Saturday, January 16, 2016

Neuroscience in Focus - An Introduction to the Stress Response System





As of this writing, mid January of 2016, it's been three years since I started my (now sort of famous) drive for “why?” - my drive to understand psychiatric and mood disorders in ways that the current mental health and psychiatric professions don't.

During that beginning (early 2013) I was using various social media (and still do) to both seek the best information I could find regarding the brain and mental health and those with whom to discuss it. In the course of that endeavor early that year I met a man who'd change my life forever, one Mani Saint-Victor. (Two, actually, Robert Whitaker being the other). Mani is a Harvard trained medical doctor and neuroscientist. At the time he was detaching himself from medical practice and doing his own research into – tada! - psychiatric and mood disorders and somehow we crossed paths. I think it was because I happened to be a bit of a dab hand at English grammar and composition and that he was doing some writing projects with which he needed editing and proofreading help that we initially “meshed” (social media can be wonderful that way) and subsequently when he saw what I was doing and I saw what he was doing (investigating the above mentioned disorders) we formed a bit of a working partnership (I brought some key things to the table that he'd been looking for). He was taking his study of neuroscience in a new direction at the time, saw that I had a great interest in it as well and then took me under his wing (thus changing my life – and mind – forever). Mani was – and remains – a great gregarious open minded, open spirited person and so made as wonderful a mentor as one could wish for.

At the time I was voraciously seeking information regarding the neurological basis for psychiatric and mood disorders and their symptoms and he provided all I could handle (which at that time was a lot). And the vast majority of what he provided was studies and research linking the neurobiology of stress with psychiatric disorders and the symptoms thereof. Now, you have to understand that not long prior to that I was coming off a three year stretch of psychiatric inner horror shows the likes of which few people experience – hallucinations, hearing voices, psychotic episodes and much etcetera not to mention crippling anxiety and other assorted “goodies” – so when I started reading through the papers he was sending me and ran them through my own experiences along with my burgeoning knowledge of how brains work, I instantly got the connections. I mean it was like bingo, bingobingobingo and BINGO. So many things began to fall into place for me in my understanding of psychiatric and mood disorders and it was a great honour and pleasure to be able to discuss it all with Mani along with some of his other neuroscience colleagues (again, the blessings of social media).

The other thing I loved about Mani and what connected us so well at the time, was that he too (though from the opposite side of the doctor-patient equation) had become disillusioned with the standard medical/mental health approach to psychiatric care (IE: the pharmacological approach) and was searching out alternatives (though not in the so called "alternative medicine" field, which is almost as bad as the pharmaceutical industry for false claims and poor long term efficacy). For a few magical months he (and those online neuroscience colleagues of his) and I had a rollicking good time exploring all that stuff.

Aside from everything my dear old friend Mani taught me back in the beginning, I also discovered the renowned Robert Sapolsky. He is ranked among the top fifteen neuroscientists in the word (this out of tens of thousands in that exploding field) and is widely regarded as perhaps the leading expert on the planet in the study and understanding of stress and what it does to us and why.

All of which sort of sets the table for what I'm finally getting around to presenting – the neuroscience of stress, psychiatric and mood disorders and you.

One of the things I've found in my study of stress is how poorly understood it is (tragically misunderstood if truth be told) and the degree to which it's overlooked as a major factor in mood and psychiatric disorders even within the mental health professions. Certainly most competent professionals will understand the elementary basics and that it's important to manage but no one that I have dealt with as a patient or in great numbers of discussion or came across in my very broad reading seems to really know and understand the entire big picture about stress, what causes it and what it means to your mental and physical health nor really just how much it may affect behaviour, is creating much of the crazy making things you experience in your mind and especially not how much it is killing you. 

It is my goal with this series on stress to change that.

