The Magic of Music Therapy

There can be little doubt that music has a remarkable impact on the human mind, not only in terms of emotion and feeling, but even with regards to mental health. The Guardian offers a glimpse into the benefits of music therapy, which is catching on as a treatment for people suffering dementia and other mental afflictions. It begins with the case of Vera and Jack Burrows.

Five and a half years into their very happy marriage, Jack had a stroke while roasting a chicken, and has never returned home. Ever since he’s been living in Station House care home in Crewe. Now 86, he’s lost his speech and has increasing memory problems, but his bawdy sense of humour is very much intact.

Vera, a very glamorous 84 with turquoise eye shadow and a cloud of blond hair, had accompanied Jack to a special music session at the care home run by the music therapist Greg Hanford, director of MusAbility, and musicians from the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra.

Overseen by Manchester University, it is part of a 10-week pilot project called Music in Mind, funded by Care UK, which runs 123 residential homes for elderly people. The aim is to find out if classical music can improve communication and interaction and reduce agitation for people in the UK living with dementia – estimated to number just over 800,000 and set to rise rapidly as the population ages.

The Crewe project is the fourth Music in Mind pilot. An assessment of the first three, by the Manchester-based thin-ktank New Economy, found that some participants no longer had to be medicated after taking part. Carers reported reduced agitation, better moods and improved posture; residents who had been slumped in their chairs raised their heads to take an active role.

“The power of music therapy enables, excites, enthuses, entertains,” one musician told New Economy. “It’s like opening the window of a stuffy room and allowing scented fresh air to waft in, lifting the spirits, changing the nature of the room.”

Pretty touching stuff, to say the least. Whether or not music therapy has any clear physiological impact, the fact that it can improve moods, less anxieties, and encourage more activity makes this approach very promising.

What do you think?

The Amazing Language of Music

If you’re like me, you’ve had many a bad episode in life alleviated by music. Whether you’re stressed, sad, romantic, or energetic, there seems to be the right melody out there to help mitigate (or if need be, amplify) your mood. Similarly, there’s always the right song, band, or genre to listen to for a particular circumstance, from studying to work to exercise. Music serves as an incredibly versatile form of therapy, consolation, palliative, and more.

Now several studies have confirmed what many of us have long experienced: music has an amazing impact on our mood, cognition, and overall well-being. In fact, it stimulates and conveys ideas no differently than any spoken language, as concluded by a recent study reported in PolicyMic:

Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a 2008 study focused on observing the brain responses of musicians while they played music, while a 2013 study looked at the fMRI recorded brain activity of listeners as music was played. Taken together, they paint a powerful portrait of why exactly music influences us the way it does. It comes down to one simple truth: Music actually is a special kind of language, one that works on our emotions rather than our reason.

One needn’t look to closely to notice the sheer complexity of musical compositions, which look very much like a written script onto themselves. In fact, as a more detailed account of the study reveals:

In 2008, Dr. Charles Limb, an otolaryngologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, put musicians into an MRI with an instrument and told them to play both memorized and improvised pieces of music. When the musician improvised, another musician was put in the control room to play along. The findings were striking: When the two musicians played together, their brains responded exactly as they do during spoken conversation, with one difference. The regions that generally process the meaning of language shut down — the music was simply a communication impulse in structure and intent.

But what, it gets more interesting!

Music acts on the brain of a listener as if a recorded musician were speaking to you too. The 2013 study by researchers from Finland, the UK and Denmark went even further. They exposed subjects to different types of music, ranging from the Beatles’ epic Abbey Road medley to a modern rendition of an Argentinian tango. The takeaway: The human brain reacts differently to different types of music, eliciting very specific emotional, physical and behavioral responses, almost as if music were a map, communicating emotions to a brain even better than words. As in conversation, different inputs stimulate nearly all of the brain.

The study found something even more striking, though. It isn’t just music in general that affects us: Every genre and every song is its own map to a unique combination of feelings and thoughts. As this video recording of an fMRI of a brain responding to tango music shows, our reactions to music can be profound.

This is precisely why quiet songs tend to make you more reflective or daydreamy, why upbeat, poppy songs energize you and make you want to dance, and why aggressive or fast-paced songs may inspire aggressive feelings or help drive the intensity of a workout. Music — like the words, tones, and ideas of any other spoken language — elicits a visceral reaction. And like the vagaries of language, different music has different effects on different people.

