Study finds sound-based meditation quiets the mind faster

Silhouette of a person sitting – assumably meditating — while looking at a fading sun on the horizon.

SF State researchers compared meditation techniques to see which helped users best avoid distractions

Disruptive thoughts during attempts to meditate are so common they have a name: “monkey mind” (because the brain can’t stay still). Ironically, a new San Francisco State University study suggests that the best way for thwarted meditators to quiet their monkey minds is to make a little noise.

The popular meditation technique known as “mindfulness” tries to guide practitioners to a peaceful, serene state by encouraging them to observe their thoughts without judgement or attachment. But the San Francisco State study suggests that people who practice toning — vocalizing long, sustained sounds as a form of meditation — have significantly fewer intrusive thoughts than those practicing mindfulness.

The study was co-authored by SF State faculty and student researchers from the Department of Recreation, Parks, Tourism and Holistic Health along with University alumnus and sound healer Madhu Anziani (B.A., ’10). Professor of Holistic Health Erik Peper, the lead researcher of the study, says most meditation practices tend to focus on an approach that’s primarily thought-based, but for some people, this can make them overwhelmed. Toning is a great meditation alternative because the sound vibrates in the body and blocks distracting thoughts, Peper explained.

“Think about when you’re upset. Telling yourself to stop being upset often doesn’t work because your mind is focused on how upset you are,” Peper said. “But if you focus on something other than your thoughts and emotions, the feelings of being upset often subside.”

The study, published in the journal NeuroRegulation in early September, compared the experiences of toning and mindfulness among 91 undergraduate students. While sitting comfortably in class, all participants practiced mindfulness and toning for three minutes each. After each meditation practice, the students rated mind wandering, occurrence of intrusive thoughts and sensations of vibration on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (all the time). Students also rated changes in peacefulness, relaxation, stress, warmth, anxiety and depression before and after each practice. 

Researchers found participants reported significantly less mind wandering and intrusive thinking during toning compared to mindfulness. Also, 30% of participants with the highest self-reported rating of depression found toning was significantly more effective in reducing mind wandering and intrusive thoughts compared to mindfulness. “What we’re seeing is toning replace negative and hopeless thoughts,” Peper said.

Eleven participants were also monitored for respiration, blood volume pulse and heart rate. The researchers found a significant increase in heart rate variability (HRV), a measurement of the variation in time between each heartbeat, when toning compared to practicing mindfulness. Peper said these findings were a pleasant surprise because other studies have found a correlation between high HRV and lower levels of anxiety and depression as well as lower risks of cardiovascular disease and death.

Another important finding was the remarkable difference in respiration rate. The average for toning was 4.6 breaths per minute compared to 11.6 breaths per minute. Slower, deeper breaths have been shown to help people relax by reducing the stress hormone cortisol.

With mindfulness gaining popularity recently, Peper believes there is a misconception that it is the only approach to meditation. “Toning is a quick and powerful tool that can either be an alternative to mindfulness or used in tandem for maximum effectiveness,” he said.

Assistant Professors of Recreation, Parks & Tourism Aiko Yoshino and Jennifer Daubenmier, Assistant Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey and undergraduate student Weston Pollack contributed to the study.