Jumping off of Radiolab for the second time this week (as I’ve been listening to it rather obsessively), I’m meditating today on the concepts of sound and touch – both of which are essential to Rubenfeld Synergy Method – and learning that they are more powerfully related than one might think.
Ilana Rubenfeld, the founder of this work, was a musician and symphonic conductor; sound was, for a time, arguably more important to her than anything. After decades of study and therapeutic work, after developing her own method of healing synthesizing elements of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, Gestalt Therapy and Ericksonian hypnosis, she finally put out a book describing her methods and called it The Listening Hand.
But what if, as this Radiolab segment, called “Sound as Touch,” proposes, there is also such a thing as “The Touching Sound”?
In a cross-cultural study of parents and babies, psychologist Anne Fernald noticed that the tendency to talk to babies in a certain way is universal – which anyone who has been around babies at all could tell you. But more than that: she discovered that there are a few universal “melodies” of speech – whatever language you are speaking – that indicate comfort, approval, and reproach. Parents and caregivers were especially likely to begin using this type of melodic, “goochie goochie” talk when they were out of physical contact with the infant – instinctively using sound when they cannot communicate with touch.
Further study of the way the ear and the brain process sounds reveals that sound, as Fernald explains, is “like touch at a distance”; we are literally touched by the vibrations, which explains, beyond the metaphor, why we can be so emotionally touched by music.
This further illustrates to me the importance, in our work, of using talk and touch together – and of tone, which we studied extensively in the training. Even beyond the age of infancy, when words cannot be understood, tone of voice tends to be more important to communication than the words you use. This is because sound literally enters the ears as a kind of touch – a touch that can be as comforting, as moving, as invasive, or as damaging as a physical contact.
When a Synergist reverses this idea and thinks of touching as a kind of listening, then what we can “hear” through the tone of a person’s body can become as crucial as what the client is saying to us. Sometimes they are saying the same thing; sometimes they are in conflict, and that incongruity is where healing can begin. It is in cultivating both kinds of hearing – and both kinds of touching – that we develop our skills, and can be of real help to people.