14.05.19

How psychedelic sound can heal the mind

Brain Image

Anna Mitchell experiences how sound and light are being harnessed in a quest for well-being when she heads to Wavepaths Brick Lane, London.

Not many audio installations are accompanied by their own trained psychotherapist, but then not many audio installations are designed by Mendel Kaelen, an academic researcher that specialises in psychedelic therapy. 

It’s important to note here that psychedelic is formed from two Greek words: “psyche” meaning “mind,” and “delos” meaning “manifesting,”. The word literally means “mind manifesting”, not necessarily a category of drugs – although Kaelen’s past research has looked at LSD and psilocybin ( or magic mushrooms).

Kaelen has a strong belief in the healing power of music and this is where Wavepaths comes in. The Wavepaths Space is a facility, on Brick Lane in the East End of London, that integrates scientific insights into the therapeutic potential of music.

Half hour- and hour-long sessions were completely sold out for Wavepaths’ 10-week run in Brick Lane, perhaps underlining how many people are looking for time out from hectic schedules. It’s also a research facility with sessions reserved for Kaelen’s team’s work.

And I was about to give it a go. 

The only indication that I was in the right place was the tiny Wavepaths sign, above a door, that you would otherwise assume was the entrance to someone’s flat. Upon entering you are asked to leave coat, phone, shoes and bags in small waiting area, before entering the first room.

It’s here that you sit with the psychotherapist guide as a soothing light installation gently transforms the space periodically. There’s freedom to use this first part of the session as you wish but it’s also where you talk through stated goals with the psychotherapist guide.

You then enter an immersive sound environment. Audio was created for Wavepaths by collaborating artists including Jon Hopkins, Greg Haines, Alio Die, Steve Roach, and Brian Eno and is designed to target specific emotional and psychological processes. Using an advanced ultra wide band (UWB) impluse radar system on chip, Wavepaths can track human presence and monitor respiration to deliver a personalised soundscape via L-Acoustic’s L-ISA immersive sound technology. Operating below 10GHz, the radar tracks through the comprehensive soundproofing in the space, while at the same time not being affected by the music being played.

Psychedelic sound

Kaelen's team had explored innovations in sound system technologies that could support their aims to deliver exceptionally high standards in musical immersion before discovering L-ISA.

Paul McMullan, sales manager at L-Acoustics, adds: “Mendel and his team were introduced to us through a joint contact, Robert Thomas, an adaptive music composer and sound designer who has created content for the L-ISA Blububble format.”

McMullan adds that audio quality was of “paramount importance” to the success of the Wavepaths space in creating an immersive and beautiful experience.

I can’t argue. I hadn’t booked or paid for the session, I wasn’t looking for therapy. I was purely on a research mission. But, despite my best journalistic detachment, in the darkened room, completely wrapped in the soundscape I started to genuinely relax. If the sound had been less enveloping or of a poorer quality I don’t believe it would have achieved the same effect.

After getting L-Acoustics involved in the project it wasn’t all plain sailing. “Timescales were incredibly tight with the planned opening of Brick Lane two weeks after our initial meeting in Highgate [London] at the L-ISA Labs,” says McMullan.

Delta Sound worked with L-Acoustics to deliver the system and McMullan adds: “Fortunately, Delta Sound have a wealth of experience in using L-ISA technologies and are highly adept at moving quickly in deploying rental systems. In addition, both Jeff Woodford [application engineer at L-Acoustics] and Sherif el Barbari [director of L-ISA Labs] were able to put the system design together in a matter of days.”

The small space did cause a few challenges with subwoofer positioning, which were overcome by placing it inside the Space and turning down its volume.

McMullan adds that L-Acoustic’s Soundvision 3D sound design program was able to directly import from the Sketchup model supplied by the Wavepaths team, which helped speed up the process.

“It’s important to broaden the sphere of utilisation of L-ISA,” he continues.

“We have had huge success in live performance and creative applications. Sound art installations and wellbeing centres are other interesting avenues to explore. The Wavepaths project provided an interesting challenge in how we can connect and interface with third party technology from different disciplines.”

Feeling strangely relaxed, I emerged from the immersive audio room and back into the first space. You are given time to discuss the experience with the guide, or just sit in silence if you prefer. I suspect it also acts as a sort of decompression chamber, a link between the darkened, audio filled space and the real world. Still, as you surface back into the busy London street you feel like you’re returning from somewhere else.

I emerged to meet Jeff Woodford, the L-Acoustic’s application engineer instrumental in setting up the space. We were soon hunched over his laptop as he took me through the system design and where each of the 25 loudspeakers and one surround subwoofer were positioned in the tight space.

It was back to reality as the abstract was brought back into the actuality of the physical installation. And then Woodford was off for his own Wavepaths experience. Despite his intimate knowledge of the technology and the set up he’d never been on the other side of the installation. I wondered where his journey would take him and whether he’d be thinking about speaker placement… or something more meditative.

Wavepaths Space isn’t a one off. Kaelen is said to be a firm believer in the healing power of sound and music and the team has plans for more wellbeing centres, likely to take the “pop up” form of the Brick Lane facility, as well as permanent installations.  L-Acoustics is looking forward to continuing the journey with them.