In the past I have mentioned a bit about how I do my some of my own research. Mine is a sort of old fashioned gumshoe approach which I do by simply talking to and listening to people. Since I first started publishing the current form of Polar Bear pieces in the summer of 2013 I have met a considerable number of people through the blog. Many come to me with questions and I spent a good deal of time listening, asking questions and poking into what I refer to as their "neuro-history"; past events, circumstances and so on that literally shaped their brains and how their brains subsequently worked and thus produced who and what they are today. What invariably would emerge was a number of key stressors and/or medical events. What I fervently tried to do was to simply gather information without attaching judgement or values but visualize how that would be processed by some of the brain regions we're going to look at below and how that would shape behaviours and moods and create what we experience as anxiety and/or depression

With that kind of field study (if you will) and brain study, I feel I now have a broader than most understanding of stress and what it does to our brains, minds and bodies and - most importantly - where it comes from in terms of environmental and psychological stressors. And even more importantly than that, a much better understanding of the individual differences that cause some people to experience stress differently and more importantly yet, how these differences lead to moderate to severe psychiatric disturbances. 

And even better than that, some of the key understandings for mind and lifestyle management and strategies for either reducing stress or changing our responses to it. 

So for now I'm going to ask that before delving in here to please put aside everything you think you know about stress and your experience and understanding of it. Most people's understanding of it is based on so much outdated or outmoded or pop science gibberish so as to be more harmful than good. As well, if you really want to understand and learn something, it is necessary to set aside previously held notions of the subject so that the new stuff has a place to go.

What most people understand about stress is the classic stuff we commonly associate with it; pressure at work and school, time deadlines, the boss freaking out on us and stuff like that. While this is all stress, of course, that is actually a very limited understanding of stress and is probably the least of what is truly damaging stress (and I'll get to why it's not as damaging as we think as we go along). Not that we're going to ignore that, but what we're going to learn and understand goes much, much deeper than that.

Now even as great and as knowledgeable as Robert Sapolsky is, even he doesn't completely connect all the dots between all the various symptoms of psychiatric disorders and stress and we mental health suffering peeps' unique sources of stress and of processing and reacting to it they way we do. That's where little ol' moi comes in. So this series on stress is truly going to be a mind blowing eye opener for all of you, whether you suffer from psychiatric and/or mood disorders, a loved one does or you're in the mental or medical health professions (and I do know I have several of you reading along).

So after yet another horrendously long (though necessary and hopefully at least somewhat entertaining and engaging) Bradonian introductory ramble, let's get to work.



The Neuroscience of Stress Part I


A couple of options here now and it's my hope you can use them in concert in ways that work best for you. There's the text version below, as you can see and I'm working on getting these posts into audio-visual presentations. These are not professionally polished just yet and I'm just getting the hang of doing them with limited resources, so I ask for your patience there, but you just may well enjoy this more than reading. 



There are three brain concepts that I have written about in the past that we are now going to begin to bring forward and tie together in our introductory look at stress and the stress response system and they are: the evolutionary development of the homo sapien brainconsciousness and the subconscious mind and what I termed "zombie programs", the latter two of those being quite closely related.

The evolutionary development of our so called modern homo sapien brains is important mostly – as I pointed out in the original piece – to understand that our brains evolved by “bootstrapping” off of (or building off of) earlier “brain models” and all the basic equipment of our current day stress response system is very, very old “hardware” and “wiring” indeed.

Let's again look at what pioneering neuroscientist 
Dr Paul MacLean termed the "triune brain" (this model has been disparaged in some circles but it absolutely is still valid for understanding the basic outline of three very distinct major brain regions). We've looked at this in a number of posts in the past and now we'll start to look in more detail.



Our deepest homo sapien brain "hardware" - the brainstem, the part in red - is virtually identical to that of the humble reptile class of animals and performs in much the same way, controlling very elementary survival behaviours and regulating core systems like breathing and heart rate.  

Next evolved is the limbic region, an area that is for the most part exactly the same in we humans as we'd find in all mammal species and even bird species (scaled differently, of course). This is the area we'll be most closely examining here today and in following posts in this series. 

Above that is the neocortex. In many regards the human version again is quite the same in us as in all higher mammal species. Not distinguished in that image, however, is the vaunted frontal lobes in which functions unique to humans are housed, but that is something we'll examine later when we learn more about emotional regulation and executive functions. The other key anatomical difference between human and higher mammal neocortexes is the "sulki" and "gyri". Those are the deep folds we'll see when looking at the outer part of a brain; sulki being the "valleys" while gyri are the "peaks". While all mammal brains have these, in the human brain they are deeper and more pronounced. These folds are key to humans' higher (one would hope) cognitive abilities.

