A research sample of 10 persons is not a large group, but the project builds on numerous other related studies at the clinic, and Kayumov believes the results are quite convincing. The long-range goal, he says, is to move the technology from the research lab to the clinic.

Hopefully, some day people with serious sleep disorders will be able to check into a clinic and leave an hour or so later with a compact disc, loaded with sounds that originated in their own brains. Those sounds will be used to generate brain waves that induce relaxation, leading to sleep.

And here's the neat part. It won't become addictive. There won't be any serious side effects, like those caused by various medications that are now available.

All it will be is music, created in the person's own brain. How about that for a relaxing tune?

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.