Is music one key to unlock mysteries of the brain?

A beautiful video circulating online features the extraordinary effects of music on elderly residents of a nursing home.  Otherwise silent and unresponsive people with dementia came alive when their favorite music was played for them. Their faces brightened, their eyes sparkled, their smiles beamed brightly, and they often began to sing along. It inspired the documentary ALIVE INSIDE.

I’ve witnessed the power of music in this context many times. For example, an elderly acquaintance who had suffered a severe stroke seemed perpetually isolated in her own world. She did not speak at all, and it was unclear whether she was even aware of her surroundings. She was brought to a party where Christmas carols were being performed, and suddenly she was singing along. Another friend was recovering from a stroke and had great difficulty speaking, but he visibly lit up and began singing along quite coherently when music by his favorite band was played for him.

On the one hand, this doesn’t surprise me. I’m a lifelong musician, the daughter of two avid music lovers, and I’ve experienced the revitalizing and transporting effects of listening to (and making) music. It need not be profound music, either. Sometimes listening to a simple pop tune can create a visceral experience, and summon the sights, sounds, smells, sensations and emotions of a particular moment in time: being a teenager, falling in love, and so forth. Music can coax us out of a bad mood, or be a salve when things around us are too awful to contemplate.

On the other hand, the surprising/wonderful/encouraging aspect of these anecdotes about otherwise “unreachable” people being drawn out by music is an exciting development. It gives scientists more information about how the human brain works, and maybe —  just maybe – provides valuable insight into treating vexing problems like dementia, stroke and other brain injuries. Think of the possibilities!

If you haven’t read the works of the late English neurologist Oliver Sacks, I highly recommend them. One book in particular, MUSICOPHILIA, dealt with the brain and music.

My fingers are crossed that some music-loving scientists will be able to unlock more mysteries of the brain. Meanwhile, those of us who love and treasure music can and should keep finding ways to use music to connect with people we know, especially those who are ill, troubled, or seem to be locked in their own worlds. It certainly can’t hurt!

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