How Music Can Awaken Patients with Alzheimer’s and Dementia

In the late 1950’s, pioneering free jazz bandleader Sun Ra played a gig at a Chicago mental hospital, booked there by his manager Alton Abraham, who had an interest in alternative medicine. The experiment in musical therapy worked wonders. One patient who had not moved or spoken in years reportedly got up, walked over to the piano, and yelled out, “you call that music!”

The anecdote illustrates just one experience among untold millions in which a person suffering from a debilitating neurological condition responds positively, even miraculously, it seems, to music.




As famed neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks puts it in his book Musicophilia, “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.”

This medical fact makes musical therapy an ideal intervention for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In the short video above, Sacks describes his visits to patients in various old age homes. “Some of them are confused, some are agitated, some are lethargic, some have almost lost language,” he says, “but all of them, without exception, respond to music.”

We can see just such a response in the clip at the top, in which the barely responsive Henry Dryer, a 92-year-old nursing home resident with dementia, transforms when he hears music. “The philosopher Kant called music ‘the quickening art,’ and Henry’s being quickened,” says Sacks says of the dramatic change, “he’s being brought to life.” Suddenly lucid and happy, Henry looks up and says, “I’m crazy about music. Beautiful sounds.”

The clip comes from a documentary called Alive Inside, winner of a 2014 Sundance Audience Award (see the trailer above), a film that shows us several musical “quickenings” like Henry’s. “Before Dryer started using his iPod,” notes The Week, “he could only answer yes-or-no questions—and sometimes he sat silently and still for hours at a time.” Now, he sings, carries on conversations and can “even recall things from years ago.”

Sacks comments that “music imprints itself on the brain deeper than any other human experience,” evoking emotions in ways that nothing else can. A 2010 Boston University study showed that Alzheimer’s patients “learned more lyrics when they were set to music rather than just spoken.” Likewise, researchers at the University of Utah found music to be “an alternative route for communicating with patients.”

As senior author of the Utah study, Dr. Norman Foster, says, “language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.” See the effects for yourself in this extraordinary film, and learn more about Sacks' adventures with music and the brain in the 2007 discussion of Musicophilia, just above.

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In Touching Video, People with Alzheimer’s Tell Us Which Memories They Never Want to Forget

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Psilocybin Could Soon Be a Legal Treatment for Depression: Johns Hopkins Professor, Roland Griffiths, Explains How Psilocybin Can Relieve Suffering

Much of the recent scientific research into psychedelics has picked up where researchers left off in the mid-20th century, before LSD, psilocybin, and other psychoactive drugs became countercultural means of consciousness expansion, and then banned, illegal substances the government sought to control. Scientists from several fields studied psychedelics as treatments for addiction, depression, and anxiety, and end-of-life care. These applications were conceived and tested several decades ago.

Now, thanks to some serious investment from high-profile institutions like Johns Hopkins University, and thanks to changing government attitudes toward psychoactive drugs, it may be possible for psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to get legal approval for therapy in a clinical setting by 2021. “For the first time in U.S. history,” Shelby Hartman reports at Rolling Stone, “a psychedelic drug is on the fast track to getting approved for treating depression by the federal government.”

As Michael Pollan has detailed in his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, the possibilities for psilocybin and other such drugs are vast. “But before the Food and Drug Administration can be petitioned to reclassify it,” Brittany Shoot notes at Fortune, the drug “first has to clear phase III clinical trials. The entire process is expected to take about five years.” In the TEDMED video above, you can see Roland R. Griffiths, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, discuss the ways in which psilocybin, “under supported conditions, can occasion mystical-type experiences associated with enduring positive changes in attitudes and behavior.”

The implications of this research span the fields of ethics and medicine, psychology and religion, and it’s fitting that Dr. Griffiths leads off with a statement about the compatibility of spirituality and science, supported by a quote from Einstein, who said “the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It’s the source of all true science.” But the work Griffiths and others have been engaged in is primarily practical in nature—though it does not at all exclude the mystical—like finding effective means to treat depression in cancer patients, for example.

“Sixteen million Americans suffer from depression and approximately one-third of them are treatment resistant,” Hartman writes. “Depression is also an epidemic worldwide, affecting 300 million people around the world.” Psychotropic drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA (which is not classified as a psychedelic), have been shown for a long time to work for many people suffering from severe mental illness and addictions.

Although such drugs present some potential for abuse, they are not highly addictive, especially relative to the flood of opioids on the legal market that are currently devastating whole communities as people use them to self-medicate. It seems that what has most prevented psychedelics from being researched and prescribed has as much or more to do with long-standing prejudice and fear as it does with a genuine concern for public health. (And that’s not even to mention the financial interests who exert tremendous pressure on drug policy.)

