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Tomatis, the Irrepressible Pioneer

October 13, 2016 | Sound Therapy, Tinnitus, Tomatis

The International Tinnitus Seminar held in Freemantle in 2001 saw three hundred tinnitus researchers from around the world exchanging results and discussing the latest theories on dealing with this baffling condition. (ringing in the ears.) The conference passed the resolution that never again should a person be told by their doctor that nothing can be done for tinnitus. Sound Therapy International is still working to attain this aim.

Dr Norman Doidges latest book The Brain’s Way of Healing gives an excellent overview of Dr Tomatis’s remarkable work.

The Ebook by Rafaele Joudry, Triumph Over Tinnitus, outlines many treatment options and gives a detailed account of the remarkable discoveries of the French ear doctor, Alfred Tomatis. This article is based on excerpts from the book.

Dr Tomatis was one of the remarkable pioneers of our time. An inventor, innovator and researcher, he gave us the practical application of Sound Therapy, a unique and valuable tool for healing and education.

Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, called him an irrepressible pioneer. Others have called him a genius. Another great man, Buckminster Fuller, says “There is no such thing as a genius, some of us are just less damaged than others.” If this is so, Ferguson suggests, Tomatis is one of the less damaged. To be so, after the trials and vicissitudes of his background is testament to the optimism and resilience of his inner nature.

Tomatis was born in Nice in 1919. His father was Nicoise and his mother Italian. His birth was apparently not wanted or anticipated. His mother was only 16 years old and had done everything to hide or suppress the growth of the baby, including wearing the restrictive corsets of the time. Tomatis was born two and a half months premature and weighed just under three pounds. The midwife took one look at him and immediately discarded him in a waste basket, believing he was dead.

Tomatis would never have lived were it not for his paternal grandmother who had herself borne 24 children and had much wisdom on matters of birth and life. She retrieved him from the basket and revived him.

Tomatis says that he owes his later work on the importance of prenatal life to his own painful beginning. He believes this engendered his desire to search for and understand that lost nirvana of the womb from which he was ejected too soon.

Tomatis’s first language was Nicoise, a fifteenth century language which had more in common with local Italian dialects than with French. He did not become fluent in French until his early teens. He did very poorly in his early schooling due to an unstable home life and repeated childhood illnesses. Tomatis’s relationship with his mother was fraught with difficulty and lack of rapport. Her family background was one of superstition and poor linguistic ability. Her only area of excellence was her cooking.

She saw Tomatis as an obstacle to her closeness with his father, as he restricted her ability to travel with her husband on his many tours as a celebrated singer. Yet Tomatis, far from taking a victim stance in relation to this poor maternal bond, instead expresses gratitude for the insight this difficult relationship gave him and how it later fuelled and informed his pioneering work in the field of psychology.

His father, on the other hand was the source of many of Tomatis’s exceptional character traits and the parent who gave him his sense of personal value as well as both the emotional and practical support to excel in life. Tomatis writes in his autobiography, “I always considered my father an exceptional being with whom I communicated well and shared a close understanding…he was an ear, a listener who was always ready to hear me with true attention.”

Perhaps it was the great contrast between one parent who could listen and one who could not that gave Tomatis his deep insights into the importance of listening.

Another great source of inspiration to Dr Tomatis was a doctor who was called to treat him during one of his many childhood illnesses. At the time he was suffering from three fevers which he had contracted simultaneously, typhoid, Maltese fever and typhus murin. A parade of doctors had failed to diagnose his condition so finally the well-respected Dr Carpocino was called. After examining Tomatis he pronounced “I don’t know what is the matter with him. I must search for the answer.”

He did indeed search and succeeded in diagnosing and treating the small boy. It was his statement “I must search” which had the most profound effect on Tomatis’s development and career choice, for from that moment on he decided to do the same. He would become a doctor so that he could search for answers to what he did not know. Tomatis pursued his education with his characteristic determination and succeeded eventually in being qualified in the specialty of ENT (Ear Nose and Throat surgery.)

