The Hiss

“An experience of higher-dimensionality is achieved by integration of experiences of different centres and levels of consciousness. Hence the indescribability of certain experiences of meditation on the plane of three-dimensional consciousness and within a system of logic which reduces the possibilities of expression by imposing further limits upon the process of thinking.” 

— Fritjof Capra

I’ve happened to stumble into somewhat of an interesting phenomenon while sliding down the rabbit hole that is Wim Hof —specifically relating to his particularly trendy breathing technique.

The exercise, which has been coasting Reddit boards and surfing podcasts for a long while now, has generated quite a bit of noise — rightfully so, as anyone who tries it is quick to notice the uplifting sensations associated with the (usually) three rounds of hyperventilation mixed in with a series of exaggerated breath-holds. 

But there’s more to it all. 

A number of participants, myself included, will go on to report a peculiar list of other sensations, the most notable of which consists of an audible hissing noise that becomes apparent near the final stages of a breath hold. 

Those with tinnitus (myself included) report either an increase or decrease in the ringing that is perpetually heard and others yet report seeing various visual effects, most common of which is a ball of light. 

Then there are the more usual and expected sensations — tingling in the hands and feet, light-headedness, relative numbness in extremities, etc. 

But my interest became grounded in the auditory and visual sensations that accompanied this meditation, especially because of the shift in cognition and mood that also seemed to accompany the exercise. It was the electrostatic-sounding hiss that really got me thinking about what’s going on here in the first place. 

And so, I sought to not only get an answer as to what’s really happening (because we can half-expect what the answer would be) but I wanted to look a bit deeper yet — I wanted to poke at the cognitive element of this and examine how we can possibly extract some kind of utility out of it. 

In other, maybe more overly-dramatic words, how to use the perceptional shift as an understanding towards the intuitional interface through which we interact with reality.

Did I ever open a can of worms.

It’s hard to describe the auditory sensation that occurs at the end of this exercise. The best way I can possibly frame it into words would be to ask you to imagine the sound you hear when you put your ear to a glass of freshly-poured soda. Now imagine being immersed into that sound itself so that you hear it all around.

There’s more.

Not only does this fizz or hiss emerge from the depths of nowhere, but there’s also a complete change in auditory perception. You can hear different — not better, not worse, just different. 

The cars whooshing around outside are suddenly more perceptible; the vents in your house swell with a different hum; the drips of your faucet resonate somewhat deeper. 

And this isn’t the only perception that changes. 

Perspective shifts too. Go into this exercise feeling unmotivated or discouraged and chances are that you’ll come out of it feeling more optimistic or energized — relatively speaking. 

Go into it feeling heavy or fatigued, slouched over or over-encumbered and you’ll come out feeling the opposite. 

While there are too many variables to explain this (oxygen deprivation; increased blood flow to the brain; wishful thinking), there’s something more at play — I’m convinced of it.

In essence, the hiss and fizz isn’t just exclusively a sound. It goes beyond the excitations of the auditory and visual senses. The mind, in its typically enigmatic way, is also tickled in a certain manner that behooves us to understand how. 

In doing so, maybe we can extract a bit of use from it all and turn this relatable peculiarity into something of a utility. 

It may first be important to consider the variable methods of interpretation here, available to us under vastly different contexts. 

This can all be approached from a neurological angle (explained by the neurochemical reactions brought about within the brain — of which will be presented below as the focal point of this article). 

But it has to be noted that it can also be explained from a more general physiological angle (i.e. blood alkalinity fluctuations, calcium shifts). Maybe it’s worth assessing on a level relating to spirituality (is the hiss one that emanates from a Kundalini Awakening?) or one of psychology (is it all some kind of manifestation of the sub-conscious mind?).

Depending on who’s asked, who’s interpreting and who’s reading the interpretation, the truth changes every which way, so it’s most sensical to not become confined to one box of thinking. 

For myself, I’m most inclined to think that it’s all happening within the parameters of a physiological state of affairs but — here’s the hook that got me — there’s some psychological element that warrants greater appreciation, one that jives with the spiritual experiences and falls in line with the neurological happenstance. 