There are a few points important for us to understand here now and to bear in mind in the future.

One, as I again mentioned in the post on brain evolution (and in Neuroanatomy 101), our stress response system, located in the limbic and brain stem regions, evolved and adapted over millions of years for very, very different situations and circumstances than what we now must currently deal with in the modern world as it has developed in the last several hundred years starting from the dawn of the industrial age and particularly the last half century. This is Very Important to understand, as we'll see.

Two, there's a "hierarchy of command" in the brain and because the brain stem and limbic regions are where the neurological modules most critical to survival are housed, under many key circumstances the lower regions will be first in line when it comes to things like energy allocation throughout your brain (and thus directing it through your body) and in generating responses to incoming stimuli (IE: inward and outward behaviours). Also Very Important to understand as we go along and try to understand our own reactions and behaviours. 

Thirdly, what our short and long term stress responses and related systems put - or don't put - on our "conscious awareness plate" is also very important to understand. And this is where we're going to learn the crucial importance of what we first looked at way back when in the post on 
Broken Ego Defenses and we see that what "ego defenses" do is help keep sources of pain and stress off our "conscious awareness plates". As well, better managing what we consciously, or even subconsciously, experience is what we will start to work on in our study of meditation  and mindfulness meditation CBT.

To further understand our subconscious, understanding our stress response system is going to be critically important as well. To remind, I do not by “subconscious” mean the Freudian sense of that term (though I do use his ideas elsewhere) but in the very real neuroanatomical and neurobiogical sense that the vast majority of what goes on in our brains operates well below our conscious awareness and control. Which is where “zombie programs” come in for they are the stuff of our subconscious; hundreds of completely autonomously operating brain “programs” that run probably in the neighbourhood of 99.5% of your life and daily workings and thoughts, all of which hum away more or less 24/7 for the most part well below your conscious awareness.

This will now become more important to understand and you'll see why because in learning and understanding the stress response system, we are being introduced to Zombie Program Numero Uno, the Head Honcho of all zombie programs and subconscious goings on in our brains and mind.

So, let's now have a look at some of the basic brain anatomy and neurobiology, shall we? Fear not, dear readers, I promise to not make it too onerous nor tedious. And besides, I've talked in the past about how learning new things is good for our brains and this is not a bad subject with which to do that. 

For starters, let's revisit the limbic region. I first introduced this area in both Neuroanatomy 101 and touched on it again in The Why of You - The Emotional You and probably here and there elsewhere, but now it's time to get down to a little more of the nitty-gritty of this very elementary and important part of your brain and thus "you".

Here's a rough outline of some of the major components involved in the stress response system and where they are located in the brain.




There are other bits involved but for today these four regions are adequate for our introductory understanding. So let's look at each in a little more detail and understand what they do. 

Amygdala


The amygdala is a sort of "grand central station" for all incoming sensory traffic from your visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and taste senses, the first three of those generally getting the highest priority. The amygdala is further broken down into all kinds of little specialized "sub-divisions" where the tasks for monitoring and analyzing the tremendous amount of "data" that is constantly streaming through it are further divided up for processing and analysis (we're talking "data streams" and processing speeds that would cripple even the most powerful computer).  

We'll think of the amygdala as "Monitor Lady". Now, I must remind you of how little of this "incoming data" you are consciously aware of at any one time. Whatever you are consciously aware of will represent perhaps 1% of everything going on around you, if that much. But fear not, while you may not be consciously aware of the vast majority of it all, Monitor Lady is all over it. 

Hippocampus


An enormous amount of everything to do with your memory starts here. I call the hippocampus our "Filing Lady". Imagine a little filing lady in your brain with access to enormously vast files of "data" at her fingertips who both retrieves and files away packets of said data. When you are having both long and short term memory problems, this where we want to start to look. But don't blame your "filing lady" if your memory isn't what we'd like it to be. If you had any idea of her daily, hourly and minute by minute workload, you'd understand she is one overworked, overtaxed little lady. Again, the data traffic she handles would crash most computers. (1) We'll come back to this area in much more detail in later segments of this series. 