But perhaps the palpable finding is that music is as vital to our well-being as social interaction.

different study at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University suggests that listening to music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,” even stimulating dopamine release in the brain — a chemical affiliated strongly with pleasure, reward and even addiction. Like speaking with a dear friend or hearing something sweet from someone you love, music is a conversation, one the brains of listeners and players alike need to keep having.

As someone whose recurring bouts of depression and anxiety are regularly kept in check by music and companionship alike, I can certainly vouch for this conclusion.

Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better. 

 

 

 

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Gratitude Is the New Willpower

Harvard Business Review:

A fascinating study that shows another benefit to being grateful for one’s good fortune: restraint and willpower.

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

Patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to building capital. But as with most virtues, it’s not always easy to muster, since it usually requires resisting temptations for gratification on the sooner side. Should you put the extra $1,000 earned this month in your retirement savings or use it to buy a new suit? Should you approve money from the firm’s “rainy-day” fund to cover travel for senior executives (yourself included) to a lavish conference this summer or let it continue to accrue as a buffer for future challenges? Such decisions – a type referred to by economists as intertemporal choices – are characterized by options that offer different rewards as time unfolds. That is, they contrast smaller pleasures or gains now with larger pleasures or gains later.

Almost everyone – from individual investors to CFOs of large corporations – would probably agree that the best way to choose between…

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Map: All the Love in the World

It goes without saying that love is complicated no matter you go. But the degree to which it is difficult to find or feel love varies from country to country, as the following map from The Atlantic shows:

The map represents one of the most comprehensive assessments on love ever compiled thus far. Here’s more on it:

In 2006 and 2007, Gallup asked people in 136 countries whether they had experienced love the previous day. The researchers found that on a typical day, roughly 70 percent of the world’s population reports feeling love. The world leader in love turned out to be the Philippines, where more than 90 percent said they had experienced love, and the world’s laggard Armenia, where only 29 percent of respondents did. In the United States, 81 percent replied in the affirmative. 

Love appears to be flourishing in the Americas, achieving mixed results in Africa, and languishing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. But [economist Justin] Wolfers cautions against reading too much into the data. “[D]ifferences between countries may be due to how cultures define ‘love’ and not in actual day-to-day experiences,” he writes. “For example, in some countries, the idea of ‘love’ is restricted to a romantic partner, while in others it extends to one’s family members and friends.”

Yes, so let’s not jump the gun and assume that the former Soviet Union and parts of Africa are dour and curmudgeon places: they might just have a more narrow or specific understanding of love (indeed, this is the issue with any global index that tries to measure complex attitudes and concepts across a range of different linguistic and cultural groups). 

Here are some other interesting conclusion pulled from this study:

Wolfers and his wife, the economist Betsey Stevenson, crunched the global data and arrived at some fascinating conclusions, including that feeling loved peaks when people are in their mid-30s or mid-40s, and that unmarried couples who live together report getting more love than married spouses. But perhaps their most interesting findings involved the complex relationship between money and love:

“What’s perhaps more striking is how little money matters on a global level. True, the populations of richer countries are, on average, slightly more likely to feel loved than those of poorer countries. But love is still abundant in the poorer countries: People in Rwanda and the Philippines enjoyed the highest love ratios, with more than nine in ten people providing positive responses. Armenia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, with economic output per person in the middle of the range, all had love ratios of less than four in ten.

Pretty interesting stuff. What do you think?

Men Increasingly Struggling With Body-Image Issues

It’s been long documented, even accepted, that women suffer from pervasive body-image problems. It says a lot about our society that we take it as a given that women are inherently concerned about their weight and appearance. While that sadly hasn’t changed, despite coming increasingly under scrutiny, the problem seems to have caught up with men as well, as reported in The Atlantic:

new study of a national sample of adolescent boys, published in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They are also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use.

The trend toward weight obsession among boys is cause for worry, says Dr. Alison Field, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and the lead author of the study. “You want people to be concerned enough about their weight to make healthy decisions,” she says, “but not so concerned that they’re willing to take whatever means it takes—healthy or unhealthy—to achieve their desired physique.”

