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Good works encore

‘Seems Like Magic’

Music therapy can be medicine for the brain by

Olga Bonfiglio

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n the 1990 film Awakenings, Robin Williams plays a neurologist who treated catatonic patients who had survived the 1917-28 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica but had been in comas for decades. When he gave them doses of the drug L-Dopa and music, the patients “woke up,” moved their bodies and even danced. “This was a clear result of the patients’ interaction with music,” says Dr. Edward Roth, professor and researcher of music therapy at Western Michigan University. “Back in 1969, when the film takes place, no one knew what the underlying mechanisms were to explain the changes in behavior.” Today’s brain research shows that rhythm affects dopamine, a neurotransmitter that organizes behavior, stabilizes movement and affects mood states like motivation, joy and happiness. “People have been using music in this way for millennia,” says Roth. “It’s not a newfound phenomenon. What we do is explore and understand the physiology of mood fluctuations that result because of the music.” Roth’s research focuses on children who have experienced trauma, and it may expand to include children who have autism. A phenomenon that occurs with both of these groups is known as alexithymia, where the children are unable to use speech to express their emotions. Through the use of music, they are provided a tool to be able to express themselves. For example, children will practice the basic components of interaction with one another by extemporaneously creating music at the piano and on pitched percussion instruments. Children improvise interactively with each other and the music therapist to emulate verbal dialogue in a way that is often much more emotionally salient than verbal discussion. “We try to understand the underlying neurological, physiological and psychological processes that provide for an experience of trust, social connectedness and bonding through improvisation experiences

12 | Encore DECEMBER 2016

Client Kaley Severson, left, engages in a drumming session during music therapy with WMU professor Ed Roth.

that allow participants to express emotions,” says Roth, whose research has taken him to conferences and teaching assignments in Australia, Canada and Europe. “The idea behind this is that if we can explain the mechanisms, then we can build better interventions and increase access to services.” Music has been shown to have a profound impact on the human brain due to the diffuse activity that it evokes and that is required when one is listening to and performing music. It lends itself to repetitive types of therapies because of the inherent temporal and pitch patterns that take advantage of the brain’s plasticity (adaptability to change), resulting in modification of thoughts, behaviors and emotions, says Roth. For example, in a healthy social interaction, one person talks while the other listens — and vice versa. This interaction also mirrors the

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Encore Magazine December 2016  

Southwest Michigan's Magazine: The Fetzer Institute works for a more loving world, discovering the history of a house, uber-local gifts, Ei...

Encore Magazine December 2016  

Southwest Michigan's Magazine: The Fetzer Institute works for a more loving world, discovering the history of a house, uber-local gifts, Ei...