Can harp music heal a diseased heart?

Here’s a cool experiment: A cardiac electrophysiologist is investigating whether you can calm a recovering heart-surgery patient by playing live harp music. A lovely story in today’s New York Times reports on a four-week study currently underway, in which harpist Alix Weisz wanders through a cardiac recovery unit in Chester, NJ, playing music — while doctors check to see if it helps regularize the patients’ heartbeats or other vital signs.

Apparently the patients dig it quite a lot; as one notes:

“When I was coming out of it, I was filled with tubes — a throat tube, an oxygen tube — and it was very hard to breathe,” Mr. Moran said. “You feel you’re going to gag. The music calmed my body and allowed me to stop thinking about what was going on. It allowed me to feel more relaxed and rested.”

Of course, doctors have long anecdotally supsected that music can help calm patients down. But as I discovered when I started Googling this a bit, there’s a ton of interesting research underway that is tentatively finding that music can help calm down even unconcious patients. Though the Times story doesn’t mention him directly, I think the Chester study is being done by Abraham Kocheril, a cardiac researcher who last year played harp music for patients under anesthesia and found that it appeared to regularize their heartbeats — making an unhealthy heart function more like a healthy one and, presumably, improving the patients’ chances on the operating table. (There’s a good CNN story about his work here.)

Another researcher, Harvard’s Ary Goldberg, argued that there are fractal features common to both music and the human heartbeat, and that music can help tune the heart by rebooting with healthy fractal noise — allowing it to respond with more dynamism to a bigger array of physical challenges.

(Funny side story: When I did a Google search for “‘Ary Goldberg’ music”, I noticed that the seventh link was to … Collision Detection. Wha? I hadn’t recalled ever posting about him. But when I clicked on the link I discovered that Dusty Bear, a regular commenter on this site, had namechecked Goldberger back in March when I wrote about an album of music made from the stock market.

Heh. Talk about fractal patterns, eh?)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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