Tag Archives: brain

The Power of Music on People With Dementia

I heard a wonderful piece on NPR yesterday titled “For Elders With Dementia, Musical Awakenings”. It highlights the story of an elderly man named Henry who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimers who is typically unresponsive, yet comes to life when music from his youth is played to him. (You can read more at NPR’s site here and be sure to watch the video at the bottom of this post.

The more I learn about the brain (a hobby of mine) the more fascinated I get about the power of music on brain function and cognition. The process of listening and remembering music engages many different regions of the brain in a complex way and imprints or hardwires these relationships. Although it is possible for people to appreciate new types of music throughout their lifetimes, most musical tastes are fashioned during the teenage years.

For those with dementia, it is no wonder that hearing music that was enjoyed in a formative age would reactivate these hardwired relationships in the brain which then in turn would reengage cognitive functions in these areas.

My parents are 88 and 86 and we are noticing early stages of dementia–you know, those “senior moments” when a parent loses track of which child they are talking about during a conversation. The NPR piece makes me wonder what effect a playlist of my parent’s favorite music would have on them during these earlier stages of random forgetfulness.

I have a few ideas of what kinds of music they loved when they were young–Glenn Miller comes to mind. But, I realize that the time to find out what would be in their favorite playlist is now.

How about you? Do you know what your parent’s favorite songs were when they were young? Perhaps now is the time to find out. I would love to hear your stories.



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Monday Musicologist: Re-listening to Old Faves

[Yes, I know that Monday was yesterday, but the time change seemed to have put me in a coma, and now I’m catching up. Okay, carry on…]

Doing my best to find a silver lining in every cloud, I am a Spotify Pro user. Yes, despite the fact that it takes about four million spins on Spotify to earn an artist minimum wage, and although it may seem hypocritical, Spotify is providing me with an unparalleled opportunity, and ad free for $10 a month. (So, yes, I did go over the dark side, didn’t I?). The opportunity is that I get to listen to a lot of music. I guess that is the point, isn’t it?

For example, other than my brother’s reel-to-reel tape of the Beach Boy’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1, I had never heard any of their catalog before. Now I have, and discovered what a gem “Pet Sounds” was.

Likewise, I am “catching up” with other classic artist’s catalogs and I have made an interesting observation. Take Jethro Tull, for example. I am very familiar with two of their records, Songs From the Wood and A Passion Play. The rest of their catalog I have heard bits and pieces, but never anything all the way through. I find that I am much more critical about stuff that I am not familiar with, i.e. I think I listen to it more objectively. So, although Tull’s Thick as a Brick is regarded as one of Tull’s best works, it all seems to me to just wander aimlessly and I’m wondering how much longer before it’s over.

Both Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play are album-length multi-movement pieces, and given the constraints of the LP format, they can’t be more than about 40 minutes long. And although I got bored with Thick, when I listen to A Passion Play, I still love every note, it pushes all my happy buttons, and it seems to go by in a flash. Why is this? It makes me wonder if things were the other way round, i.e. if I was familiar with Brick but listening to Passion for the first time, would I consider Passion to be a tedious sprawling bore?

After reading Daniel Levitin’s book “This is Your Brain On Music”, there is no question why listening to Passion again is so enjoyable. It  recalls the neural pathways that were formed when I got so into it back when I was a teenager and triggers the associated emotional memory as well. It’s like comfort food.

According to Levitin, our musical tastes are mostly programmed by the time we reach adulthood. It’s not that we can’t pick up new tastes–we all do–but I wonder if we like new stuff because it contains some element of the stuff we programmed ourselves to like when we adolescents. Perhaps that’s why I typically don’t like country music–never listened to it as a kid. But when there is a rock edge to a country song, which makes it almost indistinguishable to me stylistically from some 70’s  rock, I will like it. I like a lot Keith Urban’s music because it sounds more like country-twinged rock rather than the other way around.

Anyway, food for thought, or should I say comfort food for thought?

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Do you have a lot to lose?

It’s that time of year again. I’m noticing a rash of weight-loss commercials on the TV this morning. On the Today Show they had a segment about willpower where they interviewed an expert on the subject, Kelly Mcgonigal, PhD, a health psychologist and yoga teacher at Stanford university, who happens to have a book out: “The Willpower Instinct”.

Perusing a little on her website, I am seeing themes reminiscent of some of the insights I learned from Dr. Daniel Amen’s work. The brain is crucial. If there’s something off in the brain, achieving lifestyle-change goals will be more difficult. But information IS power and, although I struggle with some issues like ADD, addressing the brain chemistry issues has enabled me to turn the corner on my heath and lifestyle goals.

Dr. Mcgonigal’s work adds the psychological dimension including the importance of self-compassion and strategies for using and building self-control. I will write more about her work as I research it. Meanwhile, here is a great article from her website: http://kellymcgonigal.com/2011/10/21/how-mindfulness-supports-weight-loss/

For your convenience, here is one section from the article that I found fascinating, but you really ought to read the whole thing when you get a chance.

From Mindless to Mindful Eating

According to Susan Albers, PsyD, author of Eat, Drink and Be Mindful (New Harbinger 2009), mindless eating is a major factor in weight gain and a saboteur of weight loss. “In many cases, it’s not the meals we eat that cause weight gain. It’s the snacking, the mindless eating while watching television, when we’re on autopilot and not really aware of what we’re eating.” And it’s not just the environment or distractions that trigger automatic eating. Emotions play a big role. “The majority of food decisions people make have nothing to do with hunger. They have to do with stress, anxiety, sadness or frustration.”

This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is the process of paying attention, both to inner cues (thoughts, emotions and sensations) and to your environment. When applied to eating, this can mean the difference between one more failed diet and lasting change you can live with. “When clients address their mindless eating, they often naturally lose weight,” Albers says.

