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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Music Stirs the Emotions. Emotions Stir the Memories

Numerous anecdotal reports are suggesting that stroke or dementia patients benefit from listening to music. For example, Everett Dixon, a 28-yearold stroke victim, apparently learned to walk and use his hands again from daily listening to the kind of music he liked. Ann Povodator, an 85 year-old Alzheimer's patient, perks up when she listens to her beloved opera and Yiddish songs; her daughter says "It seems to touch something deep within her."

Caregivers commonly report that stroke or dementia patients can recall and sing songs from long ago, even when most other memories are lost. Moreover, the music can help retrieve memories that were associated with the music, not just the music itself.

Formal music therapy programs are sprouting up. Best known is the non-profit Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, directed by Concetta M. Tomaino, who lives in Garrison, New York. The Institute claims that music can help premature infants gain weight, autistic children communicate, stroke patients re-gain speech and mobility, surgical patients alleviate pain, and psychiatric patients relieve anxiety and depression. The most effective music seems to be that which the patient experienced and liked in their youth. Few of these observations come from controlled studies that rule out the possibility that the improvement was going to occur anyway without the music. Nonetheless, there are apparently 5,000 certified music therapists in the U.S. (I have no idea how one gets certified as a "music therapist.")

I do believe that there is some scientific basis for some of the claims. I have discussed elsewhere how emotions help to consolidate experiences into long-term memories as well as to retrieve such memories. Some of the same brain areas that generate emotions are also the ones involved in forming memories. Moreover, when a person initially hears a song, there may be powerful associations of other events and situations. We all know that associations help create robust memories.

Many students like to listen to music while they study. I think my frenquent listening to jazz helped me memorize all the required stuff in veterinary school. Others claim that classical music aids study. I would point out that both jazz and classical music are instrumental. I am convinced that songs with lyrics would be counterproductive, for the linguistic content serves as a distraction and could easily distrupt memory consolidation processes.

As for recall of already formed memories, music, if it is music you have learned to love, will at a minimum improve your emotional state, particularly in relieving stress. This alone can facilitate memory retrieval. Depression, anxiety, and stress are well known inhibitors of both memory formation and memory retrieval. Being happy not only feels good, it is also good for memory.

Beck, Melinda. 2009. A key for unlocking memories. Wall St. Journal, Tuesday, Nov. 17, p. D1.

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