Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Using music to reconstruct language


The first video is an interview with Dr. Barbara Reuer and Dr. Anirrudh Patel on a television show called Health Matters. The interview focused on the role music plays in brain development and how this information can be used to help people recover from certain conditions.

The second set of videos chronicle a public figure’s recovery from brain damage. Gabrielle Giffords, an American congresswoman was shot in the head and sustained damage to the left side of her brain. She made a remarkable recovery and was able to re-obtain much of her language skills through the use of music therapy.


The first video focused on music therapy from the practitioner’s point of view (Reuer) and the neurological point of view (Patel). In this interview, the topic of brain plasticity arose and I found myself to be highly intrigued. I conducted several searches for related resources which led me to videos about Gabrielle Giffords, a public figure who suffered damage to her left brain, consequently losing language function and full control of the right side of her body. She made remarkable progress in regaining her language skills through the use of rigorous music therapy. I found it worthwhile, therefore, to examine the connection between both videos.

The main theme in these videos is that music and language are neurologically related. Dr. Patel even stated that musically trained people are proven to be more efficient at mastering a second language. He claims that music that people like stimulates deep and ancient reward centers in the brain and he linked this to Dr. Reuer’s theories that music has healing powers. Reuer spoke of a specific example in music/language therapy where a song that people like is used and key words are left out, e.g.  ‘you are my __________’ (sunshine). Because music is involved, the brain takes a different route to access the word. Research exists supporting claims that music can help stroke patients recover speech and can also help Parkinson’s patients recover some motor function. Robert Jourdain claims that in aphasia, rote aspects of speech such as greetings or swearing may be preserved because these aspects are more ‘performed than spoken’.

These theories are difficult for the layman to believe. However, the specific anomic aphasia case and recovery of Gabrielle Giffords is considerable proof of the claims of Dr. Patel and Dr. Reuer. At one point, Giffords was having trouble saying the word ‘light’ and burst into tears. However, when the therapist started singing ‘this little light of mine’, Giffords sang along with almost all the words… inclusive of the word ‘light’! Her music therapist Meagan Marrow, says that pitch, melody and rhythm work from a different part of the brain to access language (as opposed to the areas that traditionally process language on the left side of the brain, such as the Broca’s Area). The same technique mentioned by Dr. Reuer was used on Gabrielle Giffords. The therapist sang ‘Now I’m free, free_________ ‘(fallin’). The videos showed a most dramatic improvement over a period of time with the help of music therapy. Possibly, also supporting these claims is the fact that every time the reader has encountered a missing word in this passage, they have perhaps filled in the blanks on pitch in their minds.

1 comment:

Katherine Napiwotzki said...

I find it very interesting that musically trained people are more efficient at mastering a second language! I have never thought of that connection between music and language. I appreciate the information you have about areas in the brain that involve language and music as I am very interested in this. I have read that aphasia is centred in the left hemisphere of the brain and amusia is thought to be caused by a deficiency in the right hemisphere, but the two areas communicate back and forth and problems on the one side can make the other unstable. Do you know if Gabby Giffords experienced any problems processing music after her injury? I assume, since language has elements of pitch and rhythm that are directly related to meaning and speech prosody, that these musical elements of language can be drawn upon solely from the right hemisphere following injury to the left hemisphere of the brain. I am interested to know, in a fully functioning brain, if any aspect of music is processed in Broca’s area since language and music are connected. There are many older articles stating that music and language cannot be connected because, upon injury to the brain, one seems to continue functioning, such as music, while the other is severely damaged. Perhaps music and language are not connected in Broca’s area, but they are connected in other areas of the brain?