HEALTH: Soundscape Impact

Listening to a heartbeat elicits a parasympathetic response; bringing body literacy into the public consciousness introduces people to new information and experiences while dispelling out-dated body myths. 

1404-0291Many people expected the soundscapes to be disconcerting, some said it would be too scary for them to attend; when asked if they had ever listened to their own heartbeat the answer was a resounding no. It hadn’t ever occurred to most people to listen to their own heartbeat. A few people told us that they had never even been aware of the sensation of their own heartbeat. Some had only ever listened to a heartbeat at the doctors office, if something was wrong, or at the movies where the sound of a heartbeat is used to induce fear, suspense, anxiety. Of those who said yes, they had listened to their own, they only did so throughout the lens health. When probed further they said that meant thinking about warnings of heart failure, of the need to exercise and change their diet.

But anyone we spoke to who had had a direct experience listening to their own heart couldn’t wait to experience the soundscape. They had spent time firsthand observing their own rhythm and knew what a calming and liberating act it was. The heart soundscapes offer the possibility to experience, and in a sense reclaim, an inner intimacy and self-knowledge. To know yourself in a tangible, non-subjective way is empowering. It is a way to be surprised again by the fact that ‘I am here, real, I exist.’  And this is at once calming because listening to the heartbeat for even a few seconds triggers a parasympathetic response, which is one reason why putting your head on someone’s chest is so soothing.

Let’s look at that in more detail. When we’re calm, we calm others. It’s often a feedback loop: I’m calm, I feel safe and relaxed, so the people who are around me perceive that in their gut, which in turn makes them feel safe and relaxed, and thus able to engage. The science behind this is fascinating, and has many implications for the Heartbeat Soundscape Project. Of all the things we do to engage with each other, the first is a calming of the nervous system. After that, we are able to make facial expressions, we look at each other in the eye, we change the prosody of our voices, we tilt our heads and smile, we listen. If we don’t feel an underlying tone of safety in our nervous systems, our heartbeats will respond and send a signal that in essence blocks our ability to make all those movements of social engagement. An amazing thing is that even listening to the heartbeat triggers the beginnings of this response and thus effects our inner sense of safety and thus our ability to act. Anything that empowers an individuals sense of agency supports well being.

Let’s look at that: Anything that empowers an individuals sense of agency supports well being. The key element here is that we’re using something that originates from within each of us to alter our environment. Too often our public environments assume and encourage a passivity on the part of the people in that environment. Someone (usually not present) has made a decision and now the people in that space are affected by it. Even while the intentions are usually good, (“how do we improve this space?”) the question assumes that the people will be effected, positively or negatively or any relative combination depending on the specifics of individual difference, which rarely meets everyones needs. The public is acted upon, no matter if we then vote it out, or embrace it fully into our community, the change comes first from an outside source. This in itself assumes a disempowered receiver of that change. 

These soundscapes take a significantly different approach. This is important—at first it looks like we’re doing the same thing as just described above, that is, changing the environment to effect people in public space. But rather than assuming people to be simple receivers of their environment, effected by that which is outside of themselves (and even this is a something many people don’t take as a given, don’t perceive when walking through a city), we’re using something that originates from within each of us to alter our environment. We are recognizing that people themselves are part of the environment. Outer change—the speed of people walking, the number of times stops walking to stand still, the number of people focusing on a shared event, the number of people talking with each other and making eye contact—is brought about by bringing attention to your own physicality, to your inner environment. Our own agency is the subject of these embodied spaces. That is very empowering.