The Power of Music to Awaken Memories in Dementia and in Health
The Power of Music
Music has an almost magical ability to manipulate emotions and moods and to awaken memories of past events and feelings. The melody, rhythm and tempo of music can evoke excitement and ecstasy or calmness and relaxation. Listening to music can be a wonderful and beneficial activity for both healthy people and people with health problems.
Music is so powerful that it's sometimes used to alter the state of consciousness. Music created in drum circles, meditation groups and religious rituals can create a sense of cohesion and a specific psychological state or mood in the members of the group. This state may be planned or accidental. The emotions that are evoked may be intense. Concerts may also evoke strong emotions, which may sometimes be overwhelming.
Music therapy is an important application of the power of music. The therapy can help many different problems, including mood disorders, movement difficulties and certain medical conditions. A fascinating discovery shows a link between listening to music and dementia. The activity can trigger memories in people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias and temporarily improve their mood.
Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease
Athough the terms dementia and Alzheimer's disease are used interchangeably, they aren't the same thing. Dementia is a set of symptoms that involve the brain while Alzheimer's disease is an example of an illness that causes the symptoms. There are other possible causes of dementia besides Alzheimer's disease.
A similiar difference exists between the existence of stomach pain and nausea (a set of symptoms) and a stomach ulcer (one of the possible causes for the symptoms). In this case, food poisoning could also cause the symptoms.
Symptoms of dementia include memory loss, a decline in thinking skills, an inability to communicate properly and confusion. Someone suffering from dementia may also experience mood swings, periods of agitation and movement problems.
Music Therapy for People in Need
Music & Memory is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music to elderly or infirm people to improve their quality of life. iPods and similar digital music players are used to let people hear their favourite music.
The program was started by Dan Cohen based on an idea he had in 2006. He noticed that no nursing homes in the United States gave their residents iPods to listen to music. He volunteered to create iPod playlists for people in a New York nursing home. The residents enjoyed listening to the music so much that he expanded his program. Today a long list of nursing homes in the United States and Canada give their residents digital music players and headphones.
Music seems to be very helpful for people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. According to the AFA (Alzheimer's Foundation of America), although the parts of the brain that deal with cognition are damaged in people with dementia, those that process rhythmical sounds aren't. The organization says that patients often enjoy listening to music and that the experience can modify their behaviour in a beneficial way.
Music has power—especially for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. And it can spark compelling outcomes even in the very late stages of the disease.— Alzheimer's Foundation of America
Using Music to Help People with Dementia
If someone wants to use music therapy to help a dementia patient, it's a good idea to get tips from a caregiver with experience in this area. In general, though, the AFA says that lively music cheers a patient up and encourages activity while relaxing music calms the patient down when they're agitated or when it's time to go to bed. Though music can help with patient management, the main goal of music therapy is to improve a patient's quality of life.
Music of many types may be useful for dementia, but rhymic tunes and singing seem to work best when the goal is to improve a patient's mood. Patients recognize rhythm and move in time to music, although they may move only part of their body. Patients may enjoy creating rhythmic sounds and singing themselves as well as listening to other performers. Music may not only make them happier but also improve their relationships with other people.
Alive Inside - Music and Alzheimer's Disease
Alive Inside - The Experience of Henry
In April 2012, a documentary called "Alive Inside: The Story of Music and Memory" was created to describe the work of the Music & Memory program for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. A scene showing the touching effect of music on a man named Henry became a big hit on YouTube.
Henry had suffered from dementia for ten years at the time when the video below was made. He hardly ever spoke, responding to questions with only "Yes" or "No". He was withdrawn and generally unresponsive to his environment. This situation changed when Henry heard his favourite type of music. Even when his headphones were removed after he had listened to the music, Henry was temporarily connected to the world around him and could respond appropriately and enthusiastically to questions. For a while, he was "restored to life", as Oliver Sacks says in the video below.
Ideally, we would be able to prevent Alzheimer's Disease and other causes of dementia or cure the disorders once they appeared. Until this becomes a reality, however, the amazing power of music should be investigated further and spread as far as possible.
Alive Inside - Awakening Henry's Memories With Music
Music may provoke a painful memory instead of a happy one. It's important that caregivers monitor a patient's response to music therapy carefully. If possible, the music should be associated with a pleasant memory or emotion from the patient's past or should be new music that the patient has never heard before.
Uncovering Memories in People Without Dementia
Music is powerful for people who don't have dementia as well as for those that do. It's wonderful when music awakens happy memories, as it often does, but not so wonderful if it reminds people of unpleasant or sad events. People may be able to predict the effect of music on their minds from their prior experience, but sometimes, as in the poem below, the effect is sudden, strong and unpredictable. For me, this is part of the fascination of music - to reveal the unexpected.
Memories of events that have long been forgotten can suddenly appear in our conscious mind when we're listening to music, and emotions experienced during past events can return. The memories and emotions may not always be pleasant or welcome, especially if they’re associated with events that we want to forget or that we’ve deliberately suppressed.
Sometimes a memory is so painful that if it’s unmasked it might harm our present life. It’s probably best to keep this type of memory hidden from our consciousness. In other cases, it might be better if an unpleasant memory is allowed to emerge so that we can deal with the situation that created it.
Half a Soul
The character depicted in my poem is living with “half a soul” because he will not allow himself to remember a major event in his past which needs to be examined. He has become an expert in suppressing the memory if it tries to emerge. The event - whatever it was - is too painful to remember, especially since the character doesn’t know how to resolve the situation that created the memory. In a way, he is psychologically incomplete because of his refusal to deal with an important part of his life.
Setting the Scene
A cold sun hangs over a frozen field. Scattered trees at the edge of the field obscure the view of a nearby village. Occasionally, sounds from the village penetrate the silence.
A traveller appears and moves across the field, bypassing the village. He wants no contact with people or the activity in the village. Despite his desire for isolation, he is about to encounter the power of music to awaken memories.
Music Plays With Half a Soul
When he heard the music of a distant choir
he stopped, puzzled and perturbed,
and curled up painfully against the frozen grass,
trying to protect himself.
The music swelled
and ripples hit his covered head,
disturbing long forgotten memories
and sparking into life
weak, dependent flames of ecstasy.
In daring curiosity
he tried to touch the sound,
but felt no answering response.
Instead the voices ebbed
and then the music stopped.
Relieved, he stood upright
and surveyed the icy scene
with satisfaction and then surprise.
Was that guilt in memory?
Had it surfaced from the past?
He felt the joy and hate within,
pain's power to emerge.
He struggled fiercely, then forgot,
returned to empty solitude
for travelling on his way.
References and Further Reading
© 2010 Linda Crampton