lördag 30 april 2016

Can music harm or heal the brain?

Music can obviously not damage the brain in the way that a stroke or a blow to the head can. But the brain is a plastic organ - one might think of it as a self-wiring computer. This means that if the wiring is faulty, its function will be impaired and it will in fact be damaged.

We know that emotions and feelings can be affected by sound. There is the notorious effect of being exposed to 7Hz, a frequency just below the threshold of hearing, matching the theta wave frequency recorded by electroencephalagrams (EEG); there is a lot of literature on this subject. It is a frequency that can easily be generated by playing low-frequency chords on the organ.

Music was used as a form of torture at Guantanamo Bay. Music torture has been common practice for the CIA ever since it began its "enhanced interrogation program" in the early 2000s. The process is designed to "create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock" in prisoners. Sgt. Mark Hadsell, a member of the U.S. Psychological Operations team, described the efficacy of the tactic: "If you play it for 24 hours, your brain and body functions start to slide, your train of thought slows down and your will is broken. That's when we come in and talk to them."

The same applies to rasping and grinding sounds, which create a feeling of stress. Clearly, then, sound is having a physiological effect. Then there are what are known as "earworms", catchy pieces of music that continually repeat through a person's mind after it is no longer playing.

Although the mechanisms are not yet well-understood, memory is stored in the brain through some kind of change in the pattern of neural connections, so there is a physical change in the brain tissue itself. Stress gives rise to increased levels of cortisol, which also affect the brain tissue. So the notion that sound, including music, can harm the brain, is by no means far-fetched.

The opposite is also true. The process has been noted by, amongst others, the French MD, Alfred Tomatis. Since the 1950’s he has researched the effects of Gregorian chant upon the brain and body. By the early 1970’s when Catholic liturgy was changed after the Second Vatican Council, Dr. Tomatis was being asked to visit monasteries and council the abbots and monks on their failing health and energy. He noted that until they returned to their customs of Latin singing psalmody and chant, that they would no longer feel the natural rhythms of the day.

Tomatis was not making these suggestions from a conservative, Catholic viewpoint. He realised that the power of self-generated tones, the prolonged open vowel sounds characteristic of Latin, and the power of the rhythmic breath could alter the whole attitude and physical body of a person, not to mention the spiritual relationship with God.

To stimulate the brain and charge it with energy, is most easily done with the voice, intoning vowel sounds. Gregorian chant is an ideal way to use slow vowel sounds to relax the body, mind and soul. Taking long deep breaths with a light humming sound demonstrates the effect of the voice on the body after only a few minutes. To listen to the sounds of Gregorian chants inspires the body to breathe more deeply and to centre itself. It is a simple way to balance mind and body. Gregorian music is not boring although it does not have an insistent magnetic rhythm or melody to captivate the listener. It stimulates the brain with long sounds and elongated breaths. This humming or slower toning of the vowel sounds can be thought of  as massaging the body from the inside out.

The 1970s were not the first assault on Gregorian Chant in the Catholic Church. The process began with the Reformation, when Luther abolished it and replaced it by simple melodies in strict time. This is precisely the kind of music that gives rise to earworms. It may be significant that Gregorian Chant does not have this effect, since the music follows the line and rhythm of the texts, which take precedence over the music. The two types of music have very different effects on the mood of those who sing and listen to them, which must in turn have consequences for the way that the brain is wired and its ability to function efficiently. Thus, the idea that music can cause brain damage is not so far-fetched. The damage may be subtle, but it is not negligible nevertheless and could have an effect on the individual's ability to maintain focus on tasks and make rational decisions.

Perhaps Catholics should censor the music they have at Mass and cut out metrical hymns composed for Protestant services.

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