Thursday, January 17, 2013

Treatment: Music and the Brain

Many of us know that music makes us feel emotion, helps heal our hurting heart, and nourishes our soul but do you know that music is being used to help in the treatment/management of different brain diseases? Of course there are many music therapists who do one-on-one sessions, group singing, or drumming circles, all of which are very important and make people's lives better. But I have always thought that people also need help when they don't have access to a music therapist or group activity. What about the middle of the night mania or the mid-workday anxiety? What about the time in between activities in a dementia care unit when most people are left sitting in a chair at the TV or they are agitated and bored laying in bed?

Dan Cohen, Executive Director and Founder of Music and Memory started an iPod program for people in nursing homes in 2008. His program has been wildly successful for people with dementia, even decreasing use of antipsychotics by 50%! How amazing! I first heard of Music and Memory doing research for care of my Mom with dementia and I found this video of Henry: (get a tissue because you will cry.)
Then I reflected on how I actually use music to treat my mental illness without even knowing it. I have different songs that I typically listen to depending on my emotional state. Now one might think that when I am depressed, I listen to sad songs, or when manic I listen to upbeat songs. However, I actually use music to manage my illness better. A sad song when you are depressed only increases the depression. Instead I listen to more upbeat inspiring songs when I am depressed. When I am anxious, I can't listen to music with a heavy beat because it makes the anxiety worse so I listen to things that are more soothing and have a more even rhythm. For me, especially as a minister, the message of the song matters, so I am always collecting new songs that fit not only the tempo and feel of what might help bring me out of a depression or calm a panic attack at work, but also ones that change my repetitive or negative thinking. If I am convinced I am a terrible person I find a song with the opposite message to break that cycle. Using music in this way makes it so easy. I don't need a therapist with me all the time. I have a treatment in my pocket at work that I can use for just five minutes. It works amazingly well.

While I have not found any research just focusing on mental illness and the use of music in this particular way, Music and Memory does have a video of Gil, who has depression, and Denise who is bipolar schizophrenic that shows just how much the music helps them:

As Jaak Panksepp says in The Emotional Antecedents to the Evolution of Music and Language:

"In a sense, music not only elevates but also heals the human spirit. It is a wonderful way to increase quality of life, especially among elderly who have the fewest options (Laukka, 2007). To the extent that music sincerely conveys love, social attachment, and the joy of human interaction, it might prove effective as a mild antidepressant and deserves continued (and better) evaluation in psychiatric contexts. We await substantial full-scale studies of how some humans, in the despair of depression, may be lifted once more toward the varied emotional richness of human existence by the redemptive buoying of despondent spirits through great music. Many other beneficial medical effects of music have already been reported (for summaries see Panksepp & Bernatzky, 2002; Spingte & Droh, 1992)."


Rev. Katie

P.S.: If you are want more information about music and theology and worship, please look into Rev. Thandeka. Rev. Thandeka's work is where I have found much more research about neuroscience and how music effects the brain, such as the article by Panksepp above.


  1. Playing music has been a constant in my life and I don't feel I could be truly mentally healthy without it. I have encouraged my children to play instruments because I know what a difference it has made for me.

  2. This is wonderful!
    I totally agree that music has the ability to transport us into a wonderful depression free zone! Thanks for the reminder. I think I will go and put on some music!
    I am also looking forward to checking out your links!

  3. Katie,
    Could you send me your email? I would like to invite you to write a guest post for my blog, but I can't find any contact information here.