Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Rhythmic Brain

Music & Imagination: The Rhythmic Brain
A talk conducted by Stephanie Chase with special guest Eric Barnhill
A YouTube video from the Philocetes Center: The multidisciplinary study of imagination
By Richard Burrows

This 1 hour and 44 minute YouTube video is a recording of a lecture given by Eric Barnhill. Eric is a specialist in alternative therapy for special needs children, utilizing techniques from Dalcroze and Alexander. His rhythm and movement therapies help with speech, literacy, coordination, and mobility.
Eric’s theory argues that certain features of music and rhythm are a gateway to movement. This movement impacts psychological processes and neurological function. His theory is organized hierarchically from the brain, to the mind, to movement, and then to music. His lecture takes us through a transformative discussion of his work and begins with the brain.
Barnhill sees the brain as a structure and a processing organism. He argues that the brain works as a “grandmother cell” which organizes multiple ideas and senses into one coherent thought. The mind is the perception tool. He states that humans are meant to move and see motion. We constantly perceive reality through motion.
He briefly covers the 40 Hz phenomenon. He argues that the thalamus is the ‘gateway’ to neurological function, which is why this plays a crucial role in the phenomenon. He then discusses the idea of ‘slaving’. This is where smaller rhythmic vibrations are taken over by larger vibrations as a form of orientation. This idealized pattern of organization, allows the brain to become a teacher of itself, where it can find more efficient ways to deal with neurological processes.
Barnhill begins to discuss how his theory is utilized in practice. He believes that the brains first function is to entrain to the elements around us, and he argues that the need for rhythm is intrinsic in language recognition. When working with children, he begins by showing the importance of synchronicity with counting and movement. He stomps his feet and has the children count in time. He explains the importance of having the new abilities internalized.
The remainder of the lecture is a question and answer period. One interesting question arises involving the notion of music acting as a stabilizer within speech. Barnhill is asked how the brain works with this specific subject who has a dramatic stutter when speaking but if he sings, it disappears. Barnhill states that the brain perceives things coming in and has action patterns stored in a stereotypical way, which then release and are modulated to match the outside environment. He argues that music picks up the slack of neurological processing. He feels this is the answer to the healing powers of music.

The found this lecture extremely interesting. Barnhill is a very engaging speaker, who is very knowledgeable in his field. His answers were very precise, understandable, and he wasn’t afraid to say that he didn’t know the answer to certain questions. He managed to cover a wide range of topics and certainly evoked an interest to pursue further information. His examples were clear and helped further explain his theory.

As I get deeper into the research of music and brain, I find myself overwhelmed with the amount of material available to me. Just as I scratch the surface of a topic, and whole new subject emerges. The idea of music enhancing the neurological process is such a promising notion for music advocacy. Our goal as musicians, as educators is to make sure that the right people see the results of this research. The “right” people are our friends, our principals, and our government (federal, provincial, and municipal).

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