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Music 27 Nov 2017

Music: medicine to awaken the mind

It´s already been proven that music is a balm for the soul, but research increasingly shows that it´s also a powerful medicine for the mind. When sounds reach the ear, a series of stimulants begin to travel over the neuronal connections and the brain releases dopamine, the same chemical substance that produces pleasure from food, drugs or sex. However, music does much more than this.

Thanks to its ability to activate almost all areas of the brain, music is used by medicine to treat the symptoms of some mental disorders and brain injuries. These therapies help promote neuroplasticity – the brain´s ability to reorganize itself by developing new neuronal connections – and compensate for the deficiencies in the damaged regions of the brain. They are a very effective tool for patients with Alzheimer disease, autism, cerebral paralysis, and even victims of gender violence.

The British neurologist Oliver Sacks was one of the first scientists to investigate the impact that musical therapies have on patients with brain damage. One of his most famous cases was that of Greg, recounted in Sacks’ book, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” The last hippie, as Sacks called him, was a rebellious adolescent enamored of 1970s acid rock. However, after joining the Hare Krisha sect, he began to suffer problems with his sight and both his physical appearance and his personality changed radically.

Greg was hospitalized in 1975 with an enormous tumor that had destroyed his pituitary gland, optic chiasm and his frontal and temporal lobes.  Although his tumor was almost completely removed, the damage done to Greg’s brain was irreversible. His memory didn’t go back beyond the 1970s and he had serious short-term memory problems. At age 25, Greg was blind and mentally disabled.

Music gets us out of congealed mental habits and makes the mind move in a way it normally is not capable of”

Sacks discovered the young man´s passion for the rock group The Grateful Dead and decided to let him hear a song by them. Greg sang the tune with great feeling and conviction, something he had not shown at all up to that time. As Sacks recalled, “When he sang, he appeared transformed, a different person, a complete person.” The Grateful Dead’s music awakened Greg and allowed him to become himself again for a few moments.

Inspired by Sacks’ work, psychologist Pepe Olmedo began an initiative entitled “Music to wake up to” in Granada, Spain.  Having treated Alzheimer patients from the start of his career, Olmedo began to use music as a means to communicate with patients whom he could not reach with words. Thanks to songs, the residents of the Cáxar de la Vega geriatric home, managed to “awaken their minds.” The effect of the music stays with them even after they remove the headphones.

The project was one of the protagonists of the third edition of the Blue BBVA Challenge, which was held during the BIME PRO festival. The challenge that BBVA posed to young people this year centered on music’s ability to change people’s lives. To participate in the program, “it´s not necessary to be a musician,” explains project director Diego Martínez, “but you do have to experience it with a passion. There are projects that use music to solve problems in the fields of medicine or social integration. Now we want young people to learn to start businesses through music.”

Pepe Olmedo during the third BBVA Challenge

As pianist Robert Jourdain explains in his book, “Music, the Brain and Ecstasy,” melodies overcome symptoms because they reflect the cerebral flow, while they stimulate and coordinate neuronal activities. “Music gets us out of congealed mental habits and makes the mind move in a way it normally is not capable of,” he says.

This is the basis of the Mosaicos de Sonido (Mosaics of Sound)  initiative, promoted by the BBVA Foundation, the Spanish Association of Symphony Orchestras (AEOS) and Plena Inclusion (“Full Inclusion”). The project began in 2015 with the goal of using music to promote integration and creativity among disabled people. In 2017, after thousands of hours of rehearsals, the  200 participants in this first edition played their particular version of the work, “La flor más grande del mundo” (“The biggest flower in the world”) by Emilio Aragon, accompanied by 140 professional musicians.

Tod Machover, Professor of Music and Media and director of the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab, also defends the idea that music therapy is fundamental for treating mental problems. In an interview with Carlos Betriu for OpenMind, he recalled how, a few years ago, his team began to collaborate with a young man with reduced mobility, who also had problems expressing himself.  They created a very sophisticated software program that allowed the young man to express his needs through musical language. “We were able to discover who he is and what he wants, through music,” Machover said.

As Oliver Sacks already discovered, music is the most effective non-chemical medicine. It is capable of transmitting stories and emotions and connecting people. There´s no better way of awakening the mind than to make it dance.

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