By: Brad Swail, 8p Father based in Austin, TX
March is National Music Month in the United States, and what better way to celebrate than by providing a little insight into how music can help our 8p Heroes. Music is universal, and in the 8p community, it is no different. For my son, Lachlan (8p Inv/Del/Dup), music is one of the few things that regularly gets him excited, calms him down, or puts him in the right mood for whatever it is we need to do.
What exactly does music we like do when we hear it? Most importantly, we get a hit of dopamine – the neurotransmitter in our brain that makes us feel happy. (I know this to be true, as it happens every time I play Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, or throw on my favorite classical playlist on Spotify.) Dopamine acts as a reward and helps keep us focused. When we do something that triggers a release of the happy transmitter, we feel good, which keeps us motivated to do more of it. It’s probably why you have stuck with your favorite hobbies or exercise routines for as long as you have – finish a project or a workout, get a dopamine hit, strive to do it again.
Part of this dopamine dump comes from the fact music also makes our brains work in an enjoyable manner. When listening to music, our brains are trying to anticipate the next note or section. If it’s from a piece we love, we anticipate it well and are rewarded; if it’s something more unfamiliar, we can be rewarded or let down; and if it’s one we dislike then we are unsatisfied.
And music that we prefer does one spectacular thing that is unique to humans – it actives our Default Mode Network, which is our neurological basis for the self. So music makes us feel human by activating memories and empathy, as well as by helping us process emotions and learning.
While keeping in mind that little bit of why music does amazing things for humans in general, let’s switch focus to 8p Heroes. I know it is my go-to when Lachlan is fussing for whatever unknown reason. If I am trying to feed him and he’s screaming and crying, I turn on my blue-tooth speaker, place it close enough to where he can feel the music and turn on a string-heavy Baroque playlist. This usually calms him down.
I know it helps him stay calm, but can music therapy help him in other areas? Of course, dopamine hits are going to be positive and tying them to certain tasks can help motivate him. But specific to his issues of trouble walking, coordinating and differentiating left and right limbs, music therapy can have a major impact. Rhythm, for example, can help drive fundamental motor areas of the brain into action. With enough exposure and practice, I believe that this could lead to better motor control and eventually improve Lachlan’s gait.
As for differentiating between his left and right limbs, playing an instrument could, in the long run, have a tremendous effect, as Lachlan also has Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, or ACC. The Corpus Callosum in a typically developing brain is a bundle of nerves that serves as the main communication pathway between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In the absence of one, that communication is not totally missing, but is certainly slowed and limited. When humans learn to coordinate their hands doing different activities to achieve a goal, for instance holding a violin with your left hand and moving a bow with your right, your left and right hemisphere must learn to work together thus encouraging development in the Corpus Callosum. Therefore, learning to coordinate and manipulate instruments can increase the connectivity of pathways pertaining to the left and right parts of the brain.
When reaching out to the 8p community, I received some pretty amazing stories as to the effects of introducing music therapy. Common among 8p Heroes are global developmental delays, especially in speech and motor development. Many parents struggle to find ways to teach or encourage their children to sit up on their own, crawl, and especially walk. It seems that many eventually get there, but music therapy is helping to accelerate that process.
Amber Howland, whose daughter Athena has 8p Inverted Deletion Duplication Syndrome, says her daughter was highly motivated by music therapy. Amber shared in an email, “Athena was in therapy around the age of 2 and we were working on sitting up on her own and crawling. The therapist recognized that she loved music and was motivated by it, so she brought in a music therapist. This is what made her finally crawl and we continue to use music to motivate her.”
Another mother, Jennifer Hickey, shared that her daughter Claire (8p Inverted Deletion Duplication) also benefits greatly from music therapy. “[Claire] is excited by the instruments and calmed with music and singing,” Jennifer says. This goes back to the dopamine hit we get when we hear music we enjoy. Claire hears the music, gets to interact with it and listen, receives the happy neurotransmitters, and is motivated to work and do more.
Knowing what 8p families go through on a regular basis to reach milestones that most take for granted, I hope stories like these become more the norm and less the exception. If all it takes is playing some of their favorite music, letting them smash some keys on a piano, or strum a ukulele, then that seems worth it to me. The easiest way to find a music therapist in your area is to search via Google etc. but you can also talk to your current therapist for recommendations. I reached out to The Institution for Music and Neurological Function (www.imnf.org) for direction, and they were happy to help.