And it is again necessary to remind you how little of the approximately one peta-byte of memory data you have stored in your tens of billions of neurons and trillions upon trillions of synaptic connections you can consciously recall at any one time, which would certainly be less than one tenth of one percent. But again, not to worry; if you can't consciously recall most of what is stored in your memory banks, Filing Lady likely has lightening quick access to it. 

The amygdala and hippocampus are located very closely together because they must cooperate very closely together (as we'll see below) in taking in, analyzing and sorting data and - most vital for us today - how to respond to it in dizzyingly brief spaces of time.  

Hypothalumus 


The hypothalamus's job involves certain metabolic processes (which we will leave aside for another day though this will be very interesting to us when we begin to understand the long term effects of stress on our bodies) and more importantly for our purpose today, super critical duties in the autonomic nervous system which includes our stress response system. It has much to do with the creation and secretion of "neurohormones" (AKA: "releasing hormones" - more later) along with other interesting areas of control such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, and fatigue along with important aspects of parenting and attachment behaviours,  - veeerrry interesting when we come to look at human behaviour and deeper hidden stressors. 

In the order of things, the hypothalumus is generally "downstream" from our "Monitor Lady" and "Filing Lady" and thus mostly takes orders from them. We can think of this region as "Dispatch Lady" when the alarm has been sounded. But, when we look at deep "instinctual stressors", we'll see that Dispatch Lady has some important pull of her own.

Pituitary Gland

 

The pituitary gland is the "blindest robot" of our quartet here. It doesn't "think" too much (if at all), it just follows orders from the above chain of command and disperses "stuff" - hormones of various kinds. Of course what we're interested in here today is the stress related hormones it releases or causes to be released. We'll look at the names of these hormones and learn them in more detail in the next segment.

We'll think of the pituitary gland as "Dispensary Lady". 


Okay, now a really brief look at what happens in this system when your amygdala detects a threat. It is, of course, vastly more complex than this but this illustration serves well enough to give us a basic idea of the "flow" of incoming sensory information. 




 I'm going to ask that we ignore the part where it says "stressor" for now. I'd prefer we think of that as "incoming sensory data"; it is then up to the amydala to decide if that's a threat or not (or a stressor or not) though we'll also later look at how the hypothalumus monitors and reacts to certain stressors. 

Where it says "bed nucleous of stria terminalis" is a enormously complex "switchboard" of all kinds of major "trunk lines" of local and long distance brain communication wiring between many different brain regions and nodules that play roles in stress response and regulation. How this "wiring harness" has developed within any one individual will greatly affect how that person perceives and reacts to a stressor. 

For now we won't get too much into the part that says "RAS, other brain areas involved in stress response".  While the above mentioned "bed nucleous of stria terminalis" is tightly located within the limbic region itself, what we're looking at here is a very complex network of major and smaller regions involved in "analyzing" sensory information located all over the brain. A closer look at what all these may be in any one individual is rather more than we can get into for now.

In future posts in this series, we'll look much more at that "negative feedback" loop (which is actually much more complex than that) and how all that plays a role. I touch on that in the post Memory Functioning in Major and Bipolar Depression and we'll look at that in much more detail when we begin to understand the roles traumatic experiences and memories play in mood and psychiatric disorders and PTSD.  

So what happens in what we'll call a typical and very basic threat response of a physical nature will go something like this:

Via incoming sensory information - auditory, visual, olfactory are most likely though possibly tactile - your amygdala (Monitor Lady) will detect a possible threat, send messages to both the hippocampus (Filing Lady, who will roar around her "filing cabinets" looking for relevant information and data) and hypothalumus (Dispatch Lady) who then alerts the pituitary gland (Dispensary Lady) who hits all kinds of buttons sending various stress response hormones shooting all over your brain and body giving you all kinds of instant energy, focus and super fast response time. This will all happen in less than a few hundredths of a second, all well, well below your conscious awareness or control. When you hear of someone who "bravely acts without thinking" in reaction to some sort of dangerous situation (rescuing someone from a burning car, let's say), it's because they literally didn't think - all that process was taken care of without any input from higher "decision making" software in the brain but instead the process above (along with some of those "other brain areas involved in stress response"). 

