Listening to our Bodies: Health, Technology and Sound

2022-03-014 Min read
Listening to our Bodies: Health, Technology and Sound

During the Forum on the Power of Sound in Industry, Ircam Amplify featured a session on the ways that sound and technology can interact with our bodies and the medical world. From how technology impacts complete hearing loss to the use of hearing to relieve physical pain, there are numerous ways that the health and wellness industries might meet the audio and technology sectors. Experts from several fields are now exploring questions like: what place does sound have in the world of health, how do sounds, our emotions, and our bodies interact, and how does technology impact our physical experience of sound?

Healing with Sound

Maryne Cotty-Eslous, CEO of Lucine, presented several fascinating innovations in digital therapeutics at the Forum on the Power of Sound in Industry 2022. The research teams at Lucine focus on innovative ways to use sound to reduce pain by using digital therapeutics. Digital sound therapeutics are somewhat like an audio version of pain relief medication. They rely on the combination of physical stimulation via sound frequencies and cognitive or behavioral therapies that reduce pain by acting on the brain.

Several Lucine teams are hard at work on digital therapeutics treatments for the management of two pervasive types of pain: the pain caused by endometriosis and chronic pain. According to the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, 10% of people with uteruses worldwide are affected by pain from endometriosis and 30% of the world’s population suffer from chronic pain. Like other medications, digital therapeutics must follow a rigorous process of research, testing, and authorization, but despite the long process, the results of these cutting-edge treatments could impact millions of people worldwide.

Rediscovering Sound in a New Form

Unlike digital therapeutics, cochlear implants are not new technology. The very first cochlear implant was implanted in Paris in 1976 and many versions have since been developed, and other forms of hearing devices, such as hearing aids also exist.

Cochlear implant

A cochlear implant is a neural prosthesis, with an implanted part that stimulates the auditory nerve and an external part that contains the battery and provides the signal processing ability. Dan Gnansia, Senior Manager of Research and Technology at Oticon Medical, points out that cochlear implants stimulate the auditory nerve, but do not reproduce the physical sensations that also come with an experience of sound. Thus, a cochlear implant is not really reproducing an existing sound, but rather it is creating a new sound experience.

Studying these sound experiences by those with cochlear implants can offer new insights. Some research teams have begun work with patients with a single cochlear implant and some hearing in their other ear. Audiologists work with these patients to transcribe the new sounds coming from the implant as compared with the experience of sound from the ear with hearing ability. This research is revealing totally new sounds that do not resemble previous sound experiences.

Sharing Experiences of Hearing Loss through Sound

Dan Gnansia has noted in his work on cochlear implants that sound is an emotional experience. Sound has been used in media to convey emotions for a long time, but how do we use sound to reflect the emotional experiences of hearing loss? Nicolas Becker, sound designer and Oscar-winning composer was asked to work on an atypical soundtrack that dealt with just this issue. The film Sound of Metal, directed by Darius Marder, explores the journey of a musician who suddenly becomes deaf and then has to adjust to a new world and new experience of sound through the use of a cochlear implant.

During the Forum on the Power of Sound in Industry 2022, Nicolas Becker explained the challenge of composing a soundtrack for a film that focused on hearing loss and deaf communities as well as music and the emotional power of sound. For Sound of Metal, Nicolas Becker worked with tools from the research institute IRCAM to produce a particular language, a kind of sound toolbox, which the director was able to use in the creation of the film.

Additionally, both Nicolas Becker and the film’s director Darius Marder, made use of another piece of IRCAM technology, an anechoic chamber, which mutes sound so efficiently that these chambers can be quite disturbing to hearing people. It is so quiet that a hearing person is able to hear their heart beating and their lungs breathing. Just like a cochlear implant doesn’t exactly reproduce the experience of a hearing person, the anechoic chamber doesn’t reproduce the experience of deafness, but it did help Nicolas Becker and Darius Marder to better translate the emotional experience of hearing loss to a hearing audience through sound.

Nicolas Becker’s work on Sound of Metal, utilizing tools from IRCAM, helps hearing people relate to the sound experiences of the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, and provides a popular media reference to several ways that sound, our bodies, and technology are interacting in the modern world.

Health and Sound: What’s Next?

As technology brings us new sounds, whether through cochlear implants or any other form of sound technology, we all have to figure out how to get used to these new sounds and how to make them our own. From creating entirely new auditory experiences to the use of hearing in the treatment of pain, sound clearly has its place in healthcare industries. The future holds even more ways for health, sound, and cutting-edge technology to interact with each other. To find out more about how sound impacts the healthcare sector, be sure to explore the session called Health: Coming Together Through Sound from the Forum on the Power of Sound in Industry 2022 hosted by Ircam Amplify.

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