5 days a week, I hole up in a hidden corner at the local Crunch gym. For just over an hour, I hop on a bosu ball and bounce a tennis ball around while listening to mozart and wearing vibrating headphones.

Weird? Probably. Effective? Possibly. Interesting? Hell yes. Read on.

Origins of Integrated Listening

In The Brain’s Way of Healing, Norman Doidge talks about the work of Alfred Tomatis, a French-born otolaryngologist. Early in his career Tomatis developed innovative ways to treat singers with vocal problems by retraining their sense of hearing, which in the 1930’s and 40’s was completely antithetical to the working paradigm of the day – that vocal problems revolved around the throat.

Tomatis used methods like bone conduction (playing sound using the skull, not just the ears – trippy!) to help his patients retrain their hearing by developing the ear muscles, and getting them to hear the frequencies that their ears weren’t hearing. He also incorporated classical music into his treatments, as well as voice recordings of his patients’ mothers, which I’d imagine is unconventional now, not to mention in the 1940’s.

Over time Tomatis that he found his methods were effective at treating various brain problems ranging from dyslexia, to depression, to ADD, to even autism.

Fast forward to the 1990’s, after Tomatis’ methods had been around for quite some time, and doctor named Ron Minson trained with Tomatis, began using the method in his practice in Denver, and gradually evolved it into what his company now calls Integrated Listening Systems (ILS).

How It Works

The method that Ron and his company now call ILS shares a lot with the Tomatis method and adds a lot more movement. The core portions of are there – all exercises are done using some large over-ear headphones (reminiscent of kind any audiophile would wear) which are equipped for bone conduction. The headphones plug into a little metal box with an iPod touch strapped to it. The iPod has specifically ordered playlists of specially-engineered classical music – Mozart, specifically because of its frequency patterns – and gregorian chants. The metal box is is what the headphones plug into – this is how the bone conduction works.

Bone conduction sounds kind of weird without a doubt. But when explained it makes some kind of sense – sound waves travel from outside the body to the ear, the bones of the skull carry them to the inner ear. (Side note: Google Glass uses bone conduction too.) This is why your voice sounds different to you than it does on a recording; when you speak, you’re hearing the version of your voice that is inside your head (that is, carried on your skull bones, which carry lower frequencies).

The metal box on the ILS has a knob to turn up the intensity of the bone conduction, which is pretty wild – if you run one of the audio clips marked “bone conduction test” and turn it all the way up, you can feel the “band” of the headphones (the part that goes at the very top of your head) vibrate pretty intensely. This is why the occupational therapist I’m working with told me to start with the BC at a very low level. This stuff stimulates your vestibular system big time, so if you go too high too fast, it’s barf city.

The ILS Workout

So you’ve got your pair of vibrating headphones, your Mozart and gregorian chant. Now it’s time to get moving. For a little over an hour a day, I wear these head phones while doing a combination of balance, eye movement and full-body coordination exercises. Being that I’m a fairly active adult, my OT adapted these to things that are accessible from a gym – core and balance exercises on a Bosu, hitting a tennis ball around with my hands, juggling, using boxing equipment. The ILS device itself also comes with a wobble board and a tennis ball attached to a string, a bean bag and a booklet describing a bunch of exercises you can do with each. They’re all designed for training your eyes, balance and timing while simultaneously using the sound to retrain your brain. Wild stuff, eh?

Now that I’ve been doing the routine for a few months, we’ve shifted to a new phase as well – integrating cognitive activity. So I still listen to Mozart for an hour a day, but the last 15 minutes involve Lumosity games and other exercises that trigger decision-making and concentration. This parallels other brain-development regimens I’ve tried or heard of like the Brain Abilities training program; first you establish a good foundation of balance-based exercise, then you enhance the challenge by adding things that challenge your thinking.

Does it Work?

The Brain’s Way of Healing goes into depth about the Tomatis method, and some of the phenomenal recoveries it has contributed to over the years. Similarly, the ILS website has some compelling case studies.

The question I’m trying to answer: will it work for me? Right now it’s a bit too soon to tell. I’ve been at it for about 3 months, which may seem like a while, but changing your brain can be a really slow process – and a learning disability in an adult is going to change a bit slower than in a child. That said I’ve noticed some days where my athletic ability seemed a lot more fluid. Flow states seem to come a bit easier at times. And as I’ve experienced in the past, doing a good amount of movement (of this type – full body movement, not weight training) has the capacity to improve my response times after a workout – I typically do better on Lumosity games after things like martial arts or salsa dancing.

This is why pre and post testing is essential when doing experiments like this. They’re not magic pills.  Your brain won’t change quickly and dramatically like in the movie Limitless. But it can start to change without you realizing it. So I did some cognitive testing before starting ILS, and very soon we’ll do the same test again to see if there’s a notable improvement. If there is, we keep going with the ILS until the changes are bigger and obvious.

Time will tell whether ILS is really the brain upgrade I’m looking for…but it certainly has promise. Stay tuned.