But now, Hartman writes, “it appears [researchers] have come too far to go back—and the federal government is finally recognizing it, too.” Find out why this research matters in Dr. Griffiths' talk, Pollan’s book, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and some of the posts we’ve linked to below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

British Doctors To Prescribe Arts & Culture to Patients: “The Arts Are Essential to our Health and Wellbeing”

Photo by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons

The arts and humanities are afterthoughts in many American schools, rarely given priority as part of a comprehensive education, though they formed the basis of one for thousands of years elsewhere. One might say something similar of preventative medicine in the U.S. healthcare system. It’s tempting to idealize the priorities of other wealthy countries. The Japanese investment in “forest bathing,” for example, comes to mind, or Finnish public schools and France's funding of an Alzheimer’s village.

But everyplace has its problems, and no country is an island, exempt from the global pressures of capital or hostile interference.

But if we consider such things as art, music, and dance as essential—not only to an education, but to our general well-being—we must commend the UK’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, for his “social prescribing” initiative.




Hancock wants “the country’s doctors to prescribe therapeutic art- or hobby-based treatments for ailments ranging from dementia to psychosis, lung conditions and mental health issues,” reports Meilan Solly at Smithsonian. The plan “could find patients enrolled in dance classes and singing lessons, or perhaps enjoying a personalized music playlist.”

In a speech Hancock delivered on what happened to be election day in the U.S., he referred to a quote from Confucius that represents one particularly ancient educational tradition: “Music produces a kind of pleasure, which human nature cannot do without.” (He also quotes the Rolling Stones' “Satisfaction.”) Hancock’s idea goes beyond aristocratic traditions of old, proclaiming a diet of the arts for everyone.

They’re not just a right in their own terms as the search for truth and expression of the human condition. We shouldn’t only value them for the role they play in bringing meaning and dignity to our lives. We should value the arts and social activities because they’re essential to our health and wellbeing. And that’s not me as a former Culture Secretary saying it. It’s scientifically proven. Access to the arts and social activities improves people’s mental and physical health.

We’ve likely all come across research on the tremendous health benefits of what Warnock calls “social activities,” maintaining friendships and getting out and about. But what does the research into art and health say? “The medical benefits of engaging with the arts are well-recorded,” Solly writes, citing studies of stroke survivors making great strides after performing with the Royal Philharmonic; dance lessons improving clarity and concentration among those with early psychosis; and those with lung conditions improving with singing lessons. Additionally, many studies have shown the emotional lift museum visits and other cultural activities of a social nature can give.

Similar trials have taken place in Canada, but the UK project is “simultaneously more comprehensive and less fleshed-out,” aiming to encourage everything from cooking classes, playing bingo, and gardening to “more culturally focused ventures.” The proposal does not, however, fully address funding or accessibility issues for the most at-risk patients. Hancock’s rhetoric also perhaps heedlessly pits “more prevention and perspiration” against “popping pills and Prozac,” a characterization that seems to trivialize drug therapies and create a false binary where the two approaches can work well hand-in-hand.

Nonetheless, a shift away from “over-medicalising” and toward preventative and holistic approaches has the potential to address not only chronic symptoms of disease, but the non-medical causes—including stress, isolation, and sadness—that contribute to and worsen illness. The plan may require a rigorously individualized implementation by physicians and it will "start at a disadvantage," with 4% cuts per year to the NHS budget until 2021, as Royal College of Nursing public health expert Helen Donovan points out.

Those challenges aside, given all we know about the importance of emotional well-being to physical health, it’s hard to argue with Hancock’s premise. “Access to the arts improves people’s mental and physical health,” he tweeted during his November 6th roll-out of the initiative. “It makes us happier and healthier." Art is not a luxury, but a necessary ingredient in human flourishing, and yet "the arts do not tend to be thought of in medical terms," writes professor of health humanities Paul Crawford, though they constitute a "shadow health service," bringing us a kind of happiness, I’d argue with Confucius, that we simply cannot find anywhere else.

via The Smithsonian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Free Guided Imagery Recordings Help Kids Cope with Pain, Stress & Anxiety

I don’t have to tell you modern life is full of stressors that exacerbate hypertension, depression, and everything in-between. Therapeutic stress reduction techniques based in mindfulness meditation, trauma research, and a number of other fields have proliferated in our daily lives and everyday conversation, helping people cope with chronic pain, career anxiety, and the toxic miasma of our geopolitics.

These methods have been very successful among adult populations—of monks, veterans, clinical subjects, etc.—but adults process information very differently than children. And as every parent knows, kids get majorly stressed out too, whether they’re absorbing our anxieties second-hand or feeling the pressures of their own social and educational environments.




We can’t expect young children to sit still and pay attention to their breath for thirty minutes, or to change their mental scripts with cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s far easier for kids to process things through their imagination, channeling anxiety through play, or art, or—as pediatric psychologists at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) explain—guided mental visualization, or “guided imagery,” as they call it. How does it work?

