Meds may be optional. Connecting to our vibrational DNA is not.

by John McManamy


A FEW YEARS AGO, on Facebook, I came across a meme that went something like this: "In Africa, if you are depressed, they will ask: how long has it been since you stopped drumming, dancing, singing ..."

Okay, Africa is a big place, so maybe not everyone is drumming, but Andrew Solomon in his classic 2001 The Noonday Demon recounted how, while in a village in Senegal, the locals took a day off to exorcise him of the spirits responsible for his depression. In an article in Esquire, Andrew elaborated on his treatment.  

First he describes sitting in a loincloth, skin covered in millet, listening to Chariots of Fire and holding various shamanic objects. Then, to the sound of drumming, with the villagers dancing in circles around him, he got in bed with a ram and was buried beneath blankets and sheets.

And ... “then these drums, which were getting louder and louder and more and more ecstatic.”

Then he was yanked to his feet naked, and coated in the blood of the now-dead ram, plus two cockerels. Short break for a Coke, then the villagers tied him in the ram’s intestines, and directed him to bury pieces of the ram in the ground and command the spirits to leave him alone.

Later, the women of the village rinsed him off by spitting him with water. Then they barbecued the ram and had a feast. As for the clinical outcome:

And I felt so up. I felt so up! It had been quite an astonishing experience. Even though I didn’t believe in the animist principles behind it, all of these people had been gathered together, cheering for me, and it was very exhilarating.

Five years later, in Rwanda, Andrew described his experience to one of the people there. They do things differently in East Africa, the man explained, but the principles are similar. He told Andrew how they had to kick western mental health workers out of the country soon after the genocide. He said this was because ...

Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun, like you’re describing, which is, after all, where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again when you’re depressed, and you’re low, and you need to have your blood flowing.

Moreover ...

There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment that the depression is something invasive and external that could actually be cast out of you again.



Instead, the western mental health people would take people one at a time to dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. As the man concluded: “We had to get them to leave the country.”

So now we see where this is going: Focus on the outdoors and drumming and sense of community. Go easy on the ram’s blood, but a bit of shamanic ritual might be helpful.  

Is there anyone out there with a bit of practical experience? Funny you should ask ...

I play the didgeridoo, an ancient wind instrument of the First People of Australia. I practice an hour or so a day. Its singular drone can kick in the nervous system’s relaxation response, which helps in slowing down my runaway mind. The vibrations also take me into deep meditative trances.

The didgeridoo also serves as a vocal drum. Skilled practitioners can lay down highly sophisticated and driving rhythms. In this context, the instrument acts as an energizer, an antidepressant.

I frequently take my didgeridoo to drum circles, along with at least one drum and various percussion instruments. So, here’s where it all comes together: outdoors, drumming, and community.

As for the shamanic element, play a didgeridoo or a drum (or other instrument) long enough and something changes inside.  Trust me on this.  

So, here I am, with all the key components of Andrew’s depression treatment, and I don’t even have to travel to Senegal. Someone taps out a beat. Others join in. I enter with my didge. More drummers. One beat layers over another, joining forces, taking on a life of its own. The pulse flows through me. I am swept away ...

No, drumming is not the magic bullet cure for depression. As one of the many weapons in your recovery and healing, though, it is a very powerful one. 

Let's go deeper ...




A few years ago, I ventured out to a drum circle/neuro-talk event led by Mickey Hart. Mickey Hart is the legendary drummer of the Grateful Dead and the leader of the Global Drum Project and other efforts. He has been working with neuroscientists on rhythm and healing. 

I showed up with my didgeridoo. At least a hundred drummers were there, plus a larger general audience. My didge was mounted on a stand and hooked up to a small speaker. This freed up one hand to thump on a cajon - a wood box drum you can sit on - and a foot to stomp on a tambourine.

At six o’clock, we all started spontaneously banging (and in my case, honking) away. Think of a drum circle as a self-organizing phenomenon like a flock of geese or the internet. Order emerges, the sum becomes greater then the parts. In a drum circle context, this can be a transcendent experience.

It’s no coincidence that drumming featured in ancient rituals and that music is found in every culture. In this case, the universe temporarily suspended its laws. No time, no space, no gravity.

No self, no other.

The drumming stopped. I came to earth, well not quite. Mickey walked past. “Good doo, man,” he said to me.

Mickey was accompanied by Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UCSF. The two have been collaborating on the “Rhythm and the Brain Project.”

According to the Project’s website:

Rhythm is a fundamental aspect of the universe at every level, and serves as a critical foundation for life on this planet. As we now understand it, brain function itself is dependent on complex rhythms of activity, which guides interactions between brain regions to generate synchronized neural networks from which our minds emerge.

Dr Gazzaley explained to us that neurons communicate with each other, as part of a vast network working together in concert. In 1929, Hans Berger first used the EEG to record brain waves. Alpha rhythms, for instance, pulse at about 10 beats per second. Multiple rhythms sync with each other and become locked in time.

According to Dr Gazzaley, the different rhythms are associated with different cognitive operations like perception, attention and memory. Theta rhythms, for instance, are associated with paying attention and planning. More data is emerging to show that these rhythms relate to how we think.

