Music which heals the brain

November 26, 2015

I have written before of my belief in the power of music to stimulate the brain in young and old. But there is a special role for it I think, in the care of dementia patients, many of whom also suffer from depression.

Sometimes that depression is not evaluated separately from the Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia from which they are suffering. So it may not be treated properly, denying the patient some relief.

Yet, music therapy seems to be a potential source of treatment for both conditions. There is evidence that music can stimulate the brain, rewriting neural pathways and creating new connections even at a time when those brain messages are being lost due to the decaying effect of Alzheimer’s. Moreover, dementia care organisations regularly note that music seems to bring back comforting memories, a blessing for anyone caught in the grip of this feared disease. It can bring joy in its purest sense.

There could also be a prophylactic role for music, in that it can bring comfort to those on their own. Some evidence indicates that the incidence of Alzheimer’s more than doubles among the elderly who feel loneliness. This is of course one of the rising concerns of our day, as more people end up living outside the family unit.

Evidence from a conference at the Royal Society of Medicine in London I recently attended, which examined the utility of music interventions in neurological disorders of older people, can confirm there is empirical proof of its value in areas such as behaviour, mood, and even frequency of recourse to medical attention. This fits in with the experience of Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist who said: “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

I believe we need to consider the healing, emotional resonance in all kinds of music that can speak straight to our bodies. In Emoto Maseru’s work studying crystal, the scientist discovered that music played at water before it was frozen produced different shapes of crystal. Think then of our own bodies – approximately 60 per cent water. What are the vibrations of favoured music doing to the liquid inside us? How can they not be having an effect?

Does it matter what the music is? I don’t think so. We all recognise a good piece of music instinctively. We may not understand the structure of the composition or its balance in an academic sense, but we tune into its emotional resonance, needing no words.

For patients with dementia, how perfect a therapy then. They can let music wash over them, and allow it to heal them in an existential way, which does not need to be quantified. They can also simply bathe their senses in its uplifting power.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation