Music Therapy Can Sync Our Brains

“They have music for dipsomaniacs, music for melancholiacs, music for hypochondriacs. I wonder what would happen if somebody got their files mixed up?” muses a character in the Alfred Hitchcock classic film “Vertigo” who dabbles in music therapy, a field very much in its infancy at the time. For Jimmy Stewart’s burnt out detective, she picks Mozart, to sweep the inner cobwebs from his mind.

Today, even with a growing body of clinical evidence, and an array of applied methods, music therapy still isn’t taken much more seriously for what it has to offer its patients. Meditative purposes aside, modern neuroscience may have just uncovered a major reason for why patients respond to it — and perhaps incentive for music therapy to thrive well into the future and break new ground. According to a new study, the brains of both patient and therapist can synchronize during a music therapy session.

Researchers Jorg Fachner and Dr. Clemens Maidhof of Anglia Ruskin University conducted the first music therapy study to use “hyperscanning” — a technique that allows researchers to monitor the activity in two separate brains simultaneously by controlling multiple scanners from a remote location. While the patient and therapist had their session, both wore electrode caps with sensors that respond to the brain’s electrical impulses. The cap then relayed these signals to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine using small video cameras.

Music therapists learn to work towards what they call “moments of change,” interacting with the patient until they make a critical connection — how their patient thinks and feels given a particular moment for context.

In this study, the therapist and patient discussed coming to terms with a long illness in their family while music played in the background. As the session continued, the patient’s brain activity showed primarily deep, negative feelings of loss or depression, but then swung to a positive peak. Once the therapist realized that she was finding common ground with her patient — her brain’s activity was similar.

When interviewed separately afterward — both of them were able to identify the same point in the session as the moment they felt the therapy was working. By monitoring the activity in the brain’s right and left frontal lobes, the researchers were able to confirm this further. The right processes negative emotions, while the left produces more positive ones.

The implications of the study can go well beyond music therapy. It’s often been said of psychiatrists that they are the only type of physician that never gets to see the organ they work on. In the near future, that may no longer be the case.

According to Fachner, the study’s lead author, who is a practicing music therapist: “Music, used therapeutically, can improve well-being, and treat conditions including anxiety, depression, autism, and dementia. Music therapists have had to rely on the patient’s response to judge whether this is working, but by using hyperscanning we can see exactly what is happening in the patient’s brain.”

In the past, music therapists had to rely on their own emotions to chart breakthroughs. Now, seeing the breakthroughs may be as simple as an instant replay — a complete audiovisual record of precisely what moved the brain. Looking beyond, Fachner hopes to see what this breakthrough means for other therapist-patient relationships, for practitioners to understand the most effective ways for connecting to their patients.

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