Body Beat

Anthropology graduate student Chelsea Strayer finds that drumming encourages relaxation response. Her story was featured in the spring of 2010 on the Boston University College of Arts and Sciences website.

“People often look at alternative medicine as quackery,” says Chelsea Strayer (GRS’12), a doctoral candidate in anthropology. “They think it’s all in the patient’s head and that nothing is actually happening that will benefit the patient.”

Strayer disagrees. She has worked with the Asante people of Ghana for the past seven years and has found evidence that their healing rituals lower stress levels, allowing the body to become more relaxed.

Her research examines how Asante rituals like drumming elicit a “relaxation response,” a physiological reaction to external stimuli that helps the body cope with stress, both physical and emotional. Under stress, she says, biological systems, such as the immune system, the circulatory system, and the digestive system, can become dysfunctional, because the body’s resources are focused on the voluntary muscles that aid in fight or flight. The relaxation response is the body’s way of getting those more complicated processes back on track.

That’s one reason, says Strayer, that the Asante have incorporated ritual drumming into their traditional healing ceremony. During a healing ceremony, she says, they drum for 30 to 60 minutes, an exercise intended to call down the Asante gods and invite other villagers to join in.

“We know from music therapy research,” she says, “that polyrhythmic drumming can actually elicit a parasympathetic, or relaxed, state, which combats the stress response and can lead to healing.”

Strayer measures the symptomatic response — such as heart rate and blood pressure — of participants during different parts of the ritual. She hopes her research will help make alternative medicine less exotic and perhaps lead to the incorporation of traditional healing techniques into Western medicine.

“Every time someone goes to the physical therapist,” she says, “we know that they respond better if they are relaxed. What people don’t understand is that the same physiological mechanisms that are working in a hospital in Boston are at work in Asante traditional healing.”


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