Familiar music soothes people with brain damage

Is there anything that music can’t do? As it turns out, one of the things that music can do is help people with pretty heavy brain damage.

A new study has shown that listening to a favorite song could boost the brain’s ability to respond to other stimuli in people with consciousness disorders. Not only does music seem to have a beneficial influence on cognitive process in healthy people, but it also seems to be able to help those with with brain damage as well.

Researcher Fabien Perrin at the University of Lyon, France, recorded brain activity in four different patients. Two of the patients were in a coma, one of them was in a minimally conscious state, and one was in a completely vegetative state.

First, each patient was played their favorite music (chosen by family or friends) or they were played “musical noise”. For example, one patient listened to The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, another ‘heard’ the Blues Brothers’ ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love’. Then, they were all read a list of people’s names, including their own name.

The same experiment was repeated with ten healthy volunteers.

What they found was that in all four of the brain damaged patients, the music (as opposed to the musical noise) enhanced the quality of the brain’s subsequent response to their own name, bringing it closer to the brain response of the healthy volunteers.

There are two theories that Perrin has about the effect of music on the brain:

“Listening to preferred music activates our autobiographical memory – so it could make it easier for the subsequent perception of another autobiographical stimulus such as your name. Another hypothesis is that music enhances arousal or awareness, so maybe it temporarily increases consciousness and the discrimination of your name becomes easier.”

The findings of the study were presented in July at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Brighton, UK. This research definitely seems like something Oliver Sacks might be into.