Of the boys who were highly concerned with their weight, about half were worried only about gaining more muscle, and approximately a third were concerned with both thinness and muscularity simultaneously. Meanwhile, less than 15 percent were concerned only with thinness. Those statistics reflect a major difference between boys and girls when it comes to weight concerns: whereas girls typically want to be thinner, boys are as likely to feel pressure to gain weight as to lose it.

“There are some males who do want to be thinner and are focused on thinness,” Field says, “but many more are focused on wanting bigger or at least more toned and defined muscles. That’s a very different physique.”

The culprit, as with women is media, particularly entertainment media:

If boys are increasingly concerned about weight, changing representations of the male form in the media over the last decade or two are at least partly to blame. “We used to really discriminate—and we still do—against women” in terms of media portrayals, says Dr. Raymond Lemberg, a Prescott, Arizona-based clinical psychologist and an expert on male eating disorders. “If you look at the Miss America pageant winners or the Playboy centerfolds or the runway models over the years, there’s been more and more focus on thinness.”

But while the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.”

Even toys contribute to the distorted messages youngsters receive about the ideal male form. Take action figures, for example, which Lemberg suggests are the male equivalent of Barbie dolls in terms of the unrealistic body images they set up for young boys. In the last decade or two, action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. “Only 1 or 2 percent of [males] actually have that body type,” says Lemberg. “We’re presenting men in a way that is unnatural.”

I’m not sure if there’s any solid research linking idealized toys with warped views of body image, but the overall point remains: we’re surrounded by increasingly idealized and unrealistic standards of beauty that are being amplified by modern media and exploited (if not further amplified) by special interests seeking to profit on people’s desire to do whatever they can to meet these images. The problem is made worse by the widespread mentality that “real men” aren’t supposed to have body image issues — it’s a girl’s thing. Even if it’s recognized, there’s a misconception of how differently males suffer from the problem.

Although awareness of the risk of weight disorders among males is growing, there is still a problem with under-recognition, Field says, primarily because of the assumption that the disorders look the same in males as they do in females. Current assessments for eating disorders focus on the classical presentation typical of females, but since young men are often more concerned with gaining muscle than becoming thin, they typically don’t present as underweight, as girls often do. They’re also not as likely to starve themselves, use laxatives or induce vomiting; instead, they’re much more likely to engage in excessive amounts of exercise and steroid abuse. “Instead of wanting to do something unhealthy to get smaller, they’re using unhealthy means to become larger,” Field says.

But though the presentation might be different, excessive worries about weight, especially in combination with high-risk behaviors, are no less concerning in males than in females. According to Field, it’s time to sit up and take note of the boys. “Pediatricians and adolescent medicine docs and parents [need] to become aware that they should be listening as much to their sons’ conversations about weight as their daughters’.”

Having grown up obese, and now struggling with feeling too thin and out of shape, I can certainly relate with the low self-esteem and sense of personal failure that comes with not looking a certain way. Indeed, I imagine just about everyone shares this sentiment to some degree or another. While idealized standards of beauty have always existed, today’s world makes it far harder to avoid the pressure, especially when we’re equally bombarded with commercial solutions that supposedly help us.

Perhaps this development ties in with the increasing incidence of anxiety that is starting to characterize modern society, especially among younger people. Thoughts?

Inside the Mind of a Heroin Addict

Given the intense stigma of drug addiction, which is often met vicious condemnation and even disregard, the perspectives and mentalities of addicts themselves are rarely ever heard, much less sympathized with. This is arguably most true of heroin addicts, who are considered especially heinous given the intensity of that drug. Too many people see substance abusers as deserving of whatever horrible fate befalls them — after all, they put themselves in that situation, right?

Whatever motivations or triggers lead an individual to first try heroin — and more often than not, the habit is precipitated by an intersection of very complex psychological, social, and economic factors — the point is, they’re suffering immensely and don’t want to be where they are. The mind of an addict is a scary and hopeless place, as these series of accounts gathered by The Guardian attest. I urge everyone to read through them and try to get a little perspective on this neglected and misunderstood world of drug addiction.

As always, please feel free to weigh in.

