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How Music Wakes Us Up and Makes Us Better

Seven-year-old Charlotte Neve loved Adele. Like everyone else with a pulse, she and her mother, Leila, couldn’t stop themselves from singing along with the British crooner when her hits came one the radio. But after Charlotte suffered a brain hemorrhage that landed her in the hospital, the singing stopped for a while.

One day while Leila sat by her daughter’s hospital bedside, “Rolling in the Deep” started playing over the speakers. When Leila started singing those familiar bars, Charlotte smiled. The thing is, Charlotte was in a coma at the time. That smile was the first perceptible indication that Charlotte had starting regaining consciousness. Two days later, she was walking and talking.

There are a shocking number of stories about music magically bringing people back from the brink. Everything from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” to “Living on a Prayer” is allegedly responsible for rousing people from unresponsiveness, and scientists are starting to figure out why.

It’s called Salient Stimulus, and it’s not just a great name for a band. Salient stimuli — melodies, words or other sounds connected to emotional memories — evoke responses from recovering coma patients because they’re meaningful and familiar. Music is especially powerful because of the way brain processes it. While language is managed by the brain’s left hemisphere, music is sorted by the right. Depending on a patient’s injury or brain function, music might penetrate where language can’t cut through.

Researchers are fascinated with the ways music affects the brain and body, and with good reason. There’s a towering mountain of evidence proving that music — listening to it, learning it and performing it — makes you smarter, healthier and happier.

Kids who study music get a jump on developing “neurological distinction,” which can be a huge help as they learn to speak and read. A study out of Northwestern University found that kids who are actively engaged in learning to play instruments improve their neural processing which shows up in better academic performance, higher graduation rates and, presumably, more pleasant sounds coming out of that clarinet.

As good as music is for your brain, it’s even better for your body. For patients about to undergo surgery, listening to music lowers anxiety and cortisol levels more effectively than drugs. Plus there are no known side-effects for listening to your favorite tunes…unless you count the increased risk of gettin’ down.

Finally, and most importantly, music makes us more empathetic. A Portuguese study found that teaching students songs from Cape Verde (a country off the northwest coast of Africa) actually reduced negative racial stereotyping among the children. Simply liking a song by someone who’s different from you makes you more likely to empathize with them. Collaborative music-making takes this idea one step further; learning to play music in a group can make you more sensitive to the needs and emotions of your fellow musicians — so you’re not just a better music stand partner, you’re a better person.

Creating music is a uniquely human ability that actually upgrades our humanity. Each musical Thankful Moment has the potential to wake us up and bring us back to life…literally. So rock on, and be thankful.


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