Of course what happens the great majority of time is massively more complicated than that, the implications and consequences of which are sort of literally mind blowing.


So this is a crazily brief introduction to what - we're going to see - is at the root of all your mental health or psychiatric woes from overwhelm meltdowns, hallucinations, inappropriate behaviours, self harming thoughts and behaviours to all the rest of that wild and wacky stuff going on in your poor noggin. 

Now, back to its evolutionary basis and past. Remember, all of this evolved for not only much simpler threats - such as some predatory animal eyeing you for dinner - but many other conditions that bear almost no resemblance at all to the world in which it must operate today. 

And - most important for our understanding of our demon plagued brain (or raging inner "polar bears") - is the massive creature that is "psychological stressors". 

For while we have evolved all kinds of fancy advanced brain processors that ostensibly put us modern humans above all the past evolutionary incarnations of ourselves and our primate cousins, we'll see that a lot of these higher functions are the very culprits in what make us produce and experience stress in ways that no other creature on earth does.  

Another big important take-away for today is that while we all share this basic brain anatomy and circuitry along with all kinds of other brain wide regions and circuitry, we are not all created nor developed equally. Due to all kinds of reasons that I briefly outlined and touched on in Genetic and Environmental Factors in Individual Brain Development, those of us who most suffer from psychiatric and mood disorders have some very critical differences in how all of this is arranged and works, something my man crush Sapolsky sort of sums up in his concept of "individual differences". Super Important. 

(1) Computer nerds may argue otherwise, but trust me - our brains handle such vast and varied amounts of data that a computer which would process it all as our brains do remains a very distant dream. 





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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus - An Introduction to Music Therapy





Music Therapy – An Introduction


There are many aspects of how a mental health disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar or major depressive disorder (among others) changes a person that health care professionals generally don't understand, don't grasp and don't - or can't - deal with. 

In many ways, we become crushed and broken souls - broken and crushed by the demons that plague our minds, by what life will heap upon us because our minds cannot deal with life like mentally healthy people can or like we used to be able to, by the cruel stigmatization and ostracization that society will beat us down with, by painful isolation from society and meaningful human connections (the subject for a coming post), by being deprived of simple things like love and understanding and acceptance and so on. All of this in itself will alter - quite literally - our brain networks and greatly contribute to how we function or not function - and suffer. 

While I have lived with a bipolar mind for most of my adult years during my (as of this writing) fifty-six year old life, it was the outer world and inner world events of 
the previous seven years that really began to tear my mind and soul apart and leave me at many times and stages so utterly broken that even another step - literally and figuratively - felt like I was moving fifteen tons. Thirty months of brain damaging and mind altering pharmaceutical chemicals, great pains and losses during the course of the seven years starting at the end of 2007, mind rending psychotic episodes plus all the effects that wildly swinging through periods and episodes of mania, depression, mixed episodes, crippling anxiety and at times yo-yoing through all of those plus the effects of Borderline Personality Disorder. 

Between societal stigma and ostracizing and being dragged through the mental health care system and psychiatric "care", you will be thoroughly stripped of dignity, esteem, any sense of self, self-care and image - virtually anything and everything to do with being a human being. 

And no one - and I do mean NO ONE - will understand what's going on in you nor be able to help you (as much as some may genuinely try). There are many things that will damage the brain and soul in a given psychiatric disorder but perhaps nothing causes more damage than the complete and utter crushing isolation one will ultimately experience. 

During the worst years there were times after I came out of the most intense episodes where I'd look around at myself and couldn't for the life of me see who or what I was. I'd look around and all I could make out were broken and shattered pieces of "me" spread all over with so many pieces of who I'd been before out of sight. I wondered many times, "is this what was meant by the nursery rhyme Humpty-Dumpty?". And that "all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again" was a metaphor for how those who have gone through mind and soul destroying experiences end up as - broken minds and souls that cannot be put back together?