 

 

Recent Research Finds Humans Have Only Four Emotions

From The Atlantic

Conventional scientific wisdom recognizes six “classic” emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But the [University of Glasgow] scientists studied people’s facial expressions, and the emotions they signal, by showing people computer-generated facial animations. They asked the observers to characterize the faces based on those six basic emotions, and found that anger and disgust looked very similar to the observers in the early stages, as did fear and surprise. For example, both anger and disgust share a wrinkled nose, and both surprise and fear share raised eyebrows.

The thing was, as time went on, the face showed the distinction between the two, but when the emotion first hit, the face signals are very similar, suggesting, the researchers say, that the distinction between anger and disgust and between surprise and fear, is socially, not biologically based.

This leaves us with four “basic” emotions, according to this study: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.  These, the researchers say, are our biologically based facial signals—though distinctions exist between surprise and fear and between anger and disgust, the experiment suggests that these differences developed later, more for social reasons than survival ones.

“These results show that dynamic facial expression models transmit an evolving hierarchy of signals over time, characterized by simpler, biologically rooted signals early in the signaling dynamics followed by more complex socially specific signals that finely discriminate the six facial expressions of emotion,” the study reads.

The researchers posit that the wide-open eyes that come with fear/surprise are a response to “fast-approaching” danger, and that we widen our eyes to get more visual information. The wrinkled nose that comes with anger/disgust, they say, is a response to “stationary danger,” such as pathogens—by wrinkling your nose, you may be less likely to breathe in something harmful.

“Our data reflect that the six basic facial expressions of emotion, like languages, are likely to represent a more complex set of modern signals and categories evolved from a simpler system of communication in early man developed to subserve developing social interaction needs,” the authors wrote. By that they mean these four emotions are the basic building blocks from which we develop our modern, complex, emotional stews.

It’s remarkable how so many seemingly mundane characteristics of our species have vital evolutionary origins for our survival.

You Are What You Read

According to an article in Medical Dailya study conducted last year found that readers will unknowingly be influenced by, or even adopt, certain characteristics of the fictional characters they’re reading about.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.

Experience-taking differs from perspective-taking in that you immerse yourself in the character you’re reading about, rather than simply try to comprehend what the character is experiencing.

For example, people who had strongly identified with a fictional character that overcame obstacles to vote were also significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days than participants who read a different story. But it gets more interesting:

Psychologists also found that it was critical for the story to reveal characteristics shared by the reader earlier rather than later for ‘experience-taking’ to take effect.

“The early revelation of the group membership seemed to highlight the difference between readers and the character, and made it more difficult for readers to step into the character’s shoes,” researchers wrote in the report.

In an experiment consisting of 70 heterosexual males, who were asked to read a story about a homosexual undergraduate student revealed extraordinarily different results depending on when in the narrative the character’s sexuality was exposed.

Participants who had found out about the protagonist being gay later in the narrative reported significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than participants who read that the protagonist was gay early on or read that the protagonist was heterosexual.

“Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story,” researchers wrote.

Notably, there were similar results with white students who read about a black student who was either identified as black early or late in the story.

So in essence, these stories prime our ability to empathize, which coincides with similar research I discussed months ago that found literature to have a positive effect on one’s level of compassion. Yet another post had explored the important role that fiction in particular plays in shaping our growth and development as a species.

Of course, this isn’t a surefire effect, as certain parameters are required:

The environment also played a major role in determining whether participants will engage in ‘experience-taking,’ according to the researcher.

In an experiment which required participants to read in front of a mirror, researchers reported that fewer readers were able to undergo ‘experience-taking’ because they were constantly reminded of their own self-concept and self-identity.

Researchers said that ‘experience-taking’ can only happen when readers are able to in a way forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity when reading.

“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said in a news release. “You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”

Notably, this effect only seems to occur with reading — film and television narratives, by contrast, delegate viewers to the role of spectator, which limits their ability to put themselves in the shoes of fictional characters.

“Experience-taking can be very powerful because people don’t even realize it is happening to them. It is an unconscious process,” Libby said, adding that the phenomenon could have powerful, if not lasting, effects. 

“If you can get people to relate to characters in this way, you might really open up their horizons, getting them to relate to social groups that maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Libby told the Edmonton Journal.

Fascinating stuff. What do you guys think? Can anyone relate with this experience?