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The Ghost in the Machine

The Ghost in the Machine

Working with music as a transformative modality brings me up smack against the research by neuroscientists. There seems to be a consensus that sound can cause release of, say, serotonin, and that varying amounts of serotonin have varying effects on the human system, ranging from very good to very bad. Anyone who’s working through the issue of getting their psych meds “right” can confirm that.


Notable physicians, neuroscientists and surgeons playing around with the effects of music today include Dr Oliver Sacks (“Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”), Dr Daniel J Levitin (“This is Your Brain on Music”) and Dr Claudius Conrad (“A Musician Who Performs With A Scalpel”). Also, if you haven’t heard this remarkable segment from on “blame” it is VERY worth an hour of your time, especially because it got me thinking about how little we really know about the human brain. 

Like music therapy, neuroscience is still in relative infancy. Both music therapy and neuroscience are making incredible strides forward in research and treatment, but based on the actual science we have for both disciplines, we’re a long way from consistent results. That is, the skill of the music therapist or neuroscientist is still the biggest factor in applying research to successful treatment. One neuroscientist, interviewed on the radiolab “blame” segment, compared what we know about the human brain to viewing the Earth from space: we can see a lot of stuff happening, but we are a long way from understanding what’s really going on. The analogue to this, from a musical point of view, are last Century’s musical over-simplifications: “listening to Mozart makes you smarter” or “listening to rap makes you angry.” Hogwash. Sort of. 

The real issue is that, thanks in part to the profit-based medical industry, medical research is overly fascinated with quantifiable results. The search for quantifiable results — the scientific method, if you will — only leads us down a rabbit hole that keeps getting narrower and narrower until we can reliably make a conclusion that something — albeit a very small thing — changed as a result of our intervention (drugs, surgery, music). For music, this is exactly the wrong measurement. Music is too broad to be pigeon-holed so neatly. 

I agree that a singular effect of a specific sound can be quantified, but that’s not the same thing as understanding how even the simplest melody can create such a huge range of emotion, varying from individual to individual, and it’s certainly a long way from being a determining factor in treatment of a particular symptom. Serotonin’s effects can range from more peaceful sleep to schizophrenia, depending on the quantity present in the human system, and music-induced riots — the premiere of Stravisky’s “Rite of Spring” is one well-known example — probably trace their impetus to a measurable overdose of serotonin. I’m not encouraging neuroscientific research in a mosh pit, but it could be instructive…. 

The big point here is that too narrow a focus on a particular result and connecting it too specifically to music, in my opinion, misses the powerful and holistic nature of “music therapy.” What little scientific knowledge we have about the effects of music — by the very nature of the way in which that knowledge was obtained — does not give a very big picture of the potential music has for results. Our medical need to quantify a particular effect obscures our view of the hundreds of other effects happening simultaneously. 

Music therapy, for example, has been found to be quite beneficial in “treating” autism. That’s wonderful, to be sure. But not everyone in the world has autism. On the other hand, a huge majority of people in the world have stress-related issues — too many of them to quantify, certainly — and it’s well known that music can “help” with distress. Unfortunately for the measurement-based treatment community, nothing is going to be done to advance music as a “cure” for distress, specifically because “stress” is too general and the effects of music are too broad. That’s a shame, because nothing works better for self medication in distress than music. Sadly, both the medical and music therapy communities consider themselves successful for alleviating the symptoms of many stress-related illnesses while forgetting that they haven’t done a thing about the actual stress-producing causes…. 

Until we have a better understanding of neuroscience, and of music’s ability to trigger predictable responses in the human system, a more holistic approach is needed. The medical research and treatment community is going to have to accept a more qualitative perspective. Patients’ response to intervention must be allowed to go outside a multi-point checklist and numerical scale if we are to have any chance at understanding the more complex results of that music-based intervention. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s use is overdue. How many patients are killed by well-meaning physicians who administer the wrong drug? Our reliance on smaller and smaller slices of understanding is useful, but the interaction of the entire human system with any given intervention is critical. We delve farther and farther into isolated effects at our own peril, and folks who deserve better care ought not pay for it with poorer health. 

On the other hand, music is safe, effective and freely available. In addition to mental, emotion and physical benefits, it also has positive social implications. Most importantly, one doesn’t need a credentialed therapist to experience and enjoy the effects of music — even the therapeutic ones! Anyone experiencing distress who is within range of a computer or a smart phone is also within range of treatment for that distress. 

How does this work? You can either wait around for an expert to answer that question with “science” your health insurance might just pay for, or you can begin NOW to use music for your own relief. Ask yourself: would I stop eating because I don’t understand the science underlying my digestive system and biology of nutrition? Music and sound have been available for millennia. What are we waiting for? Some doctor to tell us to fire up Spotify or Pandora or Songza? The ghost in your machine is hungry for music! Time to start listening!

Time to start giving ourselves better care. It’s not hard — and it might even “treat” issues we didn’t even consider transforming in ways we hadn’t thought possible.

Get your music on!