If you know something about neuroscience, help me out here. I had something kind of interesting happen to me today, and I can’t figure out why these sounds had the effect that they did. My oldest son and I stopped by Ten Thousand Villages, a pretty great store that sells fairly-traded handicrafts from artisans around the world. They had several Nepalese singing bowls for sale there, like this one. They’re basically upended bells that you strike with a mallet of some sort. I didn’t know how to play them, and listening to YouTube videos (e.g., this one) of them played as their meant to be played — to maintain a constant pitch — really isn’t pleasant to my ear. But I tell you, on a couple of these singing bowls in the store, when we struck them as if they were bells — that is, one strike, but no moving the mallet around the rim to manipulate the sound — the effect they had one both of us was a little eerie.

“That’s a really pure sound, isn’t it?” my son said. Yes, it was. It was … well, it was unlike any sound I can remember hearing. It had an effect that was slightly narcotic, and it affected both of us this way. It was like the cleanest sound ever, and it seemed to be hyperreal — I mean, realer than real. I struggle to explain the effect this sound had on us, because it sounds so goony, but I’m telling you, it really happened. I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon, trying to imagine why the vibrations and the frequency of this particular piece of metal had the emotional and physiological effect that it did on my son and me. Matt and I tried to articulate to each other the way the sound of those bells made us feel, but we both felt stupid trying to talk about it. The best I could come up with was that the sound produced a sensation of calmness, of serenity, and of deep order. It was as if the resonant bowl had a presence. 

I recalled later today an amazing story that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009 (behind the paywall) about the repatriation of the famous Danilov bells to the Russian Orthodox Church from Harvard, where they had been since being purchased by an American philanthropist in the 1930s. Because of this, they are one of the few sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells in existence. Here’s a TV report about them.  Russians imbue bells with mystical powers, it seems:

In Russian history and culture, church bells occupy a mysteriously important position. Their tolling, Father Roman said, has been known to bring hard-hearted people to repentance, and to dissuade would-be murderers and suicides. Whereas Western European bells are tuned to produce familiar major and minor chords, a Russian bell is prized for its individual, untuned voice, producing rhythmic layered peals. Russian bells are given names like Swan, Bear, or Sheep, and are considered to be capable of suffering.

The singing bowls are used in Buddhist prayer and meditation. Leaving aside any mystical element in any of this, I wonder if neuroscience can tell us anything about possible physiological effects bell-ringing might have. Matthew and I listened to YouTube videos of singing bowls, and agreed that the effect was completely absent when listening to the sound artificially reproduced.

Is it just us, or is there something to sound and physiology that might explain the weirdly hypnotic effect of the singing bowls on us? I wonder how subjective this is, simply because Matthew and I both have sensory processing disorder to a certain degree — him much more than I — which makes us have exaggerated responses to sensory stimulation. For example, there are certain tastes and aromas that have an immediate and profound effect on us both, when others barely notice.

UPDATE: An Orthodox friend e-mails this Russian Orthodox order for the blessing of bells. Yeah, they take their bells seriously in Russia. One of the prayers goes like this:

O Lord our God, Who desirest always to be glorified and worshiped by all Thy faithful: In the Old Covenant, Thou didst command Thy servant, the Lawgiver Moses, to make silver trumpets, and the sons of Aaron, the priests, to blow them when they would offer sacrifice unto Thee, that Thy people, having heard the voice of the trumpets, would prepare themselves to worship Thee, that they might gather themselves together to offer sacrifices unto Thee, and, with the resounding voice of these trumpets in time of war, they might arm themselves with might for victory over their enemies:

Now, O most holy Master, humbly we beseech Thee: Look down mercifully on the fervent supplication of us, Thine unworthy servants, and upon this bell, fashioned for the service of Thy holy Church, and to the glory of Thy magnificent and all-holy Name:

With Thy heavenly blessing and the grace of the Thine All-consecrating Spirit, do Thou bless (+) it and consecrate it, and send down upon it the power of Thy grace,

That Thy faithful servants, having heard the voice of its peal, may be strengthened in piety and faith, and with courage, may oppose all the slanders of the devil, and overcome them by prayer and by the everlasting glorification of Thee, the True God,

That with haste, day and night, they might be led to the church in prayer and glorification of Thy holy Name.

May storms, hail, whirlwinds, fearful thunder and lightning, evil and destructive winds befalling them be appeased, calmed and made to cease at its ringing.

For Thou, O Lord our God use not only spiritual and living things for Thy glory and for the salvation and use of Thy faithful, but also inanimate things, such as the Staff of Moses and the Bronze Serpent in the Wilderness, for as Thou dost desire, Thou dost work most glorious things and perform miracles.

For everything is possible for Thee, and nothing is impossible; and unto Thee do we send up glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.