Furthermore, one can't even see what should be put back together or even what the "together" would even look like. There were shattered bits of the successful man I'd once been but they were largely no longer recognizable or were literally inaccessible. There were larger bits of what I'd become (some of the monstrous inner demons) and there were bits of what appeared to be some sort of "core me". What was this "me" I was to reassemble to look like? 

But I had no "king's men" nor "king's horses" to put me back together again. In fact, after the years of being let down by the various mental health care professions in every way possible (and this is by far not an uncommon experience unique to me) and no one else knowing what to do, all I had was - me. The pieces themselves had to somehow put the pieces back together again and - the hardest part - somehow assemble someone who could get through life again in some sort of meaningful way.

But what is broken? The mind. And what is the mind but something created by the brain? It is all 
created by the brain

When I unshackled myself from the care of mainstream psychiatry back on the dawn of 2013 and started looking around for answers, I saw that what we - us psychiatric survivor peeps - needed was a better understanding of the brain and how it works. So I took up neuroscience (the full story of which I really must get to some day). I wanted to know every minute detail of what went on in the brain and why. 

And I can tell you that "broken" and "shattered" are not merely feelings. Great and important parts of the brain that create who we are - our minds and souls - really do get broken, things really do get rent apart and shattered (in tiny, microscopic ways).  Furthermore, this microscopic damage begins to cascade through our bodies and really begin to break us down.  

The question then became how to put it all back together again, or at least reassemble and heal it all in ways that will move us forward in life again in relative peace, with healthier and more balanced states of mind and better contentment and free of the demons that plague us. 

And the answer I found was 
neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to heal itself, to rearrange itself, to recreate and build new networks and circuits. Understanding what neuroplasticity is completely changed my world. It is the foundation and cornerstone of all hope that's given me life over the previous three years. Neuroplasticity is what will put the shattered bits of my Humpty-Dumpty mind back together again.

And it could do the same for yours (for while our brains may be assembled somewhat differently and thus produce two different people, they are made up of the same essential stuff which all functions on the same principles). 

I spent a great deal of time studying neuroplasticity and how and why it worked and of course most importantly, how to make it work for you and me. The answers, I found, were not rocket science. The basic answers I outlined in my extremely popular 
Positive Difference Making Fundamentals. That is only a very rough outline and guide, however, and I've long wanted to get to all the points in there in more detail and I'm finally working my way towards that. 

Which - finally - brings us to today's Positive Difference Making Fundamental  in Focus - 

Music Therapy 

 

 

Now I originally had in mind a long post outlining the neuroscience of music and its effects on the brain and what positive neuroplastic changes it will enact on the damaged "you" that resides among all that neuro-circuitry and what brain regions would be affected and so on. I get to that in this post on the neuroscience of music therapy so today we'll try to keep it a bit more fun. I'll touch a bit on the science of it but not onerously so. 

I have to start, however, by making clear what I mean by "music therapy" and what I don't mean by it. What I do not mean is putting on some chipper feel good music to cheer oneself out of a blue mood. That can be part of it for sure (while not today I'll eventually get to that too) but that's not what I'm talking about. 

No, what I'm talking about is rearranging your brain. I'm talking about opening up vast new tracts of neuronal real estate. I'm talking rewiring parts of your brain. I'm talking changing how your very mind and outlook work. I'm talking about improving cognitive functions, creativity, and mental sharpness and thinking speed. But I am also talking about healing your shattered soul. 

What I'm hoping to do, with this column (or post or chapter), is begin to teach you how to design your own music therapy program which could greatly aid in healing your brain (and thus you). This is all relative, of course, and I'm not promising that a few hours of listening to music will have you dancing through a meadow like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (though I suppose that's not outside the realm of possibility either), but the neuroscience and the real world evidence of what music can do for the brain is so firmly established that if you utilize it well enough, your brain will improve in certain significant ways (which we'll get to in time).