This brings us into the realm of brain rhythm disorders. In essence, Dr Gazzaley is asking us to reconceptualize, at least in part, various psychiatric and neurological conditions as malfunctions in the brain’s ability to bring its rhythms into sync.

He specifically mentioned Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression. In Alzheimer’s, for instance, music is being used to recruit neural networks in pulling up forgotten memories. Meanwhile, an experimental surgery known as deep brain stimulation (DBS) is being used on treatment-resistant patients. 

Bipolar - an illness defined by its cycles - is begging to be included on Dr Gazzaley’s list.    

By viewing your brain’s rhythms in real time, Dr Gazzaley explained, you may acquire the ability to control them. This would involve novel interventions, such as video games and drumming. Cue up the drummer ...

According to Mickey Hart, rhythm occupies three worlds - nature, the body, and things we create. It all started 13.8 billion years ago. We are born into a rhythmic world. The brain is a multi-rhythm machine. We are embedded with rhythm. We are born to our mothers’ heartbeat. Vibrations are the bottom line. “When that’s over, we’re dead.”

What got Mickey started was caring for his grandmother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. He drummed for her. As he describes it, “she came to, she reconnected, she was right in the moment.”

All this triggered in me a major personal realization: I used to think that music (or for that matter, getting out in nature) isn't for everyone. But music (or rhythm or ecstatic dance) is part of our DNA. We were born to vibrate. To not be involved in some sort of musical or rhythmic activity is to cut ourselves off, to disconnect us from our core, the product of millions of years of evolution.

This bears emphasis: Music and rhythm and related activities are not an option. It is essential. To put this in perspective: Meds are an option, vegetarianism is an option.

I could go full-bore nerd and bring superstring theory into it - how our physical world is built on vibration. I could go full-bore spiritual and cite the intro to John's Gospel. Instead I will quote my favorite scientist, Nikola Tesla:

If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.

Taking it further ...

A couple of years ago, I joined up with a gong-player and a shamanic practitioner doing sound journeys. Sound journeys are not to be confused with music. You're not listening to a "tune."

As my friend, As Steve Sklar, who practices sound-healing with his wife Johnna Morrow in Minnesota, explains:

Singing bowls, didgeridoos and gongs have very different qualities than musical instruments such as pianos, violins or clarinets. The latter instruments produce sounds that have comparatively simple tonal characteristics, played in sequences and combinations to create melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. The attention of the listener is drawn to the macro, exterior perceptions, the musical performance.

Didgeridoos and bowls and gongs, on the other hand ...

... produce complex tones and textures with shifting, swelling and receding and morphing harmonics. Sounds aren’t arranged in patterns; instead, a single or few tones focus the attention. This is micro listening, and has the effect of drawing the listener in, leading the listener to inner channels of perception and exploration.

What my friends and I were doing was a sound journey, rather than sound healing. Typically, attendees lie on the floor, eyes closed, and become one with the vibrations and rhythms. What they get out the experience is personal. We make no healing claims. But do expect to experience some shifts in perception. It could be subtle. It could blow your mind out.

In our case, the shamanic practitioner set the scene with a visualization and some drumming. Then she'd cue up the gong and then me on didgeridoo. Part of the time, I would be blending my didge with the gong. The rest of the time, I would be passing my didge a foot or so above the people on the floor.

From my experiences, I developed my own theory that the vibrations facilitate certain parts of the brain talking to each other that normally have little to do with each other. This may lead to the type of spiritual experiences typified by an enhanced sense of connectedness. Paradoxically, first we need to disconnect from being stuck in our ordinary conscious thinking.



Exciting new research into the default mode network lends credence to my ruminations. I could very well be wrong, but what I am witnessing appears to be a reconciliation of ancient wisdom and modern brain science, not to mention quantum physics.

To my frustration, the mental health community has been slow to pick up on the benefits of sound and rhythm and music. Often I would be greated with rolling eyes when I brought up the topic. My poor didge got no respect.

This contrasted to my recent heart surgery experience. To a person, the doctors and nurses and technicians were all extremely interested in the didgeridoo my brother brought to me. The surgeon who saved my life even whipped out his phone and recorded a brief video of me in my hospital gown, various tubes and wires sticking out of me, happily honking away. As I told my cardiologist only half-jokingly, "In two years, you will be prescribing it."

In closing ...

In Darkness Visible, William Styron wrote how he was able to reconnect with memories of joy in his life when Brahms' Alto Rhapsody began resonating in his head. That was the beginning of his recovery from depression. The sound, Styron wrote, pierced his heart like a dagger. 

According to music educator, Anita Collins, in a TED-Ed animation:

Playing music is the brain’s equivalent of a full-body workout… Playing an instrument engages practically every area of the brain at once — especially the visual, auditory, and motor cortices.

As in any other workout, disciplined, structured practice in playing music strengthens those brain functions, allowing us to apply that strength to other activities.

To this I would add that music breaks down barriers and connects us to others. In the joy of music, we find joy in our fellow humans, we find a reason to live.

You don't need to be an accomplished musician to find these connections. A good many venues these days encourage picking up a drum or noise-maker – or simply clapping your hands – and joining in. Three words: Just do it

Begun as a series of blogs in 2014-2015, reworked into an article Jan 6, 2017.





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