Newsletters for Mental Health
Dawn O’Shea-Farley, Intern Counselor
March 2012

Music may be the closest neural language we have to a direct expression of what is inside us. The neural symphony in our skulls and the mentalese in our subjective life find outer expression in the ebbs and flows of energy within the experience of music. (Siegel 2010).

It may sound like common sense, certain kinds of music can change your mood, thought pattern, or outlook. At times we can be very intentional about our music choices. Seeking a specific artist or style of music might be a familiar quest when we need to change our stream of thought or emotion. There is often an intuitive process involved in your choice of music to either move you more deeply into a mood or perhaps counter-act a free fall into high anxiety. What if you could use this music – brain connection to build a playlist for the purpose of training your brain?

The authors of “Your Playlist Can Change Your Life,” have determined that it is possible to not only alter your emotional state, but also train your brain to improve sleep, increase concentration, improve your memory or even reduce pain. Now we know, through the lens of neuropsychiatrist and director of the Brain Music Treatment Center, Galina Mindlin and co-authors, Don DuRousseau and Joseph Cardillo that you can accomplish much more than just a temporary escape through a carefully selected playlist.

Mindlin suggests that the benefits of selecting specific kinds of music, chosen based upon what we intuitively enjoy is based initially upon the simple process of operant conditioning. This would involve, in this case, rewarding targeted brain activity. Further, it is suggested that the music is accompanied by a cognitive element such as imagery, which will help to activate more areas of the brain.

An example of this pairing when feeling down or depressed could involve accessing a positive memory that led to a feeling of excitement and connect that re-imagined experience with a few songs that uplift your mood, specifically songs that you have found energize your brain.

The concept is fairly simple, but it may take time to create pairings. Mindlin suggests that you should enjoy the process of developing your playlist because your brain responds more readily to things that are “fun.”

There are seven basic steps to choosing your playlist:

  • First, pick songs you know and like. Start your search by choosing songs that calm your anxiety. At times, your mind and body will instantly recognize music that is best to soothe you.
  • Pay close attention to the times that a song works and when it doesn’t. (Keep notes of feelings and events associated with these experiments).
  • Ingrain (firmly fix or establish) the songs into your memory.
  • Make a playlist that is task oriented (modulating brain activity – to activate or relax/ energize or calm). Train your brain with the assembled playlist.
  • Continue your search for new or different songs as it may be necessary to change your playlist over time.
  • Listen closely and anticipate.
  • List a set of memories or experiences that can be used in conjunction with the music to encourage brain entrainment. (Mindlin 2012).

Mind and Body
This suggestion comes as we learn more about how we change our brains through greater knowledge of psychophysiology. The mind-body connection is inextricable, particularly as it relates to stress response and our growing understanding of the limbic system. Our perception of events and physiologic response are somewhat hard-wired into our brains through the limbic system. You can, however, retrain your response so that issues that may have caused great anxiety earlier in life can be changed. You can train your mind and body to respond in a way that allows your higher brain systems to operate more efficiently without being short-circuited by the lower brain (fight or flight response).

Brain Music Therapy (BMT) connected with some form of imagery exercises can train your brain to shift to a place of greater focus, better mood, reduced anxiety and improved sleep for two main reasons. The first involves a brief examination of brain activity and the second involves an understanding of how we store memory. In terms of your brain’s electrical activity, your EEG (electroencephalographic) present a good illustration of activation of certain parts of your brain. If you reward centers of your brain that activate at times of greatest concentration as expressed by 12Hz Beta waves, you will notice that your brain follows suit and provides you with greater mental sharpness. On the other hand, if you feel you need to slow things down, remain relaxed, yet focused, playing to your Alpha waves at 8-12 Hz is your best bet. Further to move to even slower waves such as Theta and Delta, you would choose music that calms your brain such as slower, quieter music with fewer beats per minute.

If you struggle with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), your brainwave pattern may be stuck in the lower frequency waves which may necessitate using higher tempo music with more beats per minute to aid in concentration. At times of low mood or depression, brain imaging research has found that there is frequently higher activity in the right hemisphere of the brain. Using brain music training can help to balance activity between the left and right brain over time and to elevate your mood in the moment with well-chosen music.

You my never know what brain wave pattern is being activated, whether it be delta, theta, alpha or beta unless you have an EEG conducted while you are listening to music. However you can make a fairly good assessment of how your brain is being activated by keeping track of what various pieces of music do to you. How does your mood or mental acuity change with close concentration to music that appeals to you?

Beyond the emotional resonance of a piece of music, BMT also involves gaining access to memory by activating positive or calming imagery. It may be helpful to know that there are two kinds of memory; in using these techniques you are activating both as they are interwoven in our everyday life. Explicit memory is the kind of recall that involves details of an experience such as the day something occurred. Implicit memory is the kind of recollection that can occur outside of our awareness – the details are not accessible, rather it just “is.” Implicit memory can influence our present based upon something that occurred without our awareness. An example of this might be the influence we experienced while still in the womb to sounds or sensations. Memories associated with music can be highly implicit. Pairing of implicit memory associated with music that we “like” with the recall of a memory or experience for the purpose of developing an associated imagery exercise which employs both the implicit and explicit memory can be a very powerful influence involving conscious, unconscious, and physiologic response.

Do An Experiment
Mindlin suggests experimenting with the possibilities. Prior to a high stress situation, such as an exam or presentation, listen to a set of (tested) relaxing songs for approximately twenty minutes prior to the event. Follow this up with one song that is guaranteed to really “pump you up.” At that point, you should be in a well regulated state but ready to take on a challenge (balanced and flowing).

The key elements to this concept involves having a willingness to accept the powerful influence of music on the brain and therefore emotion. Secondly, become intentional about determining how various pieces of music affect you and determine how to categorize those experiences. Build playlists that are task driven and focused on specific kinds of emotional or behavioral movement (energize, calm, uplift, sleep, focus, etc.). Train using these various playlists to work toward entrainment.

There are also a variety of BMT offerings available on YouTube which may provide both music and a visual that you find helpful in entering a targeted state. Have some fun and start building your targeted playlist!

Sample Playlist provided in Mindlin’s book:
Theme: “General Calm”