The changes, while they’re ostensibly psychological (the shift in auditory perception, the visuals, the heightened sensory experience), they’re indicative of something that runs deeper in terms of it all, something rooted in cognition — a common-denominator pulling at the strings. 

This mental element — one whereby thinking itself is changed and thought processes seem to be recalibrated to some degree — is not necessarily getting the kind of attention that it should receive.

And there remains much to be said about the fact that this range of phenomena has already been explained if you ask the right person — say, anyone trying to awaken their Kundalini (which accompanies pleasurable sounds —  oft described as a hissing snake!— changes in auditory or visual perception, ‘awakened’ or ‘heightened’ sensations relating to taste, touch, etc.). 

But what I’m after is an explanation as comprehensive and verifiable as it is transcendent of our physical understanding, and so I have to set aside the spiritual elucidations, many of which are pre-emptively set aside by most skeptics to begin with. 

Despite any skepticism or over-enthusiasm, it’s critical to suspend our intuitive understandings about much of this subject matter — about how we hear sounds and the entire process of a soundwave reverberating through our inner ear canal; about how the neurological system transmits signals so efficiently without our full understanding; about how our brain processes what we see, even with our eyes closed. 

And so I happened to reach out to a neurologist, specializing in meditative studies, to see if anything can be gleamed from the less-than-fantastical interpretations of observational science.

To my amazement, neuroscience has uncovered something of a bombshell to be dropped on everything we know relating to not only this subject but to the general ways by which we practice any sort of self-reflective art.

My first question to Sarah Mulukutla, a board-certified neurologist and chair of Integrative Neurology at the American Academy of Neurology, couldn’t be condensed into a few short words.

I wanted to ask her what was happening to participants of the Wim Hof breathing method, to understand the neurological side of it all and to decipher the common-denominator behind the sensations and changes to perceptions that are experienced so consistently. 

She gave me a long-answer-short in terms of the physiological happenstance, something I feel we should hastily get out of the way so we can move on to the more consequential bits.

“With regards to the Wim Hof breathing technique, from a physiological perspective the body enters into a hypocapnic state (low carbon dioxide) after the exaggerated exhales. This is akin to hyperventilating. There’s actually no oxygen deprivation at all, hence the symptoms are all related to decreased C02 levels in the blood. The change in C02 and concomitant increase blood pH has a couple of effects — it causes blood vessels in the brain to constrict, causing decreased blood flow to the eyes (visual distortions) and the same phenomenon to the ears is likely the cause of tinnitus & auditory distortion. Regarding the extremity tingling, this is thought to occur due to calcium shifts causes by the change in blood pH.”

So there’s that.

Intuitively, intellectually, quantifiably — it all checks out. And this is where, truth be told, I had expected to crash into the end of this particular rabbit hole of curiosity. 

Science seems to win again — we’re not transcending to some realm of higher-consciousness; we’re not touching some form of greater sentience; we’re not magically heightening our senses. 

Or are we?

Thankfully, gratefully, and curiously, Sarah didn’t leave things there. That was just the tip of a rather tantalizing iceberg, as confounding as it was promising.

Dr. Mulukutla went on to discuss how our brain operates via its neural networks and the hundreds of billions of neurons that flow through them, the interconnectivity of its regions and the habitual processes that operate within these deeply ingrained neural networks, as well as how our world view (our interface through which we interact with reality, as I keep putting it) is shaped by the learned processes of the brain. 

“Our thought patterns constitute one of the most active neural networks in the brain. This network connects the frontal lobe (executive planning), our emotional centers (lambic system), memory centers (hippocampi) and our motor/sensory regions. Hence, it makes sense that our thoughts jump from emotional responses to future planning to memories (regret or delight) from the past, and they can cycle through numerous iterations and stream of consciousness jumps as each of these brain regions trigger new thoughts to arise.”

It’s not rocket science — it’s neuro science, and it’s much more critical to our every day lives.

