7 Insane Ways Music Affects The Body (According to Science)
The world is chock full of ear hurt that some people willingly refer to as music. The Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Conway Twitty; they all produce high quality records and 8-tracks for our enjoyment whether we like it or not.
But music--even terrible music--has a stunning amount of power over our bodies. For instance science says music can...
Repair Brain Damage
Slapping neuroscience right across the face, music is able to take stroke, lesion or other brain-damaged patients who have lost the partial ability to see or speak and return it to them. The Kenny Rogers Effect--not named because it deals with gorging yourself on chicken or replacing your old, grandfatherly face with a shiny new rubber one--takes patients with visual neglect, the inability to recognize half of what they see, and lightens the effects of the damage. Patients who only shave half their face or grab for the right boob at a strip club can now put that dollar bill in the left or right side of her thong. The Gambler never stops being awesome.
As long as she's dancing to Kenny Rogers...
Patients with left-side brain damage who can no longer speak can find they are able to sing words, often without trouble or training. After that, it's just a matter of time before they're able to speak simple sentences with practice. That may not sound like much, but if you've ever tried to order a side of fries with left-hand only charades you'll understand what a blessing this can be.
How Does it Work?
Melodic intonation therapy, or singing until you can talk, takes advantage of the fact that language functions are located in the left brain, but music lives over on the right side of the brain. So, when that asshole stroke robs you of your ability to speak, you can train your brain to move those functions to the other side by associating music with language. This essentially rewires a lifetime of growth and an entire history of evolution into meaninglessness interpretations of random head noises from a guy who hasn't shaved his beard since the 70s.
Listening to actual non-terrible music has an additional effect, since pleasurable music releases dopamine that simply makes certain parts of your brain function better (particularly if they were damaged before).
Dopamine is your brain's natural crack
In a nutshell, music gives your brain a massage and fills it with happy chemicals, turning you from a one-eyed mute into an Island in the Stream.
Kick an Addiction
As it turns out, performing music can be relaxing and can create a distraction from withdrawal symptoms; songwriting can help patients confront impulse control and self-deception and allows an output for negative emotions; hence the entire songbook of Raffi.
It has even been found that listening to music can help aid the detox stage of recovery from drug addiction, and if applied frequently could cut down on the number of pain-killers patients need. Indeed, it turns out GWAR may be just as helpful as Percocet.
How Does it Work?
Music directly affects chemicals called neurotransmitters which relay information in our head. Drugs work in a similar way, except they make your brain lazy and convince it to stop making its own chemicals, because why do work when sweet China White is there to making everything all better? But when you stop taking drugs, your brain isn't making enough chemicals and it doesn't know why because it relies on those drugs to get enough, so your body fails to function correctly and you turn into Joaquin Phoenix.
Introducing music can increase levels of some chemicals associated with heavy addictions, like dopamine and norepinephrine, but significantly cuts back on suzziness and the willingness to give blowjobs for your next fix. In addition, certain music lowers things like heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, etc., that make you feel like killing everybody around you.
Apparently the fact that half of the world's rock stars still wind up dead from overdoses despite music's addiction-breaking qualities is a testament to just how much those guys fucking love doing drugs.
Boost Your Immune System
It may come as no surprise to all the Cracked readers who are also neuroscientists that music helps boost your immune system. For the rest of you, word is that intangible plinking noises can create a noticeable increase in recovery from a wide range of conditions, including heart disease, lung ailments and even the common cold. While the field of study is still young compared to fancy "real medicine" like "pharmaceuticals" and "penis phrenology" it turns out that sometimes all you need to overcome your horribly debilitating illness is AC/DC.
How Does it Work?
Music, like Jurassic Park's raptors, doesn't just attack from one side. That shit brings out a multi-pronged assault. To start, music reduces stress by reducing cortisol levels, a chemical in your brain that causes you to feel stress in the first place. Jazz, bluegrass and soft rock have been found to be especially effective at reducing stress and increasing health because of their similar musical qualities (that quality being that you don't listen to any of them).
If you're wondering if your favorite music is helping your health, a good question to ask is, "Does this music make me want to riot?" If you answered yes, it's not an optimal medicine. Likewise, if your favorite musician's last name is Cyrus you're probably dooming yourself to a life of erectile dysfunction and diabetes.
In addition to simply lowering stress levels, music also raises immune markers in your system, creating more antibodies to fight disease. Ironically, listening to Amy Winehouse could make you immune to all the potential diseases you'd be exposed to if you met Amy Winehouse. This effect is compounding: Over time, the body can learn to recognize certain types of music (particularly choir or classical music) as immune boosting, continuing the improvement of the immune system. As an added bonus, if you listen to choir music on a regular basis you're almost guaranteed to be immune to STDs as the odds of you ever having sex are quite slim.
Good news: If you're not one of those 150 suckers who get seizures from music, you may be one of the luckier ones who benefit from decreased seizure activity as a result of listening to music. This effect has even been observed in coma patients. Bet you feel better about being in a coma now.
