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Sometimes you hear music and you automatically tap your foot, or do a little dance, or walk to the beat. What’s happening in your brain that makes your body move like that? Can music’s effects on movement or speech rewire your brain?

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For thousands of years, people have been using music for healing. Like, Ancient Egyptian and Greek physicians used instrumental music and song to help heal their patients. And during World War II, people even used music therapy to help soldiers recover from injuries and mental trauma.

And while that might sound a little off the wall, studies have actually shown that music can reduce levels of stress hormones, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, relieve anxiety, and just make us happier. But that’s not all. In the last few decades, advances in neuroscience have revealed that music is also a virtuoso when it comes to healing the brain.

Now, clinicians are using music therapy to help patients overcome head injuries, recover lost speech or mobility, and even rewire their brains. Part of the reason music is so powerful is because the brain doesn’t have a single section devoted to music. The pathways activated by music also orchestrate language, attention, memory, complex cognition, and movement.

And that means music can potentially influence all these diverse functions. For example, our brains have networks of cells called auditory-motor circuits. Part of their job is to process the rhythmic sounds we hear, like the rhythms of speech or music.

But they also stimulate rhythmic movements, like walking. Since these neural pathways deal with both sound and movement, if you excite the neurons with music, you can make them more ready to activate movement. And it’s not uncommon.

Sometimes you hear music and you automatically tap your foot, or do a little dance, or walk to the beat. And scientists can take advantage of this phenomenon to help people who struggle with movement. In a 1993 study, scientists recruited 10 people who had weakness in one side of their body after a stroke, which left them walking with a limp.

Then the researchers asked them to walk to the rhythm of Renaissance dance music. And they measured the activity in the patients’ muscles using electrodes attached to their bodies. The patients showed almost instantaneous improvements.

They had more muscle activation in their weak side and more symmetry in their stride. And one 2017 study found that stroke patients who received music therapy were still moving better six months after the therapy ended. This kind of therapy can help with all kinds of conditions that affect movement, too.

For instance, some of the same scientists from the 1993 study later used a similar therapy on patients with Parkinson’s disease. The patients suffered from severe slowness or even freezing—where they essentially stopped moving altogether. But the scientists found that listening to music significantly sped up patients’ walking pace and helped prevent freezing.

In fact, overall, they found that among Parkinson’s and stroke patients with movement problems, music therapy actually worked better than standard physical therapy. A different kind of music therapy can also help with a condition called aphasia, which is the loss of the ability to speak or understand language. It’s actually pretty common.

One in 272 Americans has some degree of aphasia, often following a stroke, head injury, or brain tumor. But what’s unusual is that, while many people with aphasia can’t speak, some can still sing—thanks to how musical memories are stored in the brain. While your brain mostly processes language on the left side, it uses both sides to process music and store musical memories.

So if people have damage on the left side of their brain and struggle to put original thoughts into words, they might still be able to use the right side of their brain to sing a favorite song. And because of this connection between music and language, therapists can use music to train the right hemisphere to recover lost language skills. This process is called melodic intonation therapy.

To start off, the therapist typically asks the patient to hum and then sing a short sentence like “Nice to meet you,” using a melody that mimics the natural intonation of the phrase. Gradually, they move on to saying the sentence with a sing-songy intonation, and then speaking the sentence. “Nice to meet you! Nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you.” So, melodic intonation therapy takes advantage of the right hemisphere’s ability to communicate through song, then slowly trains it to transform song into speech. This rewires the brain, so that the right hemisphere takes over some of the language functions that the damaged left hemisphere can no longer perform.

Melodic intonation therapy is typically used when there is such severe damage in the left hemisphere that it’s impossible to repair the neurons in that area. So it’s necessary to recruit the right side to come to the rescue. But when there’s less damage, music therapy can be used to strengthen and rehabilitate connections in the injured area of the brain.

For example, it can be used to treat cognitive problems caused by moderate traumatic brain injury, or TBI. One part of the brain that’s often damaged in TBIs is the orbitofrontal cortex, and that can cause problems with attention, concentration, and social behavior. But studies have found that music can help patients with TBIs recover function in this part of their brain.

In one study, scientists recruited seven patients with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex who were having persistent cognitive problems even after non-musical therapy. During the eight-week study, the researchers gave the patients two piano lessons a week and instructed them to practice at home each day. Afterward, the patients listened to music in an fMRI scanner while the scientists monitored the activity in different regions of their brain.

And compared to the beginning of the study, they found increased activity and connectivity in several brain areas, including the orbitofrontal cortex. What’s more, six out of the seven patients experienced improvements in attention, memory, learning, and social interaction. They were even able to return to work again.

So, for those who can experience it, music is not only relaxing, uplifting, and fun. It can also stimulate neurons to improvise new connections and pathways, helping people with different brain conditions get their groove back. Not only do our experiences influence our brains; our brains are also tied to the way we experience the world.

And if you’re interested in learning more about that, you might enjoy the book “Phantoms in the Brain,” which is available on Blinkist. Blinkist is an app for everyone who wishes they could read more but can’t keep up with all the great books there are out there. It highlights the most important insights and need-to-know information from nonfiction books and condenses them down so that you can either read or listen to them in just 15 minutes.

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