• Music & Healing, Acoustics & Learning

    From time to time the peripatetic life of a freelance neuroscience broadcaster and consultant can lead to some fantastic moments of serendipity.

    bnaLast December, at the annual BNA Christmas symposium, I screened a 10 min teaser of a series of interviews I conducted at the British Neuroscience Association Conference in the Barbican last Spring. The aim of these mini-films is to make the impressive work done by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists interesting and accessible to all by discussing the latest revelations from the world of neuroscience in plain English. Having to learn to use editing and 3D motion graphics software on the fly has made this a slow-moving yet intensely rewarding project. The teaser is *very nearly* ready to go up on the BNA website. Eventually, it this project will comprise a series of 8 x 3 min films that will enable any curious mind to get a sneaky peek at the fruits of several globally renowned scientists’ thoughts about the latest brain research direct from the horses’ mouths. Here are three snippets from the first cut to give you a taste.

    chelsea-westminster-hospital-performanceAfter the inaugural screening of the “British Neuroscience Conversations” teaser, a Ph.D. student who had been in the audience kindly took the time to engage me in conversation about her research. In so doing she introduced me to the wonderful world of psychoneuroimmunology. In a nutshell, it turns out that music can accelerate healing not by just making people feel happier upon hearing the music, but by actually impacting upon the immune system. For the scientifically literate amongst you here is her excellent review paper, hot off the press (published earlier this month). In a previous blog I described research showing that healing times after routine gall bladder surgery were significantly sped up simply by giving patients a view from their sick bed of grass and trees (rather than a brick wall). And given the robust increases in certain immune cells (immunoglobulin A) and decrease in stress hormones (cortisol) outlined in the Fancourt et al (2014) review paper – it seems likely that soothing low tempo music could be added to the mix to create an even more effective healing environment.

    At the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, where Daisy Fancourt and her colleagues are based, they have a regular program of live music performed in a fantastic space at the very heart of this beautifully designed building. The aim is not just to allow the patients to benefit from the mood and health promoting properties of music, but the staff too. Doctors, nurses and other health care practitioners can often be found stopping by to listen to the live music for a few minutes whenever their snatched opportunities to wolf down a sandwich or gulp a cup of coffee happens to coincide with a performance.

    EssexStudyIn a second coincidence the very next day I met up with my cousin for a couple of beers. He is an acoustician – a physicist who consults for property developers and re-developers on how to manage the acoustics of living spaces, working spaces, learning spaces, healing spaces and musical performance spaces. I mentioned what was going on down at the Chelsea and Westminster and he responded by introducing me about The Essex Study. In a school in Essex three different classrooms were kitted out with “re-verb dampening” panels that attenuate certain acoustic features known to make hearing the voices of other people more difficult over the background noise. In untreated rooms the unattenuated echos tend to lead to a positive feedback loop – students find it harder to hear each other over the reverb so raise their voices to be heard – which upon multiple iterations gradually increases the overall volumes levels, making teaching very difficult and teachers very hoarse!

    As well as subjectively rating various aspects of the rooms with the greater re-verb reduction more highly, teachers also found it much easier to teach classes in rooms with the larger degree of sound dampening; stating that in normal classrooms those same groups of students were usually much more unruly. Although the students’ academic outputs were (unfortunately) not tested in the four different environments with varying degrees of echo dampening, the teacher’s anecdotal testimonies regarding how much easier it was to teach in the acoustically tweaked classrooms were compelling nonetheless (see Appendix B, p29).

    I wonder about the potential for crossover between these two distinct areas of research. Might excessive reverb caused by the acoustical properties of hospital ward architecture could potentially impede healing? Perhaps by increasing cortisol, high levels of which suppress the immune system? Mozart Effect notwithstanding might musical activities, perhaps between lessons, potentially promote learning by helping students reduce high levels of cortisol that might be induced by social strife (bullying, the inclusion / exclusion roller coaster of teenage friendships) not to mention exam-related anxiety? Is anyone out there looking into these things? If so, please do drop me a line and let me know about it.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I tweet on a daily basis about articles in the lay press that give a neuroscience-informed (#neuroformed) insight into human behaviour and brain health. If you’d like to follow me then please click here.

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  • Green Spaces Accelerate Healing by Dr Jack

    Spending time in green spaces reduces blood pressure, increases self-reported happiness ratings and even boosts self-confidence. And this is not just because being in clean and tidy natural environments encourages people to take exercise. Neither, it seems, do you have to actually be physically outdoors in these spaces to benefit from these life-enriching effects. Merely having a view over a natural green space is sufficient to influence the rate of healing and the perception of pain. In a famous Science study published in 1984 by Roger S. Ulrich, patients whose recovery room had either a view of a small copse of trees or a brown brick wall were compared, retrospectively, in terms of duration of their stay in hospital and strength of analgesia required to deal with the pain induced by gall bladder surgery performed in the same Pennsylvanian hospital. They found that on average those with the view of a green space spent on average one less day in hospital and required much fewer moderate or strong doses of pain killers compared to those with a view of the brick wall.

    Numerous studies have been conducted since to try to establish what aspects of the natural environment have the strongest benefits to our wellbeing. Virgnia I Lohr, of Washington State University, describes studies suggesting that bright green colours synonymous with luscious vegetation make us feel happier than light greens and yellows that could indicate plant nutrient deficiencies. Furthermore not only does mood improve when we look at trees but we even have a preference for trees with spreading canopies over short and stubby bush like trees typically found in arid areas and tall / narrow trees typically found in areas of very high rainfall. The explanation Lohr offers for these preferences for bright greens and trees with spreading canopies is that such visual stimuli are indicative of conditions suitable for the proliferation of human life. In other words an innate appreciation of such visual characteristics conferred a survival advantage to early humans as they would have been attracted to environments with flourishing plantlife and thus food sources, whilst others would have perished in environments that were either too dry or to wet.

    So whether you are recovering from illness, or merely wish to boost your mood, get outside and take a stroll in the countryside, in your local park or common. If that’s not possible for one reason or another go take a few moments to sit somewhere with a view of some greenery. As I type I happen to be whizzing through the Northumbrian countryside on a train (that’s in the North-East of England for those who live further afield) meditating upon how beautiful it is. Enjoy!

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