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Grad student finds that drumming encourages relaxation response


“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 simuli 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.”

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.


8 Comments on Body Beat

  • Anonymous on 05.01.2008 at 9:00 am

    good jod on this work comgratulation

  • Mo on 05.01.2008 at 9:48 am


    I wonder about the time frame for the acceptance of these traditional healing techniques in Western medicine. Unfortunately, alternative medicine is still considered as a second opinion, or last ditch chance, when the benefits of a co-operative relationship with traditional and Western methods might provide patients with desired results.

    I might add that you may not want to “make alternative medicine less exotic” as that may be one of it’s strongest selling points. It is exotic AND it works, that’s marketing genius.

  • Anonymous on 05.01.2008 at 12:04 pm

    finally! a student studying something useful. thank you for your insight, and i hope you’re able to pull this into some of the most stressful places in the US — hospitals, and doc’s offices.

  • Carrie on 05.01.2008 at 2:47 pm

    Chelsea Strayer

    Remember that name. She’s going to be this generation’s Margaret Mead :)

  • John Stan on 02.28.2010 at 10:03 am

    This is really a good post, but only half of it seems to be showing – it cuts off mid-sentance, any ideas what has happened?

  • Tina on 02.28.2010 at 11:53 am

    Perfect! Kinda makes me wish I was this good at marketing hehe.

  • DrumsLearnToPlay on 09.15.2010 at 7:54 am


    That was a very interesting video. I didnt realize drumming was a source of the healing process and how the Asante rituals like drumming elicit “the relaxation response. Very imormative article thanks for posting.

  • Okomfo Ama Boakyewa on 07.20.2013 at 7:07 pm

    Love your work! My dissertation is on the priesthood as the central provider of healthcare and social justice at the Akonnedi Shrine complex in Larteh,Ghana…I am citing your article “Evaluating Biomedical and Ethnomedical Health Care Models in Ghana”…. I concur with many of your conclusions…we should talk…

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