07/22/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Music Keeps Us Alive Inside

The amazing film Alive Inside is at once an inspiration, a revelation and j'accuse. No wonder it won the Audience Award at Sundance!

Alive Inside follows social worker Dan Cohen as he attends to nursing home residents suffering from dementia. Dan has made a remarkable discovery: He can radically improve the condition of those in profound withdrawal, isolation and vegetative states. He does it with iPods, not medicine.

Henry has been in a nursing home for 10 years. Largely unresponsive and withdrawn, he barely recognizes his daughter. A therapist places headphones on Henry, immersing him in his favorite music. Immediately, his face lights up, his eyes widen, he starts singing and moving to the music. The transformation is thoroughgoing. When the headphones are removed, Henry waxes garrulous, talking, singing and holding forth on what the music does to him: "It gives me a feeling of love... I feel a band of love and dreams."

In one instance after another, we see the dramatic effect music has on men and women with Alzheimer's and other disorders. Memory and sense of self restored, these formerly disconnected individuals become expressive and engaged. We meet a longtime married couple who have successfully been using music to slow the progression of dementia. They are living together at home years after others have consigned a spouse to a nursing facility.

There is no mystery to how it works. The latest research in brain mapping confirms what Oliver Sacks says on screen: Music activates more parts of the brain than any other stimulus, including those areas responsible for emotions, motion and memory - areas that Alzheimer's does not disable.

It is no exaggeration to say music touches the deepest level of our being. Within days of conception, embryonic cells begin physically moving in unison. These cells develop into the heart, its rhythm a siren song that draws us to music and literally keeps us alive inside.

The film raises troubling questions. The nation has an aging population, millions suffering from Alzheimers and mushrooming health care bills. Yet the health care system seems incapable of adopting an effective - and cost-effective - therapy. Why?

The medical paradigm is part of the reason. Nursing facilities rely on anti-psychotic medications to manage residents. The drugs do not treat dementia. They don't help the patients; rather, they help the staff keep patients under control. It's done this way because it's done this way, it's the approved procedure, with someone picking up a check at each step.

Speaking with her after a screening of the film, Connie Tomaino, a music therapist who works with Oliver Sachs and the co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, told me she can document remarkable results from music therapy in countless cases, but "I can't write a prescription for it." She says sardonically someone will need to make money off it before it's widely adopted.

But the problem is far more insidious than a Big Pharma drug cartel, real or imagined.

The Terminator envisioned a dystopian future where machines take over. In a very real way, the future is now -- machines have already taken over. We have surrendered our psyche and self-image to machines. We model our behavior on them, measure our worth against how well we work with them; we serve our machines as much as they serve us. "Efficiency" is the orthodoxy that justifies all manner of inhumanity and horror in our age, just as the charge of heresy did in an earlier dark age.

Past their prime as generators of economic output, the only metric of value in our increasingly materialistic society, elders are seen as superfluous, to be cast aside in "nursing homes" that are more hospital than home.

Franklin Roosevelt makes a cameo appearance in the film signing the Social Security Act. It's presented as our industrial society's response to poverty among the elderly, and, along with Medicare, as having had the unintended consequence of facilitating the mass warehousing of the elderly in medical institutions.

This narrative echoes that of the Depression Era's most radical critics, the decentralists or Distributists. They believed the New Deal didn't go far enough, merely treating the symptoms, not the cause of what truly ailed society - the economic collectivism of the corporate-industrial state, a plutocracy of giant corporations, big banks and big government that was as dehumanizing as any Marxist or fascist regime. The Distributists would replace large-scale industrialization with widespread ownership of property, a society of decentralized, human scale enterprises, individual, family and worker-owned businesses. Such a socio-economic order would allow human potential to flower in all its dimensions, spiritual, emotional as well as material.

Their "small is beautiful" vision no longer seems naively utopian as it did in the first third of the last century. Decentralized, local and personalized are the hallmarks of 21st century technology. From computing to manufacturing, media and agriculture, this new paradigm is disrupting the centralized, mass-production, impersonal model of the industrial era.

The Distributists called for a thoroughgoing transformation of our society, and so too do the filmmakers of Alive Inside. The nursing homes Dan Cohen visits are but one example of industrial-scale living that isolates us from one another and from our true selves. There is another way to live, one that brings us together, honors our higher nature and acknowledges the intangible immortal soul within us. We must have the vision to see the way, and the courage to grasp it.

Lean more about the film, Alive Inside, and Dan Cohen's non-profit, Music and Memory.