What happens in our brain when we listen to a familiar song or piece of music? Is it the same for everyone? I know for me, a familiar song may bring back a certain memory or I start singing along because I just cannot help it! For many, an emotional connection triggers endorphins, which are hormones that help you feel good. I’ve had patients at the beginning of a session tell me that they “do not feel that great”, then after we sing and/or play a familiar song of theirs, I ask again and get a different answer. Sometimes their pain is less or they just “feel better.”
According to a recent study by a group of researchers, they looked at what areas of the brain show activation when a group of individuals with Down syndrome (DS) listened to familiar music versus unfamiliar music. The study also used a control group, which is a group of individuals who do not have a specific condition like DS. Using a procedure called magnetoencephalography (MEG), scientists can track by the millisecond what areas of the brain are responding. According to this study, individuals with DS only showed activation in three areas of the brain versus the control group, which showed activation in four areas. The individuals with DS did not show activation in the area of the brain related to emotion, which is the limbic system. This area contains glands that generate hormones.
The individuals with DS stated they enjoyed the familiar music and could recall where or how they knew it, but their brain activity did not show statistically significant numbers. For most individuals, there is an “overlap” of activity in our brains when we listen to familiar music. One is where we hear the music (through our auditory cortex) and it relates to past emotional experiences. The second area is when the auditory cortex “in relation to past action experiences” (p. 261). Individuals with DS, who have difficulty with social-emotional cues and perceptual-motor cues, had “activation of only one brain network related to auditory-motor coupling” (p. 261).
This study does not answer all the questions regarding how the brain processes familiar music versus unfamiliar music for individuals with DS. However, it does help us understand that more research is needed to further investigate the complexities of brain function in light of the differences known between individuals with and without DS.
Virji-Babul, N., Moiseev, A., Sun, W., Feng, T., Noiseeva, N., Watt, K. J., Huotilainen, M. (2012). Neural correlates of music recognition in down syndrome. Brain and Cognition, 81, p. 256-262.
Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC
Neurologic Music Therapy Fellow