Your Brain on Music: How Your Favorite Songs May Regenerate Your Brain and Act as the Ultimate Adaptogen by Ali Le Vere
Your Brain on Music: How Your Favorite Songs May Regenerate Your Brain and Act as the Ultimate Adaptogen by Ali Le Vere Green Med Info. 30 November 2017 Music, which may be the most ancient human language, has the potential to improve neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders by creating new brain cells and neural connectivity. Not only that, but music restores hormonal and immunological balance in a way mirroring adaptogenic herbs.
The Evolution of Music
Music, the universal language, has been woven into the fabric of human culture since time immemorial. Rather than being a modern human invention, the creation of musical harmonies, using the voice as an instrument, and moving to rhythms may have long been crystallized as part of the human condition. A historical facet of the human condition, research implicates music in the cementing of social bonds, the establishment of monogamy, and as a primitive mode of communication (1). In fact, by forging social communion and engendering a sense of group identity, musicmay have been foundational to the emergence of large-scale pre-human civilizations (1).
When Homo sapiens arrived in Europe forty thousand years ago, they drove the Neanderthals, one of our hominid cousins, to extinction. Archeological evidence demonstrates that the arrival of Homo sapiens coincided with the time to which elaborate art adorning caves found in southeastern France and northern Italy has been dated, as well as other artistic expressions such as carved figurines, symbolic artifacts, and sophisticated bone and ivory musical instruments (1). While some researchers argue that music may have contributed to the social cohesion that led Homo sapiens to dominate over our Neanderthal cousins, there are many flaws in this logic as Neanderthal instruments may have been made from perishable objects which were not subject to preservation (1).
However, archaeologists have surmised that a more primitive human relative, Homo heidelbergensis, as well as Neanderthals, had access to at least one instrument at their disposal: the human voice (1). Their fossils contain a bone known as the hyoid at an anatomical position resembling that of contemporary humans, which means that their voice boxes were descended enough to allow speech and singing (1). This implies that singing conferred some sort of evolutionary advantage, the nature of which has been hotly contested. One promising theory, advanced by Leslie Aiello and Robin Dunbar, is that primitive song mediated the transmission of emotional states at a larger scale than physical grooming of insects, a more rudimentary form of social bonding, would accomplish (1).
However, even more plausible is that the versatility of the voice evolved in order to facilitate motherese, an early form of baby-talk that allowed prehistoric mothers to console their babies from a distance while they engaged in other activities (1). Scientist Dean Falk, a proponent of this theory, advocates that this motherese became the precursor to proto-language and proto-music (1). Therefore, our brains are literally wired from birth to receive musical tones. In fact, neural circuits originally serving another function may have been repurposed in evolutionary history for the processing of music.
This may be why anthropological and ethnomusicological studies reveal that contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures use music therapeutically, which provides us insight as to the ways in which our predecessors may have incorporated music into their healing arts. That many people in fast-paced industrialized societies lead lives devoid of music is a testament to the evolutionary mismatch of modern times which has divorced us from our very nature.
Music Rewires The Brain
In one study, researchers examined the brains of individuals using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that tracks cerebral blood flow (2). They found that when subjects listened to songs from their preferred musical genres, they exhibited enhanced levels of brain connectivity (2). Most pronounced was connectivity in the brain region called the default mode or resting-state network, which is implicated in internal mentation, or “the introspective and adaptive mental activities in which humans spontaneously and deliberately engage in every day” (2).
This brain area, which may be compromised in neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer's disease, is correlated with internally focused thoughts such as daydreaming, past recall, empathy, and self-awareness, which illuminates why music has been shown to trigger self-referential thoughts and memories (3, 4, 5). “Described as functioning somewhat like a toggle switch between outwardly focused mind states and the internal or subjective sense of self, this network appears to include mind-wandering experiences such as imagining the future, the discovering of new possibilities (hopes), and the affective significance of aspirations or dreams” (6).
Activation of the default mode network (DMN) is also crucial for processing psychosocial interactions and more advanced cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension, creativity, moral evaluations, and divergent thinking (7). In addition, stimulating the DMN may recruit previously encoded memories and support cognitive processes within domains that are compromised in neurodegenerative diseases, such as the processing of autobiographical, episodic, and socio-emotional memories as well as self-reflective thought (6).
In the fMRI experiment, the hippocampus was another brain region where connectivity between nerve cells was altered when subjects heard their favorite song, regardless of its acoustic characteristics (6). The hippocampus is essential for the acquisition of emotional and social memories, a process which may be disturbed in neurodegenerative disease (6).
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