After World war II he pursued his longstanding desire to enter the field of medical research. His choice of specialty was stimulated once again by his love and admiration for his father. He had observed singer friends of his father’s who had vocal problems which mystified the doctors of the day. He hoped that he could help them so he decided to go into ear nose and throat medicine (ENT). His dream was to aid singers who had damaged or lost their voices.

On completing his ENT studies the only way that he could begin doing research was to acquire his own rooms and fund and set up his own clinical laboratory, which is exactly what he did. Operating on a shoestring, he started amassing clinical data on audiometric tests. He focused on aeroplane mechanics, many of whom had worked in highly detrimental sound environments during the war.

After testing in several different situations, Tomatis noticed that the same subjects produced different audiometric results depending on their beliefs about the possible implications for their career. In situations where they feared job loss, their hearing results came out quite well, but there was unprecedented change when they had heard news that hearing damage could result in a good pension. Tomatis writes, “I was surprised to discover that a perfectly sincere individual, but one who wanted to be diagnosed as deaf, was able to lower his auditory threshold by ten, twenty and even thirty decibels.” He was convinced from comparing these results with his interview experience that these motivations were entirely subconscious.

It was now that it struck him that in order to “find out what he did not know” in his medical field he would also have to investigate psychology. He was shocked to realise the huge lack of psychological content in his medical training.

Meanwhile Tomatis’s father had begun referring singers to his son, and he began prodding around in the singing literature attempting to unravel the mysteries of the voice. At the time the prevailing theory was that the voice was controlled by the larynx and if the singer could not reach a particular note it was due to a malfunction of the larynx. Initially Tomatis prescribed strychnine, the standard medical treatment for overstretched vocal chords, and also male hormones, a favourite of wartime medicine. This appeared to be working until two of his patients “choked” on the stage.

Now Tomatis had a flash of intuition which was the key to his first major discovery. He decided to subject the singers to audiometric tests, the same that he had been administering to those people with occupational deafness. He noticed a surprising similarity in the audiometric curves. Could it be, he asked, that the singers had deafened themselves with their own, loud voices? By measuring the intensity of their voices with a sonometer he established that powerful singers could reach 130 or 140 decibels, certainly enough to cause deafness with continued exposure! Especially since 130 decibels at a metre’s distance represents 150 decibels inside ones skull!

Tomatis concluded from the evidence he gathered that the voice was controlled not by the larynx but by the ear. He was able to verify from his test results that a scotoma (an absence of certain frequencies) in the audiogram exactly matches the same loss of frequencies in the voice. Thus in 1947 Tomatis came to the formulation of his first law “the voice only contains those frequencies that the ear can hear,” or as he liked to put it, “one sings with one’s ear.”

Tomatis had married by this time but, as he freely admits, the relationship was completely unfulfilling as there was no rapport between him and his wife. As he states in his autobiography, The Conscious Ear, “There was no love because there was no communication; there was no communication because there was no love.”

Tomatis therefore continued to lose himself in his work. He invented and manufactured a sonic analyser which enabled him to analyse the frequency distribution of a voice.

Tomatis’s next major discovery was that self listening and voice production is controlled by the right ear. This is because the passage of nerve impulses connecting the ear to the larynx and to the cranium is more direct on the right side of the body. The recurrent laryngeal nerves (belonging to the tenth pair of cranial nerves, the vagus) have to cover a longer route on the left side for two reasons. One is that they have to go around the heart. The other is that the central laryngeal motor area is situated in the left brain.

In other words, our main speech centre is in the left brain, and this is most directly reached via the right ear. Due to the cross-over of all nerve impulses between the brain and the body, the left ear communicates directly with the right brain while the right ear is wired straight to the left brain.

This means that the right ear has the more efficient route on two counts: for language reception and vocal production. Therefore it must direct. Tomatis says categorically that all great singers and musicians are right-ear dominant. He also states, and other learning specialists confirm his findings, that it is a requirement for efficient processing of language for any person that the right ear must lead. We function more efficiently if the right ear directs our listening.

