Music’s Power in Your Brain

Lately there have been many media features about the strong influence of music.  We have marveled at the fabulous progress Congresswoman “Gabby” Giffords has made since being shot in the head in January of 2011.  Much of her recovery has been spurred on by music therapy.  I agree that music is powerful.  I will briefly introduce you to the scientific research on the power of music for your mind and will suggest some ways you can use music to improve your mental abilities.

We used to think that music was only a “right-brain” activity.  Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist, researcher, sound engineer, record producer, and musician, tells us that “Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem.”  (This Is Your Brain On Music, 2006).

Dr. Michael Thaut, music therapist, researcher, neuroscientist, and a friend of mine,  has conducted research on music and the neurological system for more than 20 years.  He reports that there are four basic influences that music has on the brain (Rhythm, Music & The Brain, 2005).  First, music energizes your brain, making it more active for what you want to accomplish.  For example, if you love country music and want to clean the kitchen quickly, you can put on your favorite jumpy country song and breeze through the job at hand.  Second, Dr. Thaut has found that music brings timing and grouping to your thoughts, so that your brain can be better organized.  Third, music recruits other areas of your brain to help work on the task at hand, increasing your brain power dramatically.  Finally, your emotions and motivation are enhanced by music, helping you feel happier, more relaxed, or more energized.  Thus we know that music has a powerful effect on our minds.

Think for a moment about the music in your life.  Do you really use it systematically, or is music a random happening that comes from the radio in your car, the television that you watch, or the speakers in the stores where you shop?  Do you pay close attention to what each piece of music is doing to you, or are you going along unaware of your reactions?  Below are some suggestions that will help you benefit more from music.

First, are you a musician?  If you are currently engaged in making music, then you are providing a full-brain workout for yourself every time you produce a note.  If you are a former musician and still have your instrument, consider dusting it off and re-establishing those rich connections that only music can make in your brain.

Whether you are a music maker or listener, take a look at the music you have available right now.  You may have records, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, MP3s, Sirrius, music channels on your TV, or music tracks on your computer and smart phone.  Organize your songs so that they are easy to use when you need them.  I keep several playlists of music on my phone, so I can access and enjoy them any time.

After you’ve organized your music, sit down and listen to a sampling of your songs.  Close your eyes, listen to a song, and write down how the song makes you feel:  energized, lazy, sexy, relaxed, etc.  Also, rate how well you enjoy each song on a 10-point scale.  Research has shown that music we like will have a greater influence on us.

Finally, begin to use music more systematically in your life.  Use your personal music to make your life more productive, relaxing, or whatever you desire.  Then pay close attention to the music you hear when you are away from home.  If you don’t like how the music is influencing you in a store, consider leaving and going where the music is better.  If you are bothered by the music on a TV show, turn it off or go to another channel.

Remember, the power of music is there for you.  Try it on and notice how great it feels!

Next time: The therapeutic effects of group drumming


Holding Back Alzheimer’s Without Medication

Tree Reflection in Pool, MexicoWhen was the last time you lost your keys?  Or forgot someone’s name?  Or went into a room and forgot why you were there?

When that happened (and one of those three has happened to most of us), what went through your mind?  Most importantly, what did you decide was the cause of your mental slip?  Maybe you said to yourself, I didn’t sleep well last night, or, I have been really distracted lately, or, I have been under too much stress, or (hopfully not) I must be getting Alzheimer’s.

If these mental slips happen to you regularly and often, you may have wondered, what can I do to improve my mind?  How can I get back to that mental sharpness I once had?  Of course there are many things that I can suggest for you.   For now, we are going to look at one concrete thing you can do for your brain—speak a second language.

A 2010 study conducted at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, found that persons who spoke two languages were delayed in the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease by an average of 5.1 years, over persons who spoke only one language. The researchers believe that knowing that second language gives us backup resources in our brains to keep them working, even when threatened with Alzheimer’s Disease.  Just knowing that second language helped people in the study keep their wits about them an average of five more years.

I feel rather proud of myself on this point.  A couple of years ago I bought a computer program (Rosetta Stone) that is helping me learn Spanish, so that I can communicate with my Mexican friends and colleagues when I visit Mexico.  It is nice to know that I am improving not only my relationships with my friends, but my brain power as well.

Think about how this information can work for you.  Could you dust off your high school French and kick your brain back into fourth gear?  Could you take a community education course in German, then reward yourself with a trip to Berlin to try out your new skills?  Whether you decide to learn a new language or try something entirely different, I encourage you to keep your mind active.  I invite you back for my next post:  Using music to strengthen your mind.

James Gardiner, Ph.D.  Neuropsychologist