I recently finished a book by Dr. Esther Sternberg titled Healing Places: The Science of Place and Well-Being. In it she explores the science behind why certain places – places as divergent as Lourdes in France and a well-designed and light-filled nursing home in Connecticut – promote healing. What she writes about are largely things that people have known intuitively for most of human history. Natural beauty, sunlight, the comfort of those things which connect with our happy memories, and the stimulation of new experiences – all of these things are healing. What research is now proving, however, is that positive emotions trigger the release of nerve chemicals and hormones which in turn help immune cells to fight disease. Other studies have shown similar effects from meditating and from making music.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned from Dr. Sternberg’s book is that the often-derided “placebo effect” is in fact a valuable tool for healing. If we FEEL better because we are in a garden or hearing music or connecting with a community, then we ARE better.
Articles about the health benefits of making music in general and singing in particular appear regularly, and make the rounds among musicians as proof that what we do has merit. I’ve never really felt a need for proof, but if parents are encouraged to make room for music in their children’s lives as a path to a more complete, and more completely intelligent, child, then let the science speak! There was a study some years ago that followed 300 adults, half of whom sang in a choir. The singers reported fewer falls and greater improvement in measures of depression, loneliness and morale. The control group did not fare so well. None of this is a surprise, I hope, to people who already sing in a choir.
One of the things that touched me most is that Dr. Sternberg, a Jewish woman, saw through the hype and tacky sideshow aspect many associate with the French town of Lourdes, known as the site for a young girl’s visions of Mary and as a place of healing – or as many believe, of false hope. Sternberg saw love, compassion and acceptance at work among the healers and those seeking healing. She noted that the physical terrain around Lourdes served as a way to enter into another world and at the same time to “step from inside yourself to the world you share with others.” Would that everyone could open themselves to the healing powers of faith and prayer and music. Would that everyone could find a healing place in their lives.