Tomatis confirmed this discovery through experiments with singers. He found that when listening to their voices through the left ear, they lost a large part of their ability, were unable to follow the beat or to make their voice give out its true sound.

Tomatis discovered that Enrico Caruso, whom he considered the greatest singer of his time, owed his superb ability to a partial deafness in the right rear. Due to an operation that blocked his Eustacian tube, Caruso was deaf to the low frequencies in his own voice on the right side. The fact that he heard and reproduced only the high frequencies led to the superb and unique quality of his voice. As an experiment Tomatis decided to give this same listening structure to other singers. He was able to do this by retraining their self-listening with his special filtering device. Not only did it improve their voices but the patients unanimously declared that they felt much better after the treatment.

This led Tomatis to his realisation that we need to receive daily doses of high frequency sound in order to stimulate the cortex of the brain and replenish its energy stores. Tomatis said that we need to receive three thousand stimuli per second for four and a half hours per day in order for the brain to function at maximum potential.

This is perhaps the most important of his discoveries. High frequency sounds stimulate the brain while low frequencies deplete and diminish brain energy. If we receive the necessary daily input of high frequency, charging sounds, Tomatis found that creativity and thinking ability are enhanced, energy rises and depression is often alleviated.

During this period, Tomatis was developing the device which he eventually called the Electronic Ear. This machine had the capacity to feed back the subject’s voice with the frequencies altered so that they could hear themselves in the correct way. Thus their ear was reconditioned to accurate hearing, and the voice was also corrected. Later Tomatis found that he could achieve the same result by playing music through the Electronic Ear, specifically the music of Mozart. He found that provided the subject experienced these altered sounds repeatedly for a certain period of time, the effects would last.

In later years Tomatis trained many different practitioners to use his method and so it became available in about two hundred centres around the world, in addition to his centre in Paris.

Portable Sound Therapy

A portable version of the therapy was later developed in Canada by Patricia Joudry and was brought to Australia by her daughter, Rafaele Joudry in the late 1980s. Patricia was helped with her problem of hypersensitivity to sound, and the inability to follow a conversation in a noisy room, known as the cocktail party syndrome. The treatment also cured her chronic insomnia and exhaustion.

Once the portable system was released to the public, it became clear that in many cases, Sound Therapy brought relief for tinnitus sufferers. Because the program integrates brain functions it also helps with learning difficulties such as ADD, and functional problems of the central nervous system including autism and epilepsy.

Tomatis’s interpretation of tinnitus

Dr Tomatis saw tinnitus as a reaction of the brain to ear dysfunction. A cyclic system is established between the ear and brain, which reinforces and perpetuates itself. While the clinical Tomatis treatment is often not of sufficiently long duration to affect tinnitus, the portable therapy available from Sound Therapy International Pty Ltd has shown greater results in this area and is more cost effective.

At the International Tinnitus Seminar held in Freemantle in 2001, several leading researchers expressed interest in investigating the mechanism by which Sound Therapy works. The current most accepted treatment for tinnitus used in hospitals and specialist clinics is Tinnitus Retraining Therapy, (TRT) which includes cognitive and behavioural therapy in individual and group sessions to help the person habituate to the tinnitus, and is sometimes combined with noise generators to provide a soothing external sound.

Other practitioners recommend Sound Therapy which, using filtered classical music, gives a more pleasant and varied sound and is believed by some to work at several levels of the brain and nervous system. Rafaele Joudry, who has observed the effect of Sound Therapy on thousands of patients over the last twelve years says, “it is a simple, cost effective treatment which has many positive benefits. It improves energy levels, reduces stress, improves learning. I recommend it to anyone who has ears!”

Dr Tomatis died in 2001, but his discoveries made more than fifty years ago live on in fifty or more countries, and become more and more readily available with the greater access to technology, to portable equipment and the internet.

The books, Triumph Over Tinnitus or Sound Therapy: Music to Recharge Your Brain, both by Rafaele Joudry are available from Sound Therapy International Pty Ltd. on this website.


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