The research was published in the International Journal of Yoga. They took two groups and had one group “OM” chant whilst the other group made an “ssssss” sound. Whilst making the sounds they performed a functional MRI (fMRI) which monitors brain activity. They could then see what effect the sounds have on the brain compared to a normal resting state.
I am no expert in Yoga and “OM” chanting, but in the research the participants were trained by an experienced Yoga Teacher how to do it. They were “trained to chant ‘OM’ without distress and interruption – the vowel (O) part of the ‘OM’ for 5 sec continuing into the consonant (M) part of the ‘OM’ for the next 10 sec”.
What they found
In the group that was “OM” chanting, they found that there was significant deactivation seen in the amygdala, anterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, parahippocampal gyrus and thalamus. These are part of the LIMBIC SYSTEM which has roles in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. It operates by influencing the endocrine system and the Autonomic Nervous System.
The “ssss” group did not produce any significant activation/deactivation in any of these brain regions.
Why it works
The researchers suggest that these effects are caused by stimulating the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve (also called Cranial Nerve 10) interfaces with the parasympathetic control of the heart and the digestive system. The Parasympathetic Nervous System is the “rest and digest” nervous system. It calms the body and allows healing and digestion to occur. (The counter to this is the Sympathetic nervous system which is the stress and fight or flight portion of the Autonomic Nervous system).
The Vagus nerve has a branch called the auricular branch which is by the ear. It is thought that when done properly, “OM” chanting causes a vibration in the ear that stimulates this branch of the Vagus nerve causing the above mentioned findings in the brain and the calming nature in the body. Try “OM” chanting and compare it to “ssss” and see how different it feels.
What to make of this
In today’s society, we are always exposed to stress. There are 3 types of stress. Physical, mental/emotional and chemical stress. In order to be healthy and well, we need to be able to limit the stress we are exposed to and be able to minimize its effects. Being able to “de-stress” is an important part of this. We all need to find something that will allow us to relax. Based on this research, maybe “OM” chanting is something you could try to help relax. Give it a go, you have nothing to lose.
- B. Kalvani et al. Neurohemodynamic correlates of “OM” chanting: A Pilot functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Int J Yoga. 2011 Jan-Jun; 4(1): 3–6.
- Picture credit: http://www.redpilllife.com/blog/holy-vagus-this-nerve-does-what/