Researchers at Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow, India have confirmed that listening to the sound of OM activates the areas of the brain involved in emotional empathy and relaxes the parts of the brain used in everyday functioning.
“Listening to the OM sound activates areas of the bilateral cerebellum, left middle frontal gyrus and right precuneus…Listening to OM recruits neural systems implicated in emotional empathy,” said Uttam Kumar of the Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow, India.
The study, which was published in February in the journal of Cognition and Emotion, used MRI scanners to monitor the brain activity of 21 men. Three sound conditions were compared – the ancient chant of OM, a similar but non-meaningful sound condition [the sound TOM] and the meaningful sound condition [the Hindi word AAM]. The behaviour interleaved gradient technique was employed in order to avoid interference of scanner noise.
The results revealed that listening to the sound of OM in contrast to the meaningful Hindi word condition activated areas of bilateral cerebellum, left middle frontal gyrus [dorsolateral middle frontal], right precuneus and right supramarginal gyrus. Listening to the sound of OM in contrast to the non-meaningful sound condition led to cortical activation in the bilateral middle frontal right middle temporal, right angular gyrus, right supramarginal gyrus and right superior middle frontal gyrus.
What is OM?
The sound of OM [or AUM] is of Hindu origin but is also sacred in Buddhism and Jainism. Today the sound of OM is chanted during yoga classes as an opening and closing practice. Hindus believe that during creation, the divine consciousness took the form of the first primordial vibration manifesting as the sound OM. OM is featured in all the Upanishads – the ancient Indian spiritual texts.
In Hindi the three sounds A [a-kāra], U [u-kāra], M [ma-kāra] make up the sound AUM. A-kara translates as form or shape such as the trees or any other object. U-kāra means formless or shapeless like water, air or fire. Ma-kāra means neither with shape or shapeless but still existing, such as Universal energy.
Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra – the foundational texts of Ashtanga or Raja yoga, taught that when we chant the sacred sound of OM and simultaneously contemplate the meaning of it, our consciousness becomes one-pointed and prepared for meditation. Commenting on the Yoga Sutra, the ancient sage Vyasa said that through chanting OM, “the supreme soul is revealed.”