Guided imagery involves envisioning a certain goal to help cope with health problems or the task or skill a child is trying to learn or master. Guided imagery is most often used as a relaxation technique that involves sitting or lying quietly and imagining a favorite, peaceful setting like a beach, meadow or forest.

The therapists at CHOC “teach patients to imagine sights, sounds, smells, tastes or other sensations to create a kind of daydream that ‘removes’ them from or gives them control over their present situation.” In the video at the top, Dr. Cindy Kim describes the technique as “akin to biofeedback,” and it has been especially helpful for children facing a scary medical procedure.

While all of us might need to go to our happy place once in a while, most kids find it hard to relax without some form of creative redirection, like the guided imagery program above from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. At the CHOC website, you’ll find over a dozen other audio programs tailored for pain and stress management and relaxation, for both young children and adolescents. Lifehacker’s parenting editor Michelle Woo describes a representative sampling of the programs:

  • For pain management for young kids, listen to “The Special Cake.” Sample line: “With your next deep breath in, notice the sweet smell of the yummy frosting.”
  • For pain management for teens, listen to “Climbing a Ladder.” Sample line: “Let’s have a look at the first step. As you put your foot on it, you begin to remember a time when you realize that you can have control over your body.”
  • For anxiety, listen to “The Magic Kite.” Sample line: “All of the uncomfortable feelings or sadness or anger or pain or worry are all on the ground and you are flying away from it.”

As kids listen to audio, Woo writes, “have them notice how their body feels—their breathing may slow and their muscles might relax.” And hey, there’s no reason guided imagery can’t work for grown-ups too. Try it if you’re feeling stressed and let us know how it works for you.

via Lifehacker

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Shows How Mental Attitude Can Potentially Reverse the Effects of Aging

You’re only as old as you feel, right? The platitude may be true. In a scientifically verifiable sense, “feeling”—a state of mind—may not only determine psychological well-being but physical health as well, including the natural aging processes of the body.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent decades testing the hypothesis, and has come to some interesting conclusions about the relationship between mental processes and bodily aging. In order to do the kind of work she has for decades, she has had to put aside the thorny “mind-body” problem—a longstanding philosophical and practical impasse in figuring out how the two interact. “Let’s forget about how you get from one to the other,” she tells CBS This Morning in a 2014 interview above, “and in fact see those as just words…. Wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body.”




What happens to the one, she theorized, will necessarily affect the other. In a 1981 experiment, which she called the “counterclockwise study,” she and her research team placed eight men in their late 70s in a monastery in New Hampshire, converted to transport them all to 1959 when they were in their prime. Furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies: every cultural reference dated from the period. There were no mirrors, only photos of the men in their 20s. They spoke and acted as though they had traveled back in time and gotten younger.

The results were extraordinary, almost too good to be true, she felt. “On several measures,” The New York Times reported in 2014, “they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce." The "counterclockwise" participants "were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller…. Perhaps most improbably, their sight improved” as well as their hearing.  Given the seemingly miraculous outcomes, tiny sample size, and the unorthodoxy of the experiment, Langer decided not to publish at the time but continued to work on similar studies looking at how the mind affects the body.

Then, almost thirty years later, the BBC contacted her about staging a televised recreation of the monastery experiment, “with six aging former celebrities as guinea pigs,” who were transported back to 1975 by similar means. The stars “emerged after a week as apparently rejuvenated as Langer’s septuagenarians in New Hampshire.” These experiments and several others Langer has conducted over the years strongly suggest that chronological age is not a linear clock pushing us inexorably toward decline. It is, rather, a collection of variables that include psychological well-being and something called an “epigenetic clock,” a mechanism that UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath has discovered directly correlates with the aging process, and may show us how to change it.

But while Horvath has yet to answer several pressing questions about how certain genetic mechanisms interact, Langer has put such questions aside in favor of testing the mind-body connection in a series of experiments, which engage the aging—or people with specific conditions—in studies that stretch their minds. By creating illusions like the monastery time machine, Langer has found that perception has a significant effect on aging. If we perceive ourselves to be younger, healthier, more capable, more vibrant, despite the messages about how we should look and act at our chronological age, then our cells and tissues get the message. Not only can a change in perception affect aging, but also, Langer theorizes, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic or life-threatening conditions. Much of her research here gets spelled out in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

“Whether it’s about aging or anything else,” says Lager, “if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative.” The social expectation for the aging is that they will get weaker, less capable, and more prone to deterioration and illness. Ignoring these expectations and changing our perception of what chronological age means—and doesn’t mean—Langer says, seems to actually slow or partially reverse the decline and to ward off disease. Those psychological changes can come about through interventions like caring for children, plants, or animals and using mindfulness practices to learn how to be attentive to change.

You can read more about Langer and Horvath’s specific findings on aging, psychology, and epigenetics at Nautilus.

