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Music and your brain
Music makes you smarter, happier and more productive – but why?
Music is a pervasive part of our daily lives, whether we notice it or not. Often, it melts into the background – on the radio, in the doctor’s office, at the supermarket or in the gym. While other times, it plays a more pronounced and overt role – if you’ve ever been to a Tony Robbins event, then you know how critical the playlist is. But what you may not know is just how profound the impact music has on us.
Music has the ability to impact us in a way that no other art form does. It unearths something deep within us that allows us to be transported to a specific place and time in our lives. We can actually experience who we were through sound. Have you ever considered the soundtrack of your life? What would it be? And how does each song make you feel?
This is the power of music. But it doesn’t stop at nostalgia.
Humans are hard-wired to enjoy music, since it activates the brain’s reward system – the part of the brain that signals to us whether something is important, valuable or necessary for survival. When we hear music that we enjoy, our brains release dopamine and we experience a natural high. It’s the same process that happens when we eat or have sex. But here’s the thing – unlike food and sex, music isn’t just about survival. It’s so much more than that.
Music is one of the most powerful tools for self-expression that we have. It allows us to think and to feel in ways we may not be naturally pre-disposed to. It has the power to expand our cognitive range. It has the power to move and inspire. It has the power to connect. And it even has the power to heal.
MUSIC AS MEDICINE
We all know that music can evoke certain emotional responses. A zen-like playlist, for example, can lull us into sleep. Or soft, melodic tunes can help relax us after a hard day at work. But did you know that music can actually translate into physiological benefits?
In a study out of the University of London, researchers examined patients who were about to undergo surgery and monitored the impact music had on their stress levels. They found that listening to music before, during and after the procedure reduced people’s pain, anxiety and need for sedatives.
Music is also being used to help those inflicted with neurological deficits. Those recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury, for example, are not able to speak when their left-brain region has been damaged. But singing is a function of the right side of the brain, so by learning how to sing their words then eventually dropping the melody, those inflicted can ultimately overcome the impairment. This is what former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords did after a gunshot wound took away her ability to speak.
MUSIC & KIDS
Think of the alphabet song. “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” – you know the tune. Ever wonder why they teach children the alphabet that way? Because music has been shown to help kids remember basic facts, in large part because songs tap into the fundamental system in our brains that are sensitive to melody and beat.
Music also has the power to enhance the emotional and social lives of children and adolescents. A recent study that examined how children and adolescents handle emotional issues, researchers saw that 8- to 16-year olds who received music therapy had significantly improved confidence and significantly reduced depression when compared to those who had treatment without music therapy. They also found that music therapy helped adolescents improve their communicative and interactive skills.
MUSIC & BABIES
Have you ever seen an expecting mother place a pair of headphones onto her growing belly? There’s a good reason for it. Contrary to what we may believe, babies are not born as blank slates. In fact, they have already accumulated a significant amount of experience with the surrounding world.
Researchers found that “newborns seem to react to sounds during the fetal period and respond distinctly to them after birth.” And they pinpointed the 27-week gestational mark as when the external auditory input begins to reorganize the auditory cortex. Simply put – in the second trimester, the fetus not only experiences sound, but is influenced by it as well. But what is really fascinating about this study is the long-term implications. The researchers found that prenatal exposure to music can have “significant effects on the developing brain and enhance neural responsiveness to the sounds used in prenatal training.” In short, that means playing music to your unborn child will boost cognitive performance later on in life.
But the power of music doesn’t stop there for babies. Engaging and interactive musical experiences can have a significant impact on cognitive development in their earliest years.
In a study of 1-year old babies (who could not talk or walk yet) participating in interactive music classes, researchers found a significant increase in communication and reaction skills. While researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences found that play sessions with music improved babies’ brain processing of new speech sounds. So those baby music classes? They might not seem so silly now.
Okay, so what about you? How does music help and enhance your life other than the obvious? We all know how music can impact our energy levels. Ever been to a workout class with a sleepy playlist? There’s nothing worse. And similarly, there’s nothing better than when a song comes on that energizes and excites you into a peak physical state.
Yet music isn’t only able to impact your mood or emotional state; it can actually influence the way you see the world and interact with others.
Researchers from the University of Groningen found that people will be more apt to recognize positive aspects of their surrounding environment when they are in a positive mood themselves. Play happy music, feel better, and you’ll have a more pleasant perspective.
Music has also been proven to enhance the environment at work. Researchers out of Cornell found that when upbeat music is played, team members are more likely to work together to contribute to the greater good. Whereas when jarring, unpleasant music was played, participants were more likely to focus on their own value at the work place.
This is the power of music. And as you’ve now seen, it goes far beyond an ability to enhance our moods. In fact, research has also shown it can reduce everyday stress, boost memory and creativity, enhance blood vessel function and even give an added boost to your immune system.
So the next time you decide to feed your mind, consider music. Perhaps some Vivaldi, or some Mozart…or anything that boosts your mood. Because it may be doing a lot more than you think.