If you’ve seen “The Wolf of Wall Street,” you probably remember the scene early on in the film when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character goes out to lunch with his boss (who is played by Matthew McConaughey) and learns the secret to working on Wall Street. In the middle of a fancy restaurant, McConaughey’s character starts beating his chest and humming a rhythm while urging Leo to join him. It’s this rhythmic sequence that gives way into the manic rhythm that is Wall Street life. As it turns out, it is also something that McConaughey started doing on his own long before the film.
“That’s something I’ll do before scenes to relax myself, get my voice to drop. I’ve been doing it for a while,” McConaughey explained in an interview. He might be onto something too. Our lives actually depend deeply on rhythm. From the constant beating of the heart and pulsing nerve activity in the brain, to our sleep and hormone cycles, rhythmic patterns are present in all we do. According to Dr. Adam Gazzaley, director of Neuroscape, a neuroscience center at the University of California, San Francisco, “Brain activity fluctuates — it oscillates in rhythmic patterns and different rhythms are represented throughout the brain in terms of how its activity changes over time.”
Not only can certain rhythmic patterns reduce stress and ease anxiety — as in McConaughey’s case — but they also have the ability to temporarily restore certain functions in people with life-threatening
Mickey Hart, a drummer of the rock band Grateful Dead, witnessed this firsthand with his grandmother who was suffering from dementia. Hart started playing the drums for her one day even though she seemed to be consumed by her dementia. As he began to play a soft beat, Hart’s grandmother smiled and he was able to reconnect with her. She had not spoken a word in nearly a year, but as soon as she heard her grandson play the drums, she repeated his name over and over. It was a key experience that demonstrated how much our lives thrive on rhythm.
“When you have your grandmother sitting in front of you and you play a drum to her and no one else is around and it makes a reaction, kind of like a reverberation, this rhythm has allowed you to talk. Now, that’s something to be noted. I want to know why and how that happened,” says Hart.
Along with rhythmic sounds, movements — such as dancing or swaying in a rocking chair — can help regulate nerve networks that are in charge of major brain functions — especially for language and movement. According to Gazzaley, “Different rhythms in the brain are associated with different cognitive operations, like perception, attention, and memory. And when one brain region signals another, the message comes through with greater clarity if the two are in sync rhythmically. If their rhythms are locked in time, then they communicate with each other more efficiently, so it’s part of how the brain works in a fundamental way.”
This is also why dance is therapeutic for patients with Parkinson’s disease and other motor-system disorders. Parkinson’s develops when the brain begins to lose the dopamine-producing cells. The neurotransmitter dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system, but it is also an essential piece of the brain’s system for controlling movement and coordination. As Parkinson’s disease progresses, more dopamine cells die off, reducing the amount available to the brain.
Rhythmic movements, especially dance, can be a form of rhythmic auditory stimulation — a neurologic technique used to help jumpstart and rehabilitate movements in the body for people suffering from motor disorders. To carry out this practice, patients are presented with different rhythms or music and are asked to move or dance to them, in turn synching the rhythms of the brain with the rhythm of the music.
Studies looking at the effects of this technique found significant progress of patients with Parkinson’s or other movement disorders. Most of the patients were able to speak and walk better if they had a steady rhythmic cue to jumpstart their movement. The idea is that if we can teach the brain how to become a better timing machine — helping it to perform better rhythmically — then this will translate into how you interact with the world around you, and will effectively lead to a better quality of life.
The powerful effects of rhythm can also be seen in your day-to-day life. Whether you’re taking a Zumba class at the gym or running while listening to your favorite music, scientists believe that combining music and rhythmic exercise can help the brain and can boost motor performance. When people move in synchrony, they are more likely to perceive the world in synchrony, so that would facilitate their ability to interact with their surroundings.
What’s the secret behind rhythmic motion’s ability to help the brain? The answer is endorphins. Whether you’re playing the drums or swaying back and forth on the dance floor, rhythmic movements stimulate the vestibular senses — the parts of the inner ear and brain that regulate balance and eye movements. These senses are also closely aligned to the part of the brain that manages pain and stress.
Gazzaley is still trying to better understand how rhythmic patterns have such a positive effect on the brain. He is also looking to pinpoint how, exactly, these patterns play such an important part — hopefully, soon, he can help doctors prescribe less prescriptions and more particular movements.
“We know that music makes us feel good,” says Gazzaley. “We know it makes us dance. We know it makes us happy and gives us pleasure. But what do we know about the healing qualities of it? Well, that’s the great frontier for music in this century.”
This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine.
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- Creative Listening: How Music Can Boost Your Creativity
- Finding A Song: The Subconscious Art of Improvisation
- Healing Music: An Interview with Stanley Jordan
- Music and the Mind: An Interview with Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin
- Notes to Live By: Why Your Brain Craves Music
- Your Brain’s Natural Rhythms: A Q&A with Neuroscientist Jessica Grahn