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Probing Music and the Mind

What does music as medicine mean?

By Jessica Pasley
July 2011

For centuries, philosophers, physicians and politicians have waxed poetically about music’s healing power.

Oliver Sacks, M.D., author of “Awakenings,” wrote that “the power of music to integrate and cure … is quite fundamental. It is the profoundest nonchemical medication.” While many agree with his assessment, one of the biggest questions remains: how do we know?

Photo by Daniel Dubois

Photo by Daniel Dubois

According to Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair and director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center – we don’t, yet.

“Until recently there was very little data on the healing power of music,” said Dykens, professor of Psychology and Human Development, Pediatrics and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt. “There are so many gaps in our information, but there is growing recognition that there is a need to understand this better through research.

“Right now, we all seem to have a sense of how music as an intervention works, but we need to document how it changes the way the brain functions, how it changes our stress and hormonal profiles, how it creates happier people.”

Beyond emotions, music can have a profound impact on even the most medically fragile, leading to shorter periods of time being intubated, less pain medication and a dampening of stress hormones, for example.

Dykens is interested in understanding the neuroscience and cognition of music in hopes of filling the gaps of what music as medicine means.
Dykens’ research has primarily focused on individuals with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder than can lead to development problems. People with Williams syndrome often show an unusual attraction to music. In her studies, she found that music reduces anxiety levels and has a calming effect.

For the past six years, she recruited a bevy of research participants through the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp, a weeklong residential camp for people with Williams syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Campers participate in songwriting workshops, recording sessions and a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry. During their stay, campers are also involved in a host of clinical and neuroimaging research to help investigators understand the unusual auditory processing and love for music that is characteristic of Williams syndrome.

Dykens recently co-wrote “Musical Interests and Abilities in Individuals with Developmental Disabilities,” for the International Reviews of Research in Developmental Disabilities. Along with graduate student Miriam Lense, the pair reviews all the literature on music as therapy or musical processing in individuals with different types of developmental disabilities.

She also has launched the Music and Mind Initiative, a collaboration of musicians, scientists, clinicians, students and therapists with a growing interest in music as both science and medicine.

“The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center facilitates discoveries and best practices that make positive differences in the lives of persons with developmental disabilities and their families,” said Dykens. “We support and apply scientific research to bring better services and training to the community and we have the capacity to grow a critical mass of creative researchers to explore multiple aspects of music and the mind.

“We can collect data that will inform all of us how to use music in targeted therapies, in targeted populations.”

Dykens has pondered how it is that a person with dementia cannot recognize a family member, but can sit down and play the piano; how is it that a child with autism spectrum disorder has trouble learning math facts, but when they are sung to, the child learns?

“We don’t know anything really about music as an intervention in these special populations,” said Dykens. “We need to learn and it’s time we start."



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For those with Williams Syndrome, music is the beat that drives their lives. Find out how the Academy of Country Music (ACM) helps Vanderbilt reach out to these young people, and see what lessons the artists learn from them in return.

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