BOOK REVIEW: Sound Medicine by Kulreet Chaudhary

Sound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and BodySound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and Body by Kulreet Chaudhary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


The Longfellow poem “There Was a Little Girl” has a line that says, “…When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid.” That’s kind of how I felt about this book. At its best, it reports findings about how practices involving sound (i.e. mantra chanting) effect health and well-being, and lends insight into why sound sooths. At its worst, it tries to sledgehammer the square peg religious / spiritual practices into the round hole of quantum physics and foundational physics, often engaging in leaps that are at best wildly speculative, while presenting them as though they are as likely as not.

My favorite professor from undergraduate studies was a folksy Religious Studies Professor who cautioned against two opposing fallacies. The first he called “the outhouse fallacy.” This is assuming that because people of the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots. Let me first say that, until recently, yoga (and other complementary health practices) suffered its fair share from this fallacy among doctors and the scientific community who felt that it couldn’t possibly help with health and well-being because it wasn’t rooted in the latest scientific findings. However, there is an opposing fallacy that my teacher called the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which assumes the ancients figured it all out and we are just bumbling around in the dark hoping to stumble back into what they once knew. Scientists are prone to the first fallacy and the second is rife among religious folk. As a medical doctor who turned to siddha yoga (a form that puts a great deal of belief in superpowers and magic), Chaudhary had a rough road to not fall into one of these fallacies and, in my opinion, she falls more into the second — sounding at times like the ancient yogis knew more about the subatomic world and consciousness than science ever will. Most of the time, she words statements so that a careful reader can recognize what is well-supported and what is speculative, but she’s rarely explicit about the degree to which speculations are such, and I don’t remember an instance in which she presented an alternative that would undermine her argument. (i.e. The unstated argument seems to be that mantra is special among practices, that its usefulness is embedded in the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and, therefore, that it works by mechanisms unlike other meditative / complementary health practices [i.e. by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so the body can make repairs using established biological mechanisms.])

In a nutshell, there is a “god in the gaps” approach to the book that says, look we don’t understand consciousness or all the “whys” of quantum mechanics, ergo there must be supernatural explanations. I don’t think that because we’ve used EEG since the 1920’s and fMRIs since the 1990’s and still haven’t yet unraveled the hard problem of consciousness that we need to say that god / supernatural forces are where we must look for explanation. The gap is ever closing, slowly but surely, and there’s no reason to believe it’s reasonable or useful to cram commentary from Vedas (or any other scriptures) to fill the gap.

It’s not only the science where Chaudhary presents a belief as though it is established truth without alternative explanations. Early on, she states that colonization is the reason for the decline of meditation in India. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as accepting that colonization resulted in a great number of evils as anyone, but it’s a leap to say that – therefore – every negative a society faces is because of its colonizer. I would point to Thailand, a society that was never colonized (except a brief period by the Burmese) and which is primarily made up of Theravadan Buddhists (a system for which meditative practice is considered central,) most of whom also do not meditate regularly today. I suspect a more logical explanation for the fact that most Indians don’t meditate today is that: a.) it’s hard work and time consuming (as a productive endeavor it’s not bread-winning and as a leisure time activity it’s laborious,) and b.) the majority of Indians (like the majority of Thais) probably never mediated. (When we look back in time, we often want to create this wholesome and uniform image that what we have writings about was how everyone lived, and that probably never reflects the truth.)

So now that my rant is over, I should say that I didn’t think this book was horrible, by any means. It has a lot of good information, and some of the speculative bits offer interesting food for thought. As long as one reads it carefully and with a healthy dose of skepticism, it’s a beneficial consideration of sound and vibration in health and well-being. It’s just that when I compare it to, say, Davidson and Goleman’s “The Science of Meditation” (which I reviewed recently) this book is far less careful about presenting the science, eliminating pseudo-science, and letting the reader know what is controversial and speculative versus what is well-supported by sound and rigorous investigation.

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5 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Sound Medicine by Kulreet Chaudhary

  1. A good review and firly even handed despite your voiced skepticism. While I can’t vouch for the author’s claims (esp not having read the book). I’d keep them in the realm of speculation vs fantasy. Sound can do alot of weird things. It can hatter glass (and other material with enough volume), boil water, etc… A kiai has been shown to increase power, It can have a powerful effect on mood also, even without getting into music. ELF (extreme low frequency) has been a psychological warfare tool experimented with by at least the US and Russia. So, who knows what we’ll discover in the future. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the insights. To be clear, I’m not skeptical that mantra meditation has positive effects on health and well-being. I think it does. Where my skepticism lies is in that it operates uniquely at some deeper level that makes it universally more effective than other complementary health practices [deeper than biological.] (By “universally” I mean that while it’s true that it works better for some just because fits with their nature as individuals, I don’t think there’s any reason to think that it can do what other practices do not because it — unlike them — works on a level much deeper than the biological (i.e. the level of fundamental forces and particles.)) That said, I can be convinced through the accumulation of evidence. To be fair, I do agree with the author that it’s an uphill climb to build such evidence because scientific funders are not likely to hand grants to proposals with words like “chakra” in them, and those that do are likely to automatically be dismissed as biased. My problem is not that the author presents these speculative explanations, but that when she’s doesn’t clearly clue readers into what is controversial and what the alternative explanations are, she appears to be more in the business of building a case for scriptural explanations than in offering a true accounting of mantra and health. I agree that it’s possible some of her speculations will prove true, but I think the odds are against it. Like I say, while I can accept ancient yogis did have unprecedented depth of experience of practices by virtue of commitment to intense practice in a less chaotic environment, I have difficulty accepting that they understood the quantum world and fundamental forces better than the scientists of today. The author moves fluidly from roughly accurate descriptions of quantum entanglement to spiritual ideas about everything being entangled, which is a big leap. There is a great chapter on the biological level (I think it was Ch. 2,) but then things get more dicey.

      Liked by 1 person

    • When she’s speaking on the biological level, I think the information is good and interesting. But on a physics level she engages in some odd leaps that are definitely popular among the Deepak Chopra quasi-scientific types. The one I mentioned is the god in the gaps argument — i.e. since we don’t understand something fully yet that must be where the supernatural and god fits. The other is the “quantum mechanics is bizarre and (on some level) ill-understood and my thing is strange, confusing, and vaguely described, ergo — they must be the same.” It’s somewhere between Lissa Rankin and Deepak Chopra in approach.


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