In January 2011, when Gabrielle Giffords was critically wounded by a shooter, it was unclear whether she would fully recuperate or regain her ability to talk. Giffords was injured on the left side of her brain near the section called Broca’s area that controls language.
However, recovery specialists have started using a unique therapy to help patients recover their language ability: music. Even though we understand and create language on the left side of our brain, we understand music primarily on the right side. The way the brain relates to music is very unique. When we have a song stuck in our head or listen to a song by imagining it, our brain is very active as if we were really listening to that song. Neuroscience research has shown that music has an incredible impact across the entire brain. For example, earlier this year scientists in Montreal found that music actually creates a surge of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that communicates pleasure, scientifically proving why music makes you feel good. To read more about this study, see Jonah Lehrer’s article in Wired.
Because music relies on pitch and rhythm in addition to speech, it is interpreted in different parts of the brain, not solely the music or language areas. When rehabilitating injured patients like Giffords, rather than trying to redevelop the language area directly, this new therapy retrains the connections in the brain and creates a new language area in the music region of the brain. Giffords’s music therapist, Meghan Morrow compared to this approach to a highway detour in an interview with ABC News.
You can learn more about language and the brain in our article about communicating with machines.
In his book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks traces other ways that music affects our brains. Music triggers long-lost memories in Alzheimer’s patients, and it can have a remarkable impact on Parkinson’s patients as well, including helping them regain movement. In a more mundane example, teachers also use the elements of music to help their students learn. As early as the ABCs, students acquire knowledge more efficiently when it’s tied to song.
How does music impact your brain and language processing? Have you had experiences with music that help you with words? Let us know.