We can all relate to hearing a song come on the radio which suddenly transports us back in time and space.
I heard Carole King and James Taylor crooning an old favourite of mine, You’ve Got A Friend, this week and it took me back to a time when that song gave me a great sense of peace and calm as I struggled through a difficult time.
The songs we love become woven into a neural tapestry entwined with the people, seasons, and locations throughout our lifespan.
Think for a moment of a song that you love and the memories that flood into your consciousness.
Let them permeate your being, like a passage into virtual reality from the past being brought forward again to the present.
Neuroscience fascinates me. Understanding the brain and its three areas of development over the millions of years of our human existence from the rudimentary Reptilian brain that operates frequently on a fight or flight basis for protection, to the mid-brain that houses the limbic system that is a storehouse for our emotional responses, to the prefrontal cortex that is the most advanced part of our brain that has almost infinite learning abilities.
A series of recent studies have found that listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions and creativity.
A 2009 study from the University of California titled “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories” helped explain why music can elicit strong responses from people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The study’s author, Petr Janata, found that the hub that particularly well loved songs activated in the brain was in the medial prefrontal cortex region, right behind the forehead, and one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer’s disease.
Janata says what appears to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.
“It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind.”
This study incorporated the use of brain imaging technology to show how areas of the brain “lit up” dependent on the level of connection the study subjects had with particular tunes.
These observations revealed the large-scale cognitive, motor and limbic brain circuitry that becomes engaged while listening to music and why there is such great therapeutic potential from these findings.
Someone else’s work that is revolutionary is that of neuroscientist Dr. Candace Pert.
She rocke d the scientific world with her research furthering the understanding of the mind-body connection and how emotions are stored in all of the body’s cells.
Her discoveries validated the belief that our emotions can affect our health, either positively or negatively.
Her groundbreaking research was published in the Journal of Immunology titled, Neuropeptides and Their Receptors: A Psychosomatic Network for you more cerebral readers.
Her work on the role of peptides in the body, surmised that they provide our body’s most basic communication network.
According to Pert, the hippocampus, a small, almond-shaped structure that is crucial in memory, is the brain’s emotional gateway.
The frontal cortex and another brain structure, the amygdala, that “lit up” in the above study, are densely populated with peptide receptors.
Since emotions are regulated by neuropeptides, and the brain’s memory centers are filled with receptors for these peptides, it’s likely that emotion and memory are intertwined.
However, the peptide network reaches into all the organs, glands, spinal cord, and tissues of the body.
This means, says Pert that “Emotional memory is stored throughout the body.”
This could further explain the reason behind the dramatic effect that listening to songs connected to our past can elicit in us and also the beneficial affect it can have as well on our immune system.
For older adults with dementia who have become disconnected from the people around them, the potential for re-establishing a strong emotional bond through playing music and remembering joyful memories, is immensely valuable for them and for the people who love them.
This is so ably demonstrated in a beautiful documentary done called Alive Inside. Watch an excerpt of it on You Tube and you will be amazed at the transformation affect music can have.
The passion that drives the Sing For Your Life Foundation that is based here in Kelowna is to help to raise the awareness of the phenomenal benefits of re-engaging socially, mentally and emotionally through singing and music.
One way they support this is through providing free Silver Song Groups for older adults and if appropriate, their caregivers.
Groups are happening now at the Okanagan Mission Activity Centre, at 4398 Hobson Rd., on alternate Mondays, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., and at the Heritage Retirement Residence in West Kelowna, 3630 Brown Rd., on alternate Wednesdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Call Beth at 778-753-6501 for West Kelowna or Margaret at 250-764-8808 for the Mission. Or call Nigel at 250-860-5408.
Information will be posted on the Caresmart Seniors Consulting Facebook page as well for you and more information will be discussed on this interesting topic in October on the Engaging in Aging Radio Show on AM1150.
Singing really does make everything better.
To support this effort, go to singforyourlife-canada.org website and donate.