Facing the Music: What Happens to Your Brain?

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At the time of writing exam season has just finished another torturous rerun, and many of us will celebrate by heading out to the mud-soaked fields of Glastonbury and Reading Festivals to celebrate. For many more people music is a constant companion, whether when waking up, working out or riding the bus and its impact is the same regardless of how we interact with it.

Listening to music is often used both during university studies and in the wider workplace as a way to make the often boring, repetitive tasks slightly more bearable and enjoyable. However, evidence has shown that while studying, absorbing and memorising new information is best done with the music off. In a 2010 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, adults aged 18 to 30 were asked to recall a series of sounds presented in a particular order. Participants’ performance suffered when music was played while they carried out the task as compared to when they completed the task in a quiet environment. Nick Perham, who conducted the study, notes that playing music you personally enjoy can lift your mood and increase your arousal — if you listen to it before getting down to work. But it serves as a distraction from cognitively demanding tasks.

The findings from that study are essential to understanding another condition under which music can improve performance: when a well-practiced expert needs to achieve the relaxed focus necessary to execute a job they’ve done many times before. A number of studies have found, for example, that surgeons often listen to music in the operating room, and that they work more effectively when they do. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that surgeons carrying out a task in the laboratory worked more accurately when music that they liked was playing. The doctors listening to their preferred music were also the most relaxed, as revealed by measurements of their nervous system activity. Still, surgeons might want to ask others in the operating room for their opinions on playing music: one survey of anaesthetists found that about a quarter felt that music “reduced their vigilance and impaired their communication with other staff,” and about half felt that music was distracting when they were dealing with a problem with the anaesthesia medication.

It has been shown that classical or instrumental music enhances mental performance more than music with spoken lyrics. Music can make boring, routine tasks (like folding laundry or filing papers) more enjoyable and improve one’s efficiency while doing it. But when concentrated learning and memory are required for a particular task, it’s safe to say that silence is golden.

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Because of its ability to alter the different parts of the brain, music has also been utilised in a number of therapies. Because of the proven ability of classical music in reducing sleeping problems from university students all the way to the elderly, it could provide a safe, simple and cost-effective treatment for insomnia. Surgery patients who listened to music before and after their procedure, also showed reduced pain, anxiety and painkiller dependence. Since music also promotes cortisol release, which enhances glucose use and repair of damaged tissue, patients could be sent on the road to recovery much quicker using this treatment. Music therapy has also been used with stroke victims to improve their mood, recover personal memories and teach them how to talk once again.

A contemporary example of the successful application of music therapy can be seen with the case of Gabrielle Giffords, former US Congresswoman from Arizona turned-gun control advocate. When she was injured in a mass shooting in 2011, the damage to her brain led to aphasia; a neurological condition that affects speech. Through the use of treatments that included melodic intonation therapy, music helped retrain her brain’s pathways to access language again. Gifford’s therapist Maegan Morrow said of the treatment:

“I compare it to being in traffic…Music is basically like [taking a]feeder road to the new destination.”

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Since music can additionally modulate emotion-related bodily responses, it is now being utilised as a mood-altering therapy for depressed and anxious individuals. Considered as a natural antidepressant, music can give one the euphoric high comparable to that brought about by (rather more expensive) antidepressant medications. It is a known fact that a lot of people turn to upbeat music whenever they feel sad or depressed, and it comes as no surprise why it is a viable solution for people to naturally improve their mood. That’s because soothing tunes stimulate the release of serotonin, a hormone that fosters happiness and a general sense of well-being. It also raises internal levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes ‘good feelings’. Both serotonin and dopamine have additionally been implicated in bodily mechanisms promoting natural pain relief.

The potential for music as a prescribed treatment in this way could see increasing significance in years to come, with the Mental Health Foundation Report in 2012 referring to depression as the most common problem that exists in the UK. In more recent studies it has also been shown that about 4% of children aged five to 16 in the UK are anxious or depressed. The advantages of utilising music as a therapy in treating depression is that it is much cheaper and simpler to carry out, and has been found to exert its positive effects without the uncomfortable side effects characteristic of antidepressant drugs, such as sexual dysfunction (citalopram), epilepsy (amitriptyline) and low blood pressure (phenelzine).

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Musical therapy is undertaken throughout Britain and is delivered by an experienced Health and Care Professions Council qualified music therapist. Its principal objective is to provide effective psychological and cognitive support by using music to aid individuals who have been affected by neurological impairment. To test its viability, a study on musical therapy was carried out with premature infants being exposed to recorded music and had lullabies sung to them by their parents. They subsequently showed improvements in oxygen saturation, sucking unrelated to feeding, cardiac function and rate of weight. The key finding from this study was that lullabies sung by parents not only deepened the bond between the parent and their progeny but also significantly reduced the parent’s stress levels which, could help prevent the manifestation of postnatal depression.

Music can be widely used to enhance well-being, reduce stress, and distract patients from unpleasant symptoms.

For patients suffering with diagnosed mental disorders, a study conducted by Sergio Castillo-Pérez discovered that music is able to induce the neurotransmitter dopamine to be synthesised and transmitted to the regions of the brain responsible for regulating the reward and emotional responses (such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral segmental area). Hence, patients who are experiencing mild or moderate levels of depression could benefit from listening to or classical music or singing themselves, as it can induce a positive and pleasurable regulation of mood, due to the physiological activation of several mechanisms that can both increase brain plasticity and inhibit neurodegeneration.

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To wrap up, music can be widely used to enhance well-being, reduce stress, and distract patients from unpleasant symptoms. Although there are wide variations in individual preferences, music appears to exert direct physiological effects via the autonomic nervous system. It also has been shown to indirectly modify human altruistic behaviour, effectively turning everyone into Good Samaritans! Music also effectively reduces anxiety and improves mood for medical and surgical patients, and for children as well as adults. It can be used as a low-cost intervention that often reduces surgical, acute, and chronic pain. Music can also improve the quality of life for patients receiving palliative care, enhancing a sense of comfort and relaxation. Providing music to caregivers may be a cost-effective and enjoyable strategy to improve empathy, compassion, and relationship-centred care while not increasing the rate of error or interfering with dedicated care procedures. (Kemper, K.J., Music as therapy, Southern Medical Journal, March 2005)

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Sub-editor 2019/20. Neuroscience student within the School of BioSciences (2017-present) with a particular interest in concepts where innovation can translate science-fiction to science-reality

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