Now, before I begin, I have to offer up a bit of a caveat about myself ; I love music. Oh, I know, most people will say they love music but they generally mean they love a few certain kinds of favourite music that they happen to find uplifting or cheering or perhaps just have a deep nostalgia and fondness for the music they "grew up with". What I mean is that I love the very foundations of music. I love the concept of music. I love the art of music. I love music of all forms, styles, genres, ages, epochs and eras (or at least my love crosses a good deal of it all). Often when I listen to music I am blocking out everything else and focusing on nothing but the notes and melodies and arrangements (or I don't exactly focus, but block out all else and let the music naturally flow over me). I might study the lyrics. I get deeply into it. I am a dedicated music lover (there was a reason I once built a high fidelity stereo worth nearly $10,000). I am passionate about music. Being removed from a broad range of music will have a very detrimental effect on my mind, soul and moods (just like when we are separated from a lover). So it's entirely possible that music therapy works unusually well for me. We shall see, however. Part of my goal here is to get you to be as passionate about music as I am. And if you already share my passion, to better harness it in healing your brain.

Okay, now let's begin with a bit of an introduction to what music does to and for the brain. 

In the excellent and best selling book This is Your Brain on Music, we learn that listening to music coordinates more disparate parts of your brain than almost any other mental or physical activity. From the humble cerebellum to the limbic region to all areas of the cerebral cortex, listening to music will stimulate and stir and activate. 

The cerebellum is a very old (in evolutionary development terms) piece of our brain. It is located at the lower back part of your head and had long been thought to be largely responsible for muscle memory and coordinating physical planning and movement. But recent research now strongly suggests that the cerebellum is highly involved in and associated with cerebral networks involved in higher cognition and cognitive abilities.

This can at least partially explain why a good walk or other physical activity can "get our brains going" and spark and inspire ideas and so on. But what is more exciting about this discovery for our purpose here today is how much listening to music stimulates the cerebellum and strengthens connections within it and networks connecting it to other regions of the brain. This is very important for many of us mental health peeps because it could well be that part of our suffering is incredible fatigue that prevents us from physically exercising as much as we could. While I do not suggest replacing physical exercise with music, it is the absolute best form of brain exercise in lieu of physical exercise if that is for whatever reason too difficult or impossible (more in a moment).  


Before we go on, I need to tell you some bad news about the brain. I get into more detail on this in that post on the neuroscience of music therapy.

The brain - your brain, a young brain, an old brain, any brain - does not like to do nothing. It will (literally) atrophy if it doesn't have "demand loads" put on it. If you recall the post on neuroplasticity, we saw this image there. 


Note the differences in brain cell connections between the stimulated and unstimulated brain connections. On the right is what we're talking about with atrophy in the brain. Though there are a few tiny specific regions of the brain that we don't want to look too much like that on the left (more below), in general diminishing synaptic connections is a Very Bad Thing indeed. Connections are what holds memories, thoughts and abilities and virtually everything concerned with higher cognitive abilities. 

A problem with all aging brains (and by "aging" I mean all ages above the age of about twenty-five, the age at which most brains reach full adult maturity) is that as we fall into regular routines our "learning curves" drop off steeply. We stop stimulating the brain with new and novel material, ideas, thoughts, knowledge, etc. This will intuitively seem to be Not True to most of you but in fact most of what we "learn" after full brain maturation is fairly day to day bric-a-brac of the routines we need to do to get through life. Important for sure, but not what the brain really craves and not what really builds strong and important "neuronal muscle", staving off brain atrophy. 

What really and truly stimulates a brain creating new connections - and even strengthening old ones - and thus building and thickening all important grey matter is new and novel experiences. 

There are, of course, many ways to do this but today, of course, we're just focusing on music's remarkable ability to provide your brain with stimulation that is demonstrably superior to almost any other activity you could do. 


Now, of particular importance to many of us either in the throes of a severe depressive episode during which one barely has the energy to get out of bed or for those of us with advanced long term conditions (and usually middle-aged and above) for whom a near crippling lack of energy is a daily reality, keeping our brains activated and stimulated is a huge challenge. 

