BBC Article, Tuesday March 24th, 2009
“Music Therapy ‘Restores Vision’”
Summary: Research in the United Kingdom suggests that listening to “pleasant” music could help restore impaired vision in stroke patients. A common side effect of stroke patients known as “visual neglect” is a development of impaired visual awareness. This can happen in up to 60% of stroke patients. They lose the ability to track objects in their visual field on the opposite side of where their brain has been damaged by the stroke.
Recent research suggests that music may help reduce this problem. Dr. David Soto of the Imperial College of London suggests that “Music appears to improve awareness because of its positive emotional effect on the patient, so similar beneficial effects may also be gained by making the patient happy in other ways”.
Visual Neglect is caused by damage to areas of the brain critical to the integration of vision, attention and action. Interestingly, this condition is not related to areas of the brain responsible for sight. Extreme cases of visual neglect may lead to patients only shaving half of their face, or restricting other activity like eating to one side.
A recent study conducted at the National Academy of Sciences involved three patients who had lost awareness of half of their field of vision. The study consisted of completing tasks under three conditions: 1) while listening to music they liked, 2) while listening to music they didn’t like and 3) while in silence. Results showed that all three patients could identify colored shapes and red lights in their depleted side of vision much more accurately while they were listening to music of their choice. Researchers believe that “pleasant” (music that the client likes) generates positive emotions which may in fact help to produce more efficient brain signaling, which in turn increases its capacity to process stimuli. Brain scans have confirmed that listening to enjoyable music activates areas which are linked to positive emotional responses. Not only does this research point towards the neurological benefits of music, it indicates that a positive emotional state can help a stroke survivor suffering from visual neglect.
Reflection: It seems as though all the benefits of music are far from being discovered. Music therapy in all its forms proves a powerful tool in an extremely wide variety of situations. It seems as though there are several assumptions running through this article; the term “pleasant” music is problematic for me, as it has not been properly defined. Naturally, the notion of “pleasant” music is hugely individualistic, but what of people who do not find music pleasant? Furthermore, does “pleasant” music necessarily, by definition put the listener in a pleasant mood? What if the listener’s music of choice is provocative and anger-inducing? This may be preferable to some who find this style of music cathartic. Can this kind of music be classified as pleasant? The definition of “pleasant music” was not entirely clear.
I find new research on the benefits of music very exciting, and I wonder how far stroke recovery can go with regards to music therapy. If music can encourage the brain’s capacity to process stimuli, could it have kinesthetic, speech or other functional benefits? Research says yes. Evidence is very strong that people who suffer from Parkinson’s disease move with greater ease when specific music is played. Furthermore, people who undergo melodic intonation therapy have reaped many benefits. I have a lot of questions related to the study, as it was not explained in detail. I wonder about the population tested. One would assume that the research participants were in the general age range of people who suffer from strokes, but it is a wide range. I also wonder what tasks the participants were required to perform. It seems they were asked to identify colored shapes and red lights, but I wonder if the shapes and lights were static, or if they were moving, and whether this would make a difference with regards to the rhythmic content of the music they were listening to. Also, it would be interesting to find out whether the participants were merely happier as a result of listening to so-called “pleasant music”, thus their brain activity was stimulated, or whether there was something inherent within the music (be it timbre, pitch, rhythm, harmony etc.) that significantly affected their performance.