Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pain Shmain

I saw a copy of this sculpture (original by Rodin)a few years ago at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and was almost in tears at the pain and anguish they expressed.

Prepare for a maze of thought. There is no cheese at the end.

Last week as part of Valentine's Day, my boss got a barbershop quartet to barge into the morning show and serenade the team on air. I was in on the plan and led the group into the control room as they sang. Of course we surprised the morning team as they were on air at the time (and timing was critical for this operation) and we got to promote this particular group's activities - serenading your sweetheart for Valentine's Day. A few of us were treated to a couple more tunes just before they left.

I have always loved barbershop quartet singing and harmony in general. But listening to these guys last week led me to the internet because I wanted to know why. Why do I get chills at certain points? Why do I have such a satisfied feeling after a song sung by them? Why? Why? Why?

I'm sure Lisa from Brass and Ivory could explain it better, being the resident musician in these parts, but I'll do my best, as I understand it.

It seems that the secret to the quartet harmonies lies in the appearance (both figural and literal) of a 5th note being sung. When sound hits our eardrum it reverberates at a specific frequency based on the sound. From Wikipedia:"The precise synchrony of the waveforms of the four voices simultaneously creates the perception of a "fifth voice" while at the same time melding the four voices into a unified sound." Personally, I think the unified sound of the four voices creates a separate reverberation on the eardrum itself, which when added to the four voices gives us that "full" sound and sends shivers up and down our spines. Added to that are the types of chords sung, which often are spine tingling anyway. Not sure if any or all of that is correct, but until someone can explain it better to me, I'll stick with it.

While researching this topic I came across references used to describe the emotional effects of barbershop singing. They are often rapturous, quasi-religious. Hmmmm. There is a so-called "religious" site in our brain believed to be in the temporal lobe area. People who have temporal lobe epilepsy often report feelings of awe and wonder, seeing lights, sudden insights into life, and a connection with a higher being. They report feelings of "being at peace". It's been theorized that Joan of Arc had this type of epilepsy and that her visual and auditory hallucinations were a result of her illness, not communication with God.

Saint Lidwina of the Netherlands (in the late 1300s) is believed to have suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. In fact if you read any account of her life, she displays a good many symptoms of MS and much is made of the absolute misery she suffered. She was a very pious woman; accounts of her life indicate her gift of prayer, and she also had "visions" of God. Or hallucinations. Hard to say. Either way, it seems to me that she may also have suffered some form of epilepsy as well. I've met a few people with both epilepsy and MS, so it's not unheard of.

What ties barbershop quartets, Joan of Arc, and epilepsy together? A lot of research has popped up recently linking the mind and the body - particularly of importance for MS patients is the need to reduce stress (in our minds) that can trigger symptoms (in our bodies). The pleasant singing of the barber shop quartet last week gave me such an enormous sense of beauty and relaxation, I was overcome with a feeling of peacefulness. Maybe those notes, or specifically, the "fifth note", stimulated my temporal lobes. Over the years while researching pain relievers for neuropathic pain, I noticed quite a few epilepsy drugs used to treat spasms and other symptoms. Those anti-convulsant drugs work by reducing the rapid firing of neurons in our brain. MS brains sometimes fire will-nilly and tell us things that are falsehoods; I'm not really drooling, it just feels like I am, or there's no hair on my cheek, it just feels that way, or my bones aren't being crushed in a vice grip, it just feels that way. And because our brain needs calming down in order for body parts to stop hurting, they work for people with MS. Cool.

Sometimes we can "distract" our brains from pain with another strong stimulus, like heat. I have used heating pads for over 10 years for my neuropathic pain, usually with good result. By focusing on the heat, my brain is temporarily distracted from the pain. But it's becoming more and more used to the heat and occurring more frequently as well. 10 years ago, about once a month was all I needed with the heating pad. Now it's a couple of times a week. Most times, the heat suffices.But from time to time, the pain continues for a couple of nights and I lose sleep because of it; or has recently happened, the pain begins from the moment I wake. It's annoying, it's tiring, and it damn well hurts.

This post is really just a long winded way to say that I have a prescription now for amitriptiline.And I'm not afraid to use it. I haven't felt the need to use any sort of pain relief up to this point as it was relatively short lived. But I just don't have the energy to spend on pain any more. So just as I take an elevator rather than stairs (don't tell Al Gore) to conserve MY energy, I will take pain relievers as needed rather than have pain. That way I have more energy and time for the things I want to do, like hunting for bugs in the woods.



Joan said...

Add Hildegard von Bingen to the list of people who had visions and were musicians. Powerful.

Hang in there,

PS. I live in a town in Delaware US called Newark, pronounced New Ark, so sometitmes I jokingly introduce myself as Joan of New-ark.

Shauna said...

Interesting. I certainly see how a connection between visions and creativity can be made.
Joan of New Ark. Too funny....


Denver Refashionista said...

You have an amazing mind. I love your ability to make connections. Do what you must for the pain so you can live your life. I find that I only feel that kind of pain during hormonal shifts. Maybe that is part of what is happening to you. Or it could just be the MS...



I have saved this post in my Reader, meaning to come back and give a worthwhile response. So finally I had some time to find cool links related to the "fifth voice" phenomenon.

Your inkling that the sound comes from inside our ears themselves is truly at the root of the issue.

Violinist and computer Giuseppe Tartini is credited as discovered the psychoacoustic phenomenon of combination and difference tones.

E.B. Titchener used the difference tone in experiments in introspective training in psychology in the early 20th century.

More recent research has looked into measuring the physiological response of difference tones.

So there is a very real physical/acoustic perception taking place, as well as possible psychological one. For some simple examples, look here.

Shauna said...

I knew you'd come through for me. Fascinating stuff. I especially liked the Tartini bits I listened to.

It's nice to have a sense about something and then discover there's a scientific basis for it. Thanks!

I have spent a good amount of time trying to link my pain to hormones or some other physiological basis so I could lessen the cause. It appears to be the MS.