Musical Medicine: iTunes For iHelp

iPod, photo credit: Karen Keller Capuciati
by Karen Keller Capuciati

I’ve stumbled upon a very cool interview with Galina Mindlin, author of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, a book about using your favorite music to enhance your health, memory, organization, alertness, and more.  The interview, conducted by Erica Hendry, can be found in the January 2012 issue of Smithsonian.

So what’s so cool about it?

According to the author, music can benefit anyone and everyone – whether you’re trying to relieve anxiety, sharpen memory, increase concentration, improve your mood or even relieve pain.  Who wouldn’t want to do ALL those things from time to time?

Imagine the benefit if, in the current culture of just take a pill, we could instead “prescribe” music to relieve our ailments?  Or, as is the concern of many In Care of Dad readers, to help someone we’re caring for.

Here’s what Galina Mindlin suggests in her book:  You pick a piece of music you like, something you think will produce a desired result (e.g., bring calm, energy or focus), then you practice listening to the song with that desired result in mind.  In effect, you teach your brain to associate the music with a particular feeling.  Mindlin says, “It’s important to combine the musical stimuli with imagery, because when you do, you activate more areas in the brain.  When you’re feeling down, you can recall a positive, exciting memory and connect that imagery with a strong, positive musical piece to ‘energize’ your brain.

We all know that music is emotionally charged.  Right now, for example, Adele’s “Someone Like You” gets me dancing around the house, singing at the top of my lungs.  For others, this same song makes them weepy, as was recently mocked in an SNL skit.  There are songs that put a smile on your face, and songs that get annoyingly under your skin, but clearly the music sparks an intense emotional response.

So if we could harness that energy, and put it to effective use, music could have measurable benefits for people suffering from a variety of ailments.  For example, music could help someone like my mom, whose ability to concentrate was diminished by a stroke in 2009.  She’s been working on restoring her focus for a couple years now, but it’s a long, difficult process — using music could make the hard work seem less arduous.  Also, the calming effect of music has many therapeutic applications.  It could be used to lower anxiety levels for stress-impaired individuals, for victims of dementia, and might even slow the tragic progression of Alzheimer’s.  Imagine, lastly, if music could be used to actually relieve pain — the practical benefits would be enormous.

If this sounds like another wild sci-fi vision, Mindlin says that it doesn’t need to be a futuristic process.  She says, “Everyone’s brain knows what kind of music it likes, if it makes you calmer or more excited or less anxious.  You just replay the piece and practice listening to it.  Research confirms that the practice actually makes the change in the brain, not the musical talent or ability.”  Mindlin adds that, once you tune into the music’s result, “You see the effect on your mood and thinking in a matter of days or weeks.”

I think I might try out a song that brings me joy and a song that de-stresses me, and practice listening to them everyday for a couple of weeks just to see how it goes.  It certainly has me thinking about the impact music can have, and how much we still don’t know about healing ourselves without pharmaceuticals and expensive high-tech equipment.

Maybe an iPod is all we need.

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