Dr. Mulutkutla then brought it all home by bringing up self-referential thinking and the default mode network (DMN) of the brain. 

“We know from fMRI studies that as soon as we engage the brain in a new task, we suppress the DMN… With meditation (of which breath meditation is one subtype) we develop ability for sustained attention and physiologically suppress the DMN.”

It boils down to breaking the patterns of our default mode network by suppressing them with the higher-levels of thought that can be brought about by certain activities —meditation being one such activity. 

As Sarah went on to explain:

“With the Wim Hof breathing exercise, we have a both a physiologic stress to the brain (change in pH and 02/C02 balance) and there is intentional act of focused breathing. Both of these help snap the brain out of the DMN…

…Breathing practices induce in a state of calm interoception. We are focused on feeling our body, and this suppressed the DMN, allowing us to feel deeper and deeper purely body sensations which are not interrupted by our internal dialogue.”

And then we arrive at the crux of it all: if we make it a habit (it being an operative term to describe whatever we do to suppress/overcome the DMN), we’ll actually reconfigure our thought patterns in quite a remarkable way.

This is where the game-changing concept of neuroplasticity comes in. 

In Sarah’s words: 

“If we continue a practice regularly, we will build new neural networks for this new way of being. This is the concept of neuroplasticity”.

Sarah, who runs a clinic specializing in the application of neuroplasticity to mind-body practices, is an expert on using meditation as a means to break free from our unconscious thought patterns (as dictated by the DMN) and, in turn, effectuate different responses in the brain.

“It has been shown that 8 weeks of meditation leads to structural changes in the brain, confirming that we can change our brain anatomy just by controlling our thoughts. We have the capacity to share our future and our world view, if only we commit to it completely and practice regularly over time.”

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the human animal is that we’ll never really acknowledge the immense potential of the mind, regardless of what sort of understanding we’d like to approach it from.

And it remains to be seen whether the findings of neuroscience will ever provoke a motivated effort to pick at the underlying truth that seems to emanate from any venture into the depths of the brain: the potential we have to adjust our thinking is, in itself, beyond the scope of our imagination.

I started down this rabbit hole trying to find out what all the hype had been about with regards to a trendy breathing meditation; I came out of it with more questions upon learning that our mind does things that we can’t even seem to wrap our minds around. 

When all is stripped away, we have a resonating self-evident truth that becomes apparent: we have the ability to do whatever we want to do when it comes to our perspective. This should be the key takeaway from any venture into the mind, whether we’re talking Wim Hof meditations or Kundalini Awakenings.

The perceptional shift that is brought about with this particular exercise, as interesting as it is, is only symbolic of the kind of perceptional shift we can not only experience but configure in our ways of thinking.

And this seldom appreciated fact is one that we should be quick to stitch into the interface through which interact with reality — that we can employ whatever perspectives we want to employ; that we can adjust our thinking as we see fit; that we can experience our surrounding world however we want to experience it. 

As deflating as it may seem to circle back to one of the most commonly touted truisms, even this itself may be a mistaken way of appreciating the simplicity of it all. 

In consequence, we can say that we already knew this all along. Poets have been describing this notion since before radiological equipment became available; ancient philosophers and theologians, from Hermetic followers to Disciples of divinity, have uncovered this knowledge well before we figured out how to fMRI an answer out of our heads. 

It’s nothing new, it’s only being validated in the most technologically redundant (but clearly necessary) ways: we can adjust our minds however we want to adjust them, so long as we try.

So what is the hiss? 

Ultimately, it’s whatever we want it to be, depending on how we look at it. It can be the uncoiling of our Kundalini; it can be the drop of carbon dioxide within our blood; it can be the subconscious mind screaming for attention; or it can be emblematic of the fact that perception is perception is so subjectively malleable that there’s no sense in even trying to establish an objective sense to it all. 

Kind of a relief, if you ask me. 

“The quality of our life is determined by our mind’s response to the circumstances of our life. It is not determined directly by the circumstances.”

– Yoshin David Radin