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July 2020 (Vol. 5 Issue 5)

Healing sounds

About the author: 

Healing sounds image

In 1971, educational anthropologist Betsy Smith witnessed an improvement in her mentally retarded brother after he waded into the water with two young dolphins

In 1971, educational anthropologist Betsy Smith witnessed an improvement in her mentally retarded brother after he waded into the water with two young dolphins. Intrigued by the results, neuropsychologist David Nathanson began testing whether dolphins could help two children with Down syndrome process and retain verbal information. When a child's response was correct, he was allowed to feed a dolphin.

Nathanson found that the children learned four times faster with dolphins than they did in their more conventional educational settings, and retained 15 per cent more information as well (Congress Proceedings of the XVI World Assembly of the World Organization for Preschool Education, 1980: 447-51).

Nathanson then replicated his work with six other children with Down or other severe physical/mental handicaps. Again, dolphin interactions elicited up to 19 times more correct speech than the usual classroom setting, with nearly 3-per-cent greater retention (Anthrozo"os, 1993; 6: 17-29). He also found that just two weeks of dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) outperformed six months of conventional speech and physical therapy-and at less cost (Anthrozo"os, 1993; 6: 17-29). Between 1988 and 1997, he treated 700 children with 35 different diagnoses such as cerebral palsy, autism, and brain and spinal-cord injuries (Anthrozo"os, 1997; 10: 90-100). What's more, the skills learned with DAT were maintained or even improved in 50 per cent of cases a year after the treatment had ended.

As water immersion alone can develop mental and physical perceptual patterns, Nathanson decided to try to isolate the factors responsible for the improvements, and experimented with just water or even favourite toys, but no dolphins. Although some advances were made, they were not as dramatic as they'd been with the dolphins.

He also wondered whether the effects were simply down to interactions with such fascinating animals, as animals of every variety are an aid to learning. However, the study children enjoyed far greater improvements in language and motor skills after encounters with dolphins than with other animals.

Since Nathanson's groundbreaking research, therapists have attempted to use captive dolphins to aid every sort of troubled or handicapped patient, including anorexia, chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, dyslexia and even cancer (Dobbs H. Dance to a Dolphin's Song. London: Jonathan Cape, 1990). One research facility in the Ukraine reported a 60-per-cent improvement in childhood phobias and a 30-per-cent improvement in patients with infantile cerebral palsy using dolphins (Presented at the Second Annual International Symposium on Dolphin Assisted Therapy, Cancun, Mexico, September 5-8, 1996)

However, DAT doesn't work in every circumstance. Autistic children, for instance, enjoy the sessions, but don't show measurable or lasting changes compared with other disabled children.

A number of organizations, such as The Dolphin Experience Living From The Heart in Morrison, CO, and Dolphin Reef Eilat in Israel, offer short- or long-term DAT programmes. How-ever, only recently have organizations attempted to study exactly what happens to humans in close proximity with these special mammals, and how it can accelerate learning or healing.

David M. Cole, a computer scientist in Fort Myers, FL, developed neuro-mapping electroencephalography used by his AquaThought Foundation to study the neurological effects of close contact with dolphins on the human brain (Presented at the International Symposium on Dolphin Assisted Therapy, Cancun, Mexico, September 8-10, 1995). Using this technology, the Foundation can carry out EEG testing at three of the four dolphin swim facilities licensed in the US, measuring brainwaves at 16 points on the scalps of volunteers before and after swimming, touching, playing or diving with dolphins.

He found that the dominant brain-wave frequency slowed significantly after interacting with dolphins-from a beta frequency to what resembled an alpha state, the frequency of light meditation or dreaming. He also found that the brain's left and right hemispheres emitted brainwaves in synchrony (peaking and troughing at the same time), and at similar frequencies.

Studies of psychoneuroimmunology have shown that alpha states boost the immune system, while others show that increased alpha and theta waves can enhance learning. The Back Institute of Florida demonstrated that the production and uptake of the brain's neurotransmitters are strengthened by increased contact with dolphins.

The AquaThought Foundation ( has proposed that a dolphin's sound waves cause chemical changes at the cell boundaries in living tissue-'sonochemistry', or the interaction of sound with matter through acoustic cavitation. Cavitation refers to microscopic bubbles, 100 microns in diameter and formed as a result of intense sound waves, that implode in less than a microsecond (Sci Am, 1989; 260: 80-6). Such implosions heat liquid (in this instance, a cell) to 5500o C-roughly the temperature of the sun's surface.

Such extreme heating may be what causes the chemical and electrical changes in the brain. Others suggest that sound waves in developing tissue cause neurons to migrate (Lancet, 1992; 339: 85-9).
So far, leukaemia research shows that cavitation can help to disintegrate the membranes of cancerous cells (Int J Radiat Biol, 1994; 66: 221-8). Cavitation is also thought to stimulate the production of immune system T cells and to release endorphins, hormones involved in coping with stress and modulating pain perception.

We know that bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are capable of soundwave intensities that can create cavitation, but this may not be the whole story.

Another possibility is 'resonant entrainment'-analogous to when one tuning fork hits a pitch, causing other tuning forks to vibrate at the same frequency.

The "Hello, Dolphin" project in Key Largo, FL, showed that bottlenose dol-phins produce low-frequency electro-magnetic (EM) waves (Presented at the International Symposium on Dolphin Assisted Therapy, Cancun, Mexico, September 8-10, 1995). In this experiment, special wide-band sensor and recording equipment was used to record all of the signals emanating from the dolphins, as well as the brain frequencies of the children participating in the study.

When the dolphins were present, an extremely low-frequency signal around 16 Hz was recorded in nearly three-fourths of all the trials the researchers performed. On examining the brain recordings of the children, they saw profound brainwave shifts to a predominant frequency near 16 Hz after interactions with the dolphins. From this, they concluded that dolphins sense human electrical fields and are trying to communicate at the same frequencies.

However, one troublesome aspect of DAT is exploitation: the dolphins may be healing us, but at a cost. Dolphins in captivity live for only four or five years compared with an average lifespan of 45 years in the wild. Dolphins also drastically curtail their use of sonar in captivity largely because, otherwise, the signals bounce off the walls of their holding tanks and confuse them. As Dolphin Project International has described it, it's as if a person is living in a prison cell with mirrored walls.

The answer to this is a Virtual Reality Dolphin Encounter (VRDE), which tries to recreate the auditory and visual experience of a dolphin encounter in the participant's head.

Nevetheless, while it may ultimately be kinder for us to conduct dolphin research virtually, we still need to have a clearer understanding of the EM effects of dolphins before we can recreate the actual experience on PlayStation.

Lynne McTaggart

DAT websites

o can help to establish a rehabilitation programme for those with disability, depression and other special needs;
o offers extensive information on DAT research;
o offers programmes at 'DolphinLand' near Antalya, Turkey, specifically for eating-disorder sufferers;
o offers holidays in the Mexican Caribbean with various interactive swimming events with dolphins;
o offers teaching aids and virtual dolphin systems, portable plastic structures containing dolphin sounds and images.

WDDTY VOL. 21 NO. 11

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