Albers breaks mindful eating into three components:

  • Mindful Eating in the Moment. This means getting rid of distractions like reading, watching television or eating on the go. It also means being aware of the sensations of eating—really tasting, smelling and enjoying the food as you eat it. Finally, it means knowing what it feels like to be hungry or full, and learning to honor those signals. “Mindless eaters have so lost touch with the feeling of fullness. But with practice you start to realize, if I eat any more, I’m not going to feel good. ”
  • Nonjudgmental Awareness of Eating Habits and Beliefs. Albers encourages her clients to keep a food journal to get a clear sense of their eating habits, and to pay attention to habits like where they keep food in the house or office and how they go about food shopping. It’s also important to notice how you talk to yourself about food. “Be mindful of the voices in your head, the messages Mom might have given you about food.” Common self-defeating beliefs include not wanting to waste food, putting foods into black-and-white “good” and “bad” categories or trying to show people you love them by sharing rich comfort foods.
  • Nonjudgmental Awareness of Environmental and Emotional Triggers for Eating. A bakery case full of French pastries may trigger a craving that was not there a moment ago. That craving has nothing to do with the body’s true needs and everything to do with the eating environment. A mindful approach can help you become aware of the difference between hunger and craving. And when you are aware of your personal triggers, it is easier to avoid them or to pause and make a conscious choice. Stress is another common trigger for overeating, but it’s not just negative feelings that trigger mindless eating. “Positive feelings can prompt automatic eating, too,” Albers says. “You want the happy feeling to continue, so you celebrate with food to hold on to the joy.” Mindfulness can help you recognize when you are eating for emotional reasons and can allow you to develop other strategies for self-soothing or celebrating.



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Here’s a healthy snack I discovered when reading the Change Your Brain, Change Your Body book by Dr. Daniel Amen (giving credit where credit is due). Hard boil an egg, discard the egg yolk (full of evil cholesterol and bad fat) and replace it with hummus.

Yes, I would rather go to a bag of tortilla chips. (And yes, I need to stop thinking that way.) But I can’t stop eating from a bag of chips once I start, so I can’t go there. The important thing about a snack is it keeps me eating more frequently, but eating less. And the snacks should be healthy and include some protein. Other snack ideas:

  • Apple and a string-cheese stick
  • Celery with natural peanut butter (think Trader Joes, not Skippy)
  • A Wasa or Ak-Mak cracker (or two) with some tuna or smoked salmon
  • Some baby carrots with a small handful of almonds or walnuts
I would LOVE to hear your suggestions for other healthy snacks. Yes, I’m asking for reader participation.




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Several months ago I responded to one of those public television fund raising drives. Never done that before. The featured content was Dr. Daniel Amen presenting information from his latest book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Body”. Think of Dr. Amen as the Dr. Oz of neuroscience. Merrilyn and I are gaining interest in the brain and in neuroscience, so this sort of thing gets our attention.

I started reading the book after putting it off for these many months, as I already had a pretty good idea what to find in its pages. Yep, I need to make some major changes in my nutrition and lifestyle if I am going to get healthier, and I SO need to improve my health. What is intriguing is the author’s assertion that our inability to change behavior, and consequently improve our self care, is not necessarily a willpower issue, but a brain chemistry/activity issue. I am starting to suspect that I have diminished activity in my Pre-Frontal Cortex (or PFC), the part of the brain that is responsible for attention, planning, and followthrough. Hey, I have ADD, so this sort of makes sense.

I have only read the first few chapters. I am sure to have more to share. Later…

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Stroke of Insight

My wife, Merrilyn, read this book a couple of months ago, and given that we are both interested in neuroscience, I was intrigued enough to read it. Fascinating to say the least. The author is a neuroscientist who had a hemorrhagic stroke in the left part of her brain. All she had functioning was the right side for awhile. Being a neuroscientist, she was able to describe what it was like to experience this. It took her eight years to fully recover, rendering false the prevailing wisdom that whatever you don’t recover in the first six months you lose forever.

With her left brain silenced, at least for a short while, she was more keenly aware of what goes on in the right side of the brain. Part of this was a greater awareness of the “spiritual” part of the brain. She recounts a blissful state of feeling “one with the universe”, not unlike what occurs when people engage in deep meditation. (Hey, I’ve been there a few times when I have practiced contemplative prayer, although I would describe it as feeling “one with God”.)

The author asserts that it is possible to calm the left side of the brain, the part where all the “brain chatter” happens, in favor of experiencing the serenity of right side. This, in my opinion, is what meditation is all about, and it piques my curiosity about research of what happens in the brain when people have spiritual experiences. Fascinating stuff.

The prevailing question is this: Do people imagine spiritual experiences whenever the “God spot” in the brain is activated due to purely physiological causes? Those who would answer yes would say that this proves that there is no God and that religious/spiritual experience is all in the head. On the flip side: Does the “God spot” circuit in our brain become activated in response to encounters with a power greater than ourselves? I.e. is it an external supernatural (or perhaps extradimensional) force that lights up this part of the brain? I personally answer yes to this second question. I believe that we are “wired” for encounters with our higher power and this part of the brain exists for this purpose. And although this is my view, I certainly understand and have respect for anyone who holds the other view.

As with all things, no one can prove or disprove the existence of God or a higher power or whatever you would choose to call it. Faith is faith. Science is science. I have profound respect for both and see no inherent conflict between the two. Conflict occurs only when one co-opts the other to “prove” some kind of point. Good luck with that.

Leaving these lofty questions aside for now, I have a revived interest in contemplative prayer and am starting to practice it. I will write more about this in another post.


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