Heidi Fast: 'When interaction is impossible, vocal work can help connect with psychiatric patients'

Heidi Fast brings artistic research into the field of patient care and well-being by exploring psychiatric patients' experiences of non-verbal interaction. She believes that non-verbal forms of interaction should also be supported in situations of mental distress.
Kuva: Heidi Fast
Photo: Tarja Trygg

What is your research about? 

‘In my doctoral research, I explore the potential of the human voice to support non-verbal interaction and thus vitalize the experience of one's own existence. My research shows that people are able to create social connection with each other through non-verbal vocal voice alone. 

I have started from the insight that, although the ability to talk about one's own experiences is an important part of psychical recovery, in times of mental distress verbal expression is often impeded or blocked. The question of how to support non-verbal forms of interaction becomes crucial. 

During my research process, I developed a method of "vocal work" to help people to move safely into the realm of non-verbal interaction. The audio recordings from the fifteen participatory vocal workshops formed the basis of the artistic components of my research, the Hospital Symphonies series. I explored what kind of connection can be created with other people through non-verbal vocal voice and how to create connection to one's own voice. I sought to understand the interactive nature of vocal voice specifically from the perspective of promoting well-being.’  

What is important in it? 

‘In situations such as mental agony, where the ordinary means of communication – words – are not available, encountering between people requires the sensorial skill of attunement, which can be learned, taught and developed. I argue, that with vocal attunement the experiences of non-verbal social connection between people can be created even when verbal interaction is hindered.

My research showed that in the context of a psychiatric hospital, safety and a stable frame of the sensorial work were essential for establishing non-verbal contact. Working with eyes closed, focusing attention on the bodily sensation of the voice and the presence of other group members also contributed to a shared attunement. Non-verbal interaction required participants to have the courage to make their voices heard in new ways, which required a destabilization of the conventional ways of acting. This is not easy, especially if a person is experiencing severe mental stress and physical tension.

The results open up a field of work alongside psychiatric care that has not been exploited in care work until now."

Heidi Fast

In my research, I suggest that under the right conditions, vocal attunement promotes self-awareness, facilitates integrative interaction, and helps people in need of mental help to connect to a shared world. Indeed, I argue that the shared vocalization provided a special interactive possibility: the sound space experienced simultaneously within one's own body and as a surrounding atmosphere makes it possible to experience a sense of belonging without hierarchies and functional roles between people.’ 

What can it lead to? 

‘My research highlights the novel potential of sound art. It brings out the non-verbal dimensions of patient experience in a new way and generates new sensory information. Through this, my research can influence a wide range of societal and clinical practices. By questioning the primacy of verbal interaction, the results open up a field of work alongside psychiatric care that has not been exploited in care work until now.

The work highlights the importance of equal encountering with people in need of mental help. I argue that the method of vocal work also increases mental health professionals' understanding of the patients’ interaction possibilities. It has the potential to help many vulnerable groups of people. By destabilizing the structures of conventional interaction, the work shows the psychiatric environment in a new light.

Non-verbal vocalizing and listening to voices can sensitize us to the art of encountering, not only in human-to-human encounters, but also in human-to-nature encounters and encounters where we come face to face with something we cannot fully understand. The importance of the different sensorial dimensions of encounter is particularly important when normal social interaction becomes more difficult in times of emergency conditions.’ 

The research has been carried out in collaboration with the specialist medical care of psychiatry of the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District, and in particular the HUS Psychiatry Center, and people who have received treatment at the Center. The research has been the first in Finland to receive a HUS research permit for artistic research.

Heidi Fast defended her doctoral thesis Human voice and the ability of attunement. The significance of non-verbal vocal encountering in the experiences of people in need of psychiatric help at Aalto University on 6 May 2022. 


Project researcher Heidi Fast, [email protected], +358447428297

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