Note: you can get Langer's book--Counterclockwise Mindful Health and the Transformative Power of Possibility--as a free audiobook through Audible.com's free trial program. Get more details on the free trial here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Nirvana is a place on earth. Popularly thought of a Buddhist “heaven,” religious scholars discuss the concept not as an arrival at someplace other than the physical place we are, but as the extinction of suffering in the mind, achieved in large part through intensive meditation. If this state of enlightenment exists in the here and now—the scientific inquirer is justified in asking—shouldn’t it be something we can measure?

Maybe it is. Psychologist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson set out to do just that when they flew several “Olympic level meditators” from Nepal, India, and France to Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin. Once they put the meditators under Davidson's scanners, researchers found that “their brain waves are really different,” as Goleman says in the Big Think video above.

Perhaps the most remarkable findings in the Olympic level meditators has to do with what’s called a gamma wave. All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum….

What was stunning was that the Olympic level meditators, these are people who have done up to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation, their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.

The meditators themselves describe the state of mind in terms consistent with thousands of years of literature on the subject; “it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come.” Goleman and Davidson have elaborated their findings for the public in the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. For more on Davidson’s work on the subject, see his talk at Google, “Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”

The bar to enlightenment seems high. Goleman and Davidson’s “Olympic level” test subjects spent a minimum of 62,000 hours in meditation, which amounts to something like 20 years of eight-hour days, seven days a week (and maybe explains why the path to enlightenment is often spread out over several lifetimes in the tradition). But that doesn’t mean meditation in lesser doses does not have significant effects on the brain as well.

As Goleman explains in the video above, meditation induces a state of hyper-focus, or “flow,” that acts as a gym for your brain: lowering stress, raising the level of resilience under stress, and increasing focus “in the midst of distractions.” As some point, he says, these temporary “altered states” become permanent “altered traits." Along the way, as with any consistent, long-term workout program, meditators develop strength, stamina, and flexibility the longer they stick with the practice. Find resources to get you started in the Relateds below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Charles Bukowski Explains How to Beat Depression: Spend 3-4 Days in Bed and You’ll Get the Juices Flowing Again (NSFW)

Image by Graziano Origa, via Wikimedia Commons

I felt like sleeping for five years but they wouldn’t let me

—Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye

I don’t know about you, but the grind gets me down. Day in, day out, the same routine, never a break but the odd vacation. And you know what they say about vacations; when you get back, you need another one. Used to be days were more regular, in the heydays of the unions. You put in your time and you get some back, enough at least for a good night’s sleep. No more. The machine never sleeps, and neither can we. If you have the good fortune to live in the U.S., you and I can call ourselves blessed residents of the most overworked nation in the world. Europeans may have it better, but maybe not by much.

Screw it, you want to say sometimes. I just want to get some rest. We’re entitled to it. According to that great folk theorist of the grind, Charles Bukowski, three or four days in bed may be just the thing to get the juices flowing again when spirits are low, and we don’t even have enough gas in the tank to revolt against a culture that’s trying to work us all to death. At the dawn of the age of deregulation and supply-side dominance, Bukowski saw the perils of mind-numbing, soul-killing, work, castigating the “9 to 5,” which is “never 9 to 5,” in a brutally honest letter to his publisher and benefactor, John Martin.

Bukowski’s prescription for the depression engendered by modern life (aside from blackout drinking, that is): Sleep, a need as physically urgent as food or water. It wards off morbid rumination: “sleeping in the rain,” he wrote, “helps me forget things like I am going to die and you are going to die and the cats are going to die.” And when “the Wheaties aren’t going down right,” he says in the spoken word piece above, “when I feel a little weak or depressed,” it’s sleep he recommends.

I just go to bed for three days and four nights, pull down all the shades and just go to bed. Get up. Shit. Piss. Drink a beer now and then and go back to bed. I come out of that completely re-enlightened for 2 or 3 months. I get power from that.

I think someday...they'll say this psychotic guy knew something that...you know in days ahead and medicine, and how they figure these things out. Everybody should go to bed now and then, when they're down low and give it up for three or four days. Then they'll come back good for a while. But we're so obsessed with, we have to get up and do it and go back to sleep.

Can you get time off for three or four days in bed? Probably not. But hey, maybe there are more humane days ahead, as Bukowski forecasts in a rare moment of optimism, when jobs won't literally kill us, when medical science will give us license to take “sleep leave.”

People are nailed to the processes. Up. Down. Do something. Get up, do something, go to sleep. Get up. They can't get out of that circle. You'll see, someday they'll say: "Bukowski knew." Lay down for 3 or 4 days till you get your juices back, then get up, look around and do it. But who the hell can do it cause you need a dollar. That's all. That's a long speech, isn't it?"

It's not a long speech at all, but it’s a damned good one.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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