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Bilateral Music Stimulation & Its Therapeutic Effects: Explained

Photo by Erol Ahmed / Unsplash

Dealing with life’s challenges feels overwhelming at times. Whether it’s navigating through chaotic days or facing unexpected hurdles, it’s important to find effective coping mechanisms. One such method that might not be on your radar is bilateral music stimulation.

Harvard Research: Music and the Brain

David Silbersweig, MD, and Nikki Haddad, associated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, highlight the comforting role of music. Both are musicians themselves and are intrigued by how music affects the brain and its potential for improving health.

Music triggers various brain regions, from the ear to the auditory cortices. Different music types engage different brain areas based on factors like melody and rhythm. In Silbersweig’s lab at BWH, imaging technology reveals how the brain reacts to music in real time. Patients with conditions like sensory amusia provided insights into how the brain processes music and rhythms.

Silbersweig and Haddad believe their findings offer therapeutic opportunities; music has shown promise in alleviating symptoms for patients with different neurological conditions. So, on a more casual everyday level, we can expect the music designed for such purposes to also be helpful.

What Is Bilateral Music?

Bilateral music is created by alternating sound between the left and right ear when listening with headphones. This pattern is believed to stimulate the brain in a way that helps process difficult memories and reduce anxiety.

In therapies, patients might listen to bilateral music while recalling stressful memories. Most bilateral music is calming and relaxing, and it’s designed to be listened to with headphones for a unique auditory experience. Although, it’s not fully immersive or spatial.

Interestingly, it’s gaining popularity for enhancing audio experiences in media and entertainment industries. So, it’s not just used in therapies.

Is It the Same as 8D or ASMR?

No, there are differences.

8D audio enhances music to give the impression that sounds are moving in a three-dimensional space around the listener's head. But there isn’t a standard definition for 8D audio, so it’s often used more creatively than technically.

Similarly, ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) involves certain sounds or visuals that create a pleasant tingling sensation for some people. It can be used for relaxation purposes, but the focus and effects are different.

Bilateral music, on the other hand, focuses on simple frequency manipulation, and it presents different frequencies to each ear. Its purpose is to promote relaxation or meditation.

Bilateral music is closely associated with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. EMDR is a highly regarded therapy method that helps people deal with traumatic experiences and manage anxiety, PTSD, panic disorders, and depression, as supported by the EMDR International Association.

A key aspect of EMDR therapy is bilateral stimulation. This means activating both hemispheres of the brain at once. It can be done in different ways, like tapping, watching moving objects or lights, and listening to bilateral music or sounds.

However, please keep in mind that to achieve serious effects, you need to work with a mental health professional trained in EMDR therapy. Particularly if you’re actively seeking to address a medical condition or relieve its symptoms. You can administer this technique on your own; just know that the effects may be limited.

How Bilateral Stimulation Impacts the Brain and Nervous System

Bilateral stimulation has a calming effect on the brain and nervous system by activating the nervous system. Ongoing research, especially in EMDR, shows that bilateral stimulation is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s rest and digestion. This suggests that bilateral music stimulation can help the body shift from fight-or-flight mode to a calmer state.

Enhancing inter-hemispheric communication is another aspect. Research shows that bilateral stimulation activates both sides of the brain, which helps them communicate better. This improves the formation of new neural pathways and strengthens existing ones.

Last but not least is increasing neurotransmitter levels. Bilateral stimulation has been shown to elevate levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of well-being and happiness.

Does Bilateral Music Help Manage Anxiety? How?

Bilateral music is thought to ease anxiety by affecting the brain and nervous system. Its rhythmic pattern stimulates both sides of the brain. This stimulation helps regulate the autonomic nervous system and reduces stress responses.

According to EMDR therapists, some of the main benefits are:

  • Reduced worrying
  • Enhanced positive feelings
  • Perspective shift toward smaller issues
  • Improved flow of thoughts
  • Increased relaxation
  • Diminished anxiety
  • Better sleep

These effects occur in a bottom-up manner. It starts with changes in the lower brain areas and leads to physiological responses like decreased tension. These changes then progress ‘up’ the brain and result in mental shifts like reduced worry. This follows how the brain naturally works, which makes the effects faster and easier than top-down methods.

When Should You Use Bilateral Stimulation?

Focused listening

This means dedicating your full attention to the music; for example, during activities like meditation, mindfulness practice, or preparing to fall asleep. You can immerse yourself in the side-to-side sounds and allow yourself to relax deeply.

Background ambiance

In this scenario, bilateral music stimulation acts as soothing background noise while you engage in various tasks. You can be writing, brainstorming, doing research, responding to emails, managing finances, reading, or pursuing artistic activities like painting or drawing. In any of these cases, playing bilateral music can help alleviate stress and anxiety while enhancing focus and creativity.

It may seem unconventional, but for some people, listening to bilateral music boosts their concentration and productivity, especially when they’re feeling stressed or anxious. They say taking short breaks to follow the music’s rhythm from left to right sharpens focus.

Is Bilateral Stimulation Safe?

Bilateral stimulation is generally safe for most people and can be either relaxing or, in the worst-case scenario, distracting.

Just bear in mind that because it directly stimulates the nervous system, it may trigger unexpected responses. This can happen to individuals with conditions characterized by hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli — acquired brain injury, migraine, complex PTSD, and dissociative identity disorder. People with these conditions are recommended not to use bilateral stimulation without a trained EMDR therapist.

Where Can I Find Bilateral Music?

You can find bilateral music across various online platforms. Simply search for terms like “bilateral music,” “EMDR music,” or “biolateral music.”

Here are some examples to get you started:

There are also bilateral music CDs and custom-made tracks made for EMDR therapists.

Tips to Enhance Your Bilateral Music Experience

If you’re considering trying bilateral music, here are some tips to make the most of it:

  1. Consult with your therapist — If you have mental conditions or serious sensitivities, it’s better to discuss bilateral music with your therapist. They will determine if such stimulation will help with your goals.

2. Use headphones — For optimal results, use high-quality headphones or earbuds. This allows you to fully immerse yourself in the shifting sounds from left to right.

3. Adjust the volume — Experiment with different settings to discover what works best for your mood.

4. Focus on the music — Take a moment to focus solely on the sound moving side to side.. Visualize the sound traveling along a path; it’s particularly helpful in relieving tension headaches.

5. Take deep breaths — Notice how your breath naturally slows down as you listen to the music. Take deep breaths.

6. Pay attention to your body — Observe any changes in your body. Notice if your shoulders relax, your posture improves, or any tension in your jaw or chest dissipates.

7. Listen without time constraints — Allow yourself to listen to music for as long as it feels right or until you need to attend to other responsibilities. There’s no need to set a strict time limit; simply listen for as long as it feels beneficial.

Final Thoughts: Improve Your Evening Routine

In conclusion, adding music bilateral stimulation to your evening routine can help you unwind and reduce anxiety and stress before bedtime. Listen to alternating sounds in each ear, and for an even bigger effect, move your eyes or tap your body from side to side before bed. The tracks you need are just there on Spotify and YouTube.

You can also consider using special meditation and sleep apps. For example, EMDR Tappers, Bilateral Stimulation Therapy, Calm, and Sleep Restore.