Music & Neuroplasticity
Welcome to part 3 of my Rewiring for Creativity series! If you missed part 1 and part 2, no worries—these entries don't necessarily need to be read in any particular order and are also available for you to come back to again later. 🙂 The basis of my series is that creativity and neuroplasticity go hand in hand—creativity creates neuroplasticity and a neuroplastic state also supports creativity.
This month's topic is on sound and music, specifically how it can be used to promote neuroplasticity and support brain retraining, or brain gardening as I prefer to call it. 🧠🌱
This is a topic I have a lot to share about because it has been one of my most versatile tools for creating new associations and shifts in mental states, so this blog entry will be only a sample and not a complete exploration of the possibilities available. In fact, I'm currently enrolled in an Integrative Sound and Music Institute certification program to explore more on how sound and music can be used for healing and promoting neuroplasticity. I will be developing materials that will be available through the Brain Gardening website and Instagram, including my own sound meditations, so be sure to follow if you're not already! 🎶
Before learning about neuroplasticity, or even having the awareness that my limbic system was overfiring its protective mechanisms, both music and art were sources I regularly turned to for resilience. As a child, I lacked the skills or support I needed at the time to process certain experiences. Visual art as well as music were activities that greatly enriched my life and helped to create some sense of balance. I played piano as a young child, learned to play the flute and piccolo in grade school, and continued until my teen years. When I was in high school, I had a limited amount of electives available and had to ultimately decide between visual art and music. I chose visual art but still played musical instruments in my free time. For college, I pursued a Bachelor of fine arts in studio art and gradually lost touch with the musically creative side of me. However, music still served as something I turned to for calm.
For example, while commuting to work through the subways of Manhattan, I would often have earbuds in listening to music that would help support my desired state of mind. I learned to love my commutes, because it was "me time" where I could just settle and go with the flow, listening to a curated soundtrack that helped support the kind of state of mind I intended to have no matter what might have been going on around me. If you're familiar with the Heart Math Institute, there is an amazing video that they show when you go through one of their certified programs. It captures how our perspective can be changed simply by a soundtrack, capturing the power of not only sound for our mental states, but further on how our inner voice can also influence our perception.
Below is a short clip I created inspired by that video I saw from Heart Math. My version uses footage of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly in my garden earlier this summer. I've incorporated several different sound clips as a background soundtrack to influence mood or shifts in mental states. This is not a new concept, as sound is often utilized in marketing and film to evoke or enhance certain emotional states in the viewer. However, these same concepts can be used to curate your own thoughts or associations and reprogram the mind during activities (similar to what I did during long commutes).
Royalty-free Music from Bensound
Did you notice any mood shifts as the music shifted?
Did your mind try to create a story for the butterfly through the sounds?
I applied this technique when it came to rewiring my work process to be more supportive of my recovery from chronic stress and limbic system impairment. My previous work process regularly brewed up stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, or norepinephrine (CAN chemistry). If my goal was to attain balance overall and have my nervous systems self-regulate optimally, I needed to consciously add DOSE chemistry (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins) to this process to help even things out. Music was one of the main ways I did this.
Whenever I found myself activating CAN chemistry while working, I would play Disney music. I don't know about you, but there is something about those songs that really washes away any stress hormones. I have an Amazon dot and would simply say "Alexa, play Disney music" and she would shuffle through songs from their various movies. If you pay attention to the lyrics, a lot of the songs do speak to resilience, strength, determination, and joy, and in turn, can also help provoke such mental states in the listener as well. (Hello mirror neurons!👯♀️)
My favorite soundtrack to turn to was from Frozen 2. If there was one movie I wish existed while I was a child, it would definitely be that one. I won't spoil the storyline if you haven't yet seen it yourself, but there are rich themes of self-development throughout, including navigating uncertainty, overcoming fear, gaining independence, and so much more. I definitely recommend it as something to watch during the rewiring journey as it resonates well even for adults. If you don't want to watch the full movie, the following song was the most inspiring for me personally and even still evokes a strong emotional response for me no matter how many times I've listened to it already!
You don't necessarily need to listen to something with lyrics or melody either to create a shift in mental state through music. In fact, I have discovered something quite powerful with more irregular or non-repetitive sounds that the brain can't easily predict, as is often the case with sound healing sessions. The random-ness seems to occupy the brain to try to make sense of it, but the sounds aren't following any particular pattern that it recognizes, so the result is this state of neuroplasticity and innovation. I find my limbic system to be particularly quiet during sound healing sessions while my prefrontal cortex searches to connect with or "make sense" of the sounds. Sometimes visual imagery will come up, especially with indigenous musical instruments where the brain associates more elemental things like water or nature to the sounds rather than identifying more audibly iconic instruments such as a trumpet 🎺 or guitar 🎸, which are not often part of these experiences.
The following are two sources of music that I have turned to for support in grounding.
The first is by a composer named Murray Hidary, who also founded Mind Travel. My first Mind Travel experience took place last year at a park near my home. I found the advertisement for the event online and its vagueness piqued my curiosity.
"Free MindTravel SilentWalk. This FREE event is sponsored by The MindTravel Foundation, an organization committed to bringing music, healing, and community to communities across North America."
The event took place just at sundown. The sky was painted all sorts of beautiful pastel colors when we arrived at the park. In a grassy area off to the side, there was a banner that said "Mind Travel" and a table full of headphones. Each participant received their own set and was asked to put them on. Once we were all gathered, Murray himself led us on a guided walk through the park while listening to music he had composed that played through the headphones, as well as occasional narrations where he guided us to experience and observe the nature around us. There was something incredible about doing this activity as a group where we were all united and yet all individual in what we were experiencing within. Prior to this experience, I had reservations about walking in dim light and was still training on physical activity and recovering from symptoms associated with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). I didn't know ahead of time, but the experience I signed up for ended up being a 2-hour walk through various trails in this particular park. There were no lighted paths, so w