• 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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