THE BLOG
08/19/2014 05:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2014

Music's Power to Overcome and Transform

Francine Toder, Ph.D.

Photo credit: ALIVEINSIDE_PhotoCourtesyofBOND360.png

The ability to reflect on life and enjoy memories from long ago is a hallmark of our species. It has always been this way from the beginning of human time. Music is one of our oldest forms of communication. It resonates with life itself. Like a heartbeat, music provides a rhythm that is uniquely comforting. This is why all cultures going back to our cave dwelling ancestors have used flutes and drums, dances and song to convey stories, emotions, history, religion and so much more.

Evocative of positive and meaningful feelings, music provides a powerful avenue through which we remember past events. As a child of the fifties and sixties I can listen to any music from that era and remember exactly what I was doing at that moment and often the person with whom I shared the experience. Almost any song by the Beatle's, Bob Dylan or Fleetwood Mac takes me back to that moment and place giving me access to long buried memories of who I was at that time. It evokes sweetness and also the angst of teenaged drama. More than that, it reflects our unique history and culture cemented in time. It has the capacity to touch us deeply.

When I went to a screening of the award-winning documentary, Alive Inside, I knew that this movie focused on memory and music, particularly as a stimulant to Alzheimer patients spending their twilight years in nursing homes. I was curious but it didn't sound like an exciting evening. I couldn't have been more mistaken.

Like its name, Alive Inside, which won an award at the prestigious 2014 Sundance Movie Festival, presents what's uniquely human about all of us -- the way we respond to music; creating the urge to dance and sing, play air guitars or keep rhythm on imaginary drums while it pulls at our heartstrings, transporting us enraptured to a timeless place. So, I wondered, "what more can I learn from this film" since I am a "wise elder," have been a psychologist for 40 years, and I understand the power of music -- even play the cello?

Dan Cohen, a social worker convinced that music sparks cognitive and emotional functioning has spent decades proving his point. For the past three years, writer, director, cinematographer Michael Rossato-Bennett has committed to following Cohen from one nursing home to another documenting some extraordinary findings. It's not just the music; it's how it is delivered and customized that is central to the movie's message. Perhaps it took a social worker to understand that pairing the person with their much loved music from the past has the power to overcome and transform.

The first scene unfolds with an elderly man slumped over in his wheelchair focused on seemingly nothing in particular. We see Dan gently attaching ear phones to this resident, having guessed the kind of music he would most enjoy (installed in an iPod), Henry came alive, eyes wide with wonder and miraculously humming and then singing, gesturing to the Cab Calloway jazz tune that he recognized from his youth. In later scenes Henry's posture is erect and he's more aware and attentive for hours at a time following the music, about an hour's dose of blues and jazz -- according to family and aids.

The field of neuroscience has much to say about the parts of the brain stimulated by music and the ability of music to make us feel deeply. Using fMRI while people are either listening to or playing a musical instrument shows the brain lighting up like a fully adorned Christmas tree. Many parts of the brain respond to music, especially those that relate to movement, pleasure, language and memory. In fact, Oliver Sacks, M.D., neurologist and best-selling author of books with neurological themes for everyday people, made an appearance in the movie and said, "Music has more ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus."

The iPod/headphone paring is not just useful for elderly nursing home residents but younger people still living independently with early or mid Alzheimer's disease. The movie also shows the benefits of personalized music offered to men and women for other medical or psychiatric conditions, which reduces the need for various medications. The fact is that music tailored to each person works so well in improving mood and well being that some nursing homes make music available to all residents at all times.

The movie's goal -- to provide headphones and iPods with customized music to all nursing home patients in the U.S. --- is quite lofty, but it's catching on. Dan Cohen said that initially only a few nursing homes participated but now more than 650 facilities follow this regime. His goal will be met when all nursing homes provide music, on demand, for all of their residents since it works so well in improving mood and enhancing well being.

You can help by spreading the word. After all, it just takes headphones, iPods and learning enough about those in need to find the perfect playlist. Look around in your community. Who would benefit from your donation of the three elements that comprise this musical opportunity? As Cohen suggested, pair your local teenagers, who do get the value of music, with grateful elder recipients. According to Cohen who spoke at the documentary's screening in San Francisco, this would be "the perfect storm of inter-generational activity."