It's been shown that music by Mozart played on the piano reduces seizure-causing activity in the brain within five minutes of exposure, with many cases showing immediate results in what scientists should called Seizure Wolfgang-banging. Experimentation with other forms of music has been minimal, but for some reason there appears to be a connection between our brains and piano music.
How Does it Work?
It's theorized that "the superorganization of the cerebral cortex . . . may resonate with the superior architecture of Mozart's music" which is a sciencey way of saying that probably Mozart gets all up in your brain in ways the Hamburger Helper jingle only wishes it could. Really though, this is another one of those medical shrug moments, as scientists really haven't figured it out yet. Kind of unfulfilling, isn't it?
"Mozart music hits a certain part of... There's a connection between the structure and a brain's...
You see, with brain music... Oh fuck you, it just works OK?"
Return Lost Memories
If you want music to help you but refuse to stop smoking pot, perhaps you can at least remember where you put your car keys. Or, more applicably, if you have Alzheimer's it could help you remember pieces of your past.
Medical practitioners have found that music shows the potential to unearth memories associated with music for patients, even ones in late stages of dementia. So if you had your first kiss to the dulcet tones of Jefferson Starship, their terrible, terrible music could bring that memory right back for you.
How Does it Work?
Listening to music engages many areas of the brain in both hemispheres, which is why it can create brain activity other methods, like conversation, can't. Another area it engages is the hippocampus, which would be a hilarious name for a school for aquatic mammals but in reality is the less impressive region of the brain which handles long-term memory storage.
When you listen to music you know, feelings associated with the song are returned by the hippocampus. Sometimes the memories even manage to come along with the relevant feelings, so hopefully no music was playing the first time anyone ever kicked you in the junk. Even if memories aren't recovered, emotions and attitudes are, allowing people who can't even remember who they are from day to day or why they loathe the FOX network so much to at least laugh and sing along with off key hopefuls on American Idol.
Increase Spatial Reasoning
If only there were some way to make yourself seem smarter without working. Oh, wait, there is. Mozart music, especially piano music, can raise your spatial reasoning the equivalent of nine IQ points. And that's an average, meaning there are people who get even more of a boost from it. That's over half a standard deviation or the difference between being Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape or Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. Sure, you're not winning a Nobel Prize either way, but it's still a noticeable difference.
How Does it Work?
There are a lot of theories, but some claim that Mozart's music focuses the listener more, like how if you're in the midst of your sixth hour of questing in World of Warcraft you can still rain holy hell down on Hogger as long as you're listening to Ace of Spades. Others say it increases activity in crucial regions of the brain and a few industrious types say "who cares why it works, how can we make money off of this?"
At this point, you may be asking, "Sure, music can fix my brain, but can it fix my body?" which would indicate you expect entirely too much from iTunes. No amount of power ballads is going to cure your heartburn or trim a few pounds off anyone's overly-gelatinous ass. However, if you have Parkinson's disease, it just might be able to help. Victims of Parkinson's suffer from muscle spasms, locking muscles, balance problems and sketchy scientists with kick ass time machines. As it turns out, applying music can instantly resolve the physical issues of Parkinson's in many victims.
Take Rande Gedaliah, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2003 and found she had muscle spasms, balance problems and difficulty walking. The disease eventually led to a serious fall in the shower. Things were looking pretty grim until one day she found out she could listen to music and suddenly be able to move with ease, the type of music determining the speed she walks at. We Are the Champions let her walk a slow clip and Born in the USA made her move faster still. Anything by Nickelback sent her spiraling into a rage.
Ancient warriors listened to their Nickelback equivalent, thrashing and scraping bones on rocks,
to produce a similar effect before combat.
How Does it Work?
When you're locked in your room, listening to your old N'Sync CDs, have you ever noticed your foot tapping on its own? That's not just because you have terrible taste in music. It's because the portions of the brain which deal with rhythm and movement are so automated that it requires no conscious attention to move to a beat. It's like your brain going behind your back to get things done because it knows it can't rely on you to bust an appropriate move when you hear "Bye Bye Bye."
This movement isn't handled by the same process as walking up the stairs or hilariously farting with your armpit. Suddenly, patients with bradykinesia--an inability to initiate movement--can move instantly as their brain interprets the music and sends movement signals to their legs, essentially tricking their bodies into moving. We'll say that again for you: Music can trick your broken, unresponsive body into obedience. Think about it: How many times have you thrown your hands in the air? When that happened, did you just not care? Science says that's because you had no control.
Music also helps other Parkinson's-related issues, including loss of balance and spasms. It's also been found that playing music creates an improvement in people with the disease, and drum circles are being used as treatment in music therapy groups, presumably because drums are cheaper than fancy-ass medical equipment, anyway.
When hippies become doctors.
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For more things science is scratching its head about, check out 6 Things Your Body Does Every Day That Science Can't Explain. Or find out why you should punch your body right now, in Your Body Hates You: 6 Gruesome Disorders Anyone Can Get.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 2.5.2010) to see how music affects us in our pants.