Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bach, Chopin, Tchaikowsky, and Sadie

I asked my mom to please be a guest writer and share what she learned recently about music and the brain. Enjoy!

At Christie’s urging, I recently attended a mini-seminar presented as part of the annual Oregon Bach Festival here in Eugene. The title of the seminar was “Bach and the Brain”, and it featured a virtuoso trumpet player who has recovered from a major brain injury. Also present at the event were three experts, PhD’s from the University of Oregon’s Neuroscience Department who work in a special Brain Lab on research specifically related to brain growth and development. Their website is and it contains some very interesting articles and information if you are interested. Anyway…back to the seminar.

The trumpet player spoke first, and told a detailed story of having a ski accident/head injury/probable severe concussion in the 80’s, never doing anything about it, and going on with his busy professional touring and performing and teaching. Then in the mid-90’s, he suddenly had a violent seizure which left him with loss of speech, tunnel vision, loss of motor control on his left side, and an abnormal sensation like he was sleepwalking. After refusing it for several months, he had brain surgery, and the drs found a large blood-filled mass in his brain that was doing continual damage (by pressure) to various areas of function and ability. Following surgery, he rehabilitated himself quickly and returned to his concert schedule just one month later, though he still had significant loss of language, memory and coordination. What impressed me most about this man, I think, is his “driven” nature to be perfect in the one area…musical performance. He talked about “re-memorizing” dozens of pieces with the vague awareness that he used to know and perform this piece. He obviously had led a highly disciplined life as a classical musician, and had trained to a high level of perfection in musicmaking. He continued with his story of ongoing recovery, several more surgeries, and partnerships with brain rehab facilities and researchers. He now performs and teaches, and plays principal trumpet every year at the Bach Festival.

There were three panelists at the seminar who each spoke briefly about their areas of research and what they are learning from their research and experiments in brain development and recovery after brain injury.

The first scientist spoke about the brain’s capacity to reorganize and recover itself. She stated that the focus of her actual research now is seeking how best to promote “neural plasticity”, or the changeability of the brain so that it forms new connections. She mentioned cognitive exercises, use of assistive devices (like a PDA) and modifying environments for brain injured patients so that they can function with less mental effort.

The next speaker talked about the physiological changes that are seen in the brain when “thinking” is taking place. He said that when nerves are activated, they bring oxygen to their particular area of the brain, and this shows as a “color change” on a brain scan. With each brain, there is a unique pattern of organizational activity: different areas of expertise, and different methods of putting letters into words, facial recognition, etc. He gave the example of chess masters’ brains being highly developed for recognition of patterns on the chessboard. In musicians, the picture of an instrument will activate the auditory system, causing the person to actually “hear” the sound it makes. (yes, I have experienced this!) There are, of course, routine associations that most people make (apple=red, for example), but when people are pushed to make a more creative association (such as apple=computer) it activates the opposite side of the brain, crossing hemispheres.

As a side note, let me mention that I have heard and read that classical musicians have different brains (in a good way!), and observably different levels of development in specific regions of the brain as a result of their high level of training.

The third scientist to speak was a woman who has been researching the development of children’s brains. She talked about an experiment that was done on a selected segment of the population, low-income children, who would not likely have exposure to musical training. The children (preschoolers) were given dedicated training in rhythm, melody and playing music together. After 8 weeks, they showed increased levels of language skills, math skills, attention and focus, among other changes. The thesis of the research group is that music captures attention in a different way than words, activating a different area of the brain, and embeds a message more efficiently because of this. There was, of course, a control group of preschoolers who were tested in the same areas before and after the 8-week period, but without receiving the musical training, who showed no marked improvement in the areas mentioned.

All three of the researchers emphasized that they are continually amazed and struck by the seeming absence of a “limit” to what the brain can do or how far it can go in healing itself. As the research continues, the frontiers keep moving further out of sight. The brain’s systems change throughout our lives, and are vulnerable to damage as well as open to improvement. It is still not well understood how much of our behavior and knowledge is genetically programmed, and how far it can be enhanced.

So back to my favorite little redhead, Sadie. We keep hearing that her brain is not “normal”. The experts have said there was little or no function and she couldn’t sustain herself (breathe, swallow, etc). Here we are six months later and she is definitely living and learning! She can eat, she can express herself with smiles, coos and cries, she responds to sounds and touch, she can see some things (not sure how well) and she has touched so many lives with her dear little personality! She loves music, likes certain colors better than others, and enjoys being in the water. This is no vegetable! Who knows how far her brain can recover itself and reorganize to create “normal” functions for her future?

It took me a long time to discipline myself to sit sown and write this post, mostly because I didn’t want to just share a bunch of information with no application. So what is the bottom line?


Get this little girl in music lessons ASAP!!

She will amaze us all and we will love her more than ever.

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