And it is here where music therapy truly shines and is critical to employ as a part of your daily life.  For when you are glued to the sofa or the bed and can barely move a bodily or neuronal muscle, you can listen to music. Music will give your brain something to do and greatly aid in preventing the cognitive decline and memory difficulties so many people hammered by psychiatric disorders of all kinds experience and become anxious about.

In future posts I'll get into more what exactly music does for the brain but let's now move on to how to do Music Therapy

Designing Music Therapy


I'm hoping to inspire you to take up music therapy as enthusiastically as I did. Many professionals both in private and group therapy practice and in the various research branches of cognitive psychology will recommend to us mental health peeps to take up a hobby and I can think of no better or any more beneficial hobby for us than the study of music. 

Of course playing music or taking up an instrument would be a fantastic thing to do, but for those of us not endowed with such talent, that would probably be too ambitious to begin with so we'll just focus for now on listening to music. By thinking of it as studying music, however, we put our brains on a different footing than merely passively listening to whatever music happens to be around. 

I'd like to say that "any music will do" but that is simply not true. While we could say that any music is better than none at all, that is not necessarily true either. 

As mentioned above, what best stimulates the brain, its connections and neurobiology in positive ways is new and novel experiences so what we want to make a part of our music therapy program is finding and learning new forms of music. Not just new bands or artists in your favourite genres (though I'd encourage that as well), but entirely new and novel (to you) forms and genres of music.

Also, for the most optimal therapeutic benefits musical complexity is very important. Simple pop music arrangements of notes, chords, time signature and beat will not provide the kind of stimulation we need. For that there is little question that certain forms of classical music and classic jazz are among the best forms, both of which often (though not always) are composed in much more complex arrangements of notes, chords and time signatures that best challenge the brain. 

What will happen when you listen to novel and complex musical arrangements is that your brain will immediately go racing around all your memory circuits waking them up - "Yo! Have you heard this?!" To which your memory circuits will reply - "Hell no!", to which your brain will reply in turn - "thought so!" and then - and here's the important part - it'll furiously work at trying to figure out all this new stuff, all the while stimulating the hell out of all kinds of far flung regions of your brain. And as it's doing this, all kinds of new connections are being formed in instant and real time. 

Fantastique, n'est ce pas?!

But it's more than just that technical stuff, it's about saving your very soul. 

For this is what happens or can happen. 

In those times when I was hammered by life and struggle and crippled by the fatigue and when my mind would want to plunge into unfathomably dark pits of blackness and despair, I'd put on perhaps 
Miles Davis's A Kind of Blue or maybe Mozart violin concertos which would connect me to not only some of the world's all time greatest composers but also without question it would connect me to some of the best and most beautiful music ever composed and recorded. And it was in connecting to that beauty, in connecting to those composers and the pinnacles of human achievement and art forms, that my darkened and battered soul would feel buoyed, would feel a healing power, would feel and sense beauty and would be rescued from the pits of darkness and despair. 

And more importantly, it was this feeling of being connected to other human souls through music that helped enormously in calming the crushing feelings of isolation and loneliness that I suffered from.

As well, the right kind of beautiful music will help de-stimulate and calm overactive emotional, fear and anxiety regions of the brain like the amygdala and related circuits (there are connections and circuits here that are too stimulated and built up and this is a large reason why "you" are prone to such intense emotions and emotional reactions). So while we're positively stimulating other parts of the brain, music therapy can be working to help dial back the stimulation in emotional circuitry and start to deactivate overly strong connections there.


So, to recap:

- music can stimulate and activate your brain like almost no other activity you could possibly do

- you can do music therapy at any time either with other activities or when you are unable to do anything else physically or mentally

- while I'll get to the benefits of familiar music in a future column, for the best results and higher cognitive and memory circuit stimulation, new and novel forms of music are best

- music can calm overly active emotion processing regions and circuitry

- music can connect you with some of the great beauty of life and salve your soul


For related reading within this blog, please see The Neuroscience of Music Therapy to get a better understanding of how music positively affects the brain and the benefits thereof and Neuroscience in Focus - An Introduction to Neuroplasticity





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