3 Ways Music Can Boost Your Brain Health + A Neurologist's Go-To Playlist
You heard it here first: "Certain harmonies, melodies, and frequencies can actually have great healing potential in our bodies," says board-certified integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. It's an up-and-coming field known as psychoacoustics, which involves how we perceive sounds in our brains and how they translate to physiological effects. Your body and brain hold on to so much information from what you see, touch, smell, taste, and, yes, hear—why not use some of that information to your advantage?
To be clear, this is a rapidly expanding field, and we're only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of how to use certain sounds to bolster health and well-being. "The science is not as robust yet as it needs to be, but I think it will be soon," Ruhoy notes. We do, too—in fact, the science of sound is one of our Wellness Trends for 2022.
Ruhoy is convinced, and below, she explains the intricate ways we can use music to bolster your brain:
Whether you realize it or not, Ruhoy says you do associate certain songs and/or sounds with certain events in your life. Ever listened to a song you loved when you were young and felt a wave of nostalgia? Music has a powerful way of conjuring up those memories, whether they're happy, sad, stressful, etc.
"We do make associations, and that does help us process emotions," says Ruhoy. "I have patients who will tell me that they cry at certain songs because it reminds them of a particular sad event. And that is very therapeutic on some level."
In fact, music may have the ability to help you process buried emotions, like in cases of trauma and PTSD. "Things in our lives that we don't process appropriately will affect our cellular machinery and will affect our neurology, and music can sometimes help us do that," Ruhoy declares. "When we play songs that bring us back to a certain time, they do have healing potential in the sense that they help us process some of these underlying emotions that might still be present and might be affecting our health."
Of course, it's not as simple as listening to a song and automatically feeling uplifted. Music may help you identify underlying emotions, but dealing with them still takes necessary work. "When you understand what goes into the neurological system and what goes into our overall health and well-being, it's very complex," Ruhoy notes. "I see all of these things just intertwined and playing a role."
Again, we need more research to make a strong connection, but Ruhoy does tout music's ability to enhance cognition. "There is some research with binaural beats—if you can synchronize the [brain] hemispheres, you stabilize their connection," she explains. That synchronization is important for cognition, as it supports neural communication, neuroplasticity, and memory formation1. Ruhoy continues: "Therefore, the pieces of the brain are not as easily distracted, and so you can focus better2. And focusing better actually improves cognition."
Neurologist Dean Sherzai, M.D., agrees: "Attention is the gatekeeper of consciousness," he said in another mbg podcast episode. "If your attention is affected, everything behind that is affected disproportionately3. You can't memorize, you can't do executive functions..."
The bottom line? Focus and cognition are deeply intertwined, and music may have benefits for both. Ruhoy offers a helpful practice to enhance attention (and thus, cognition): Play a song and really try to focus on nothing else but the music playing—the sound, the tone, the harmony, the frequency. It's like how you might focus on nothing but your breath during a meditation session. "Very easily, you cut out the rest of the world and become very focused—and that improves cognition," Ruhoy says.
She recommends a meditation for sleep playlist (which we've conveniently shared below) to help guide you into that calm, focused mindset. "The minute I hear those tracks, I immediately go into a deeper state," she notes.
On a similar note, Ruhoy says that because music can affect your focus, it can impact your productivity as well. The connection makes sense: Perhaps you have a go-to playlist to listen to while you work, or maybe you find that white noise gets you "in the zone."
"Sometimes it almost doesn't matter what the sound is," says Ruhoy. "But if that's the only sound in your headphones or in your background, you can focus better on a task." In this case, it's more about the constant sounds than the actual type of music. "That's why a lot of people say they're so productive in coffee shops because they drown out the background chatter," she continues. "They are able to shut off parts of their brain and put the rest of their brain toward a task."
You can even rely on sites dedicated to background noise (like Sound Of Colleagues) if you find it easier to tune out mindless chatter than a catchy song. And while productivity isn't necessarily a healing modality, Ruhoy notes, "it does help with cognition because you get to focus a little bit more intently."
While the science is young, psychoacoustics hold great promise in terms of optimizing overall health. "There's going to be a lot on the horizon with regards to sound therapy, and I'm excited to use it regularly for myself, for my family, and for my patients," Ruhoy adds. There are sounds all around us—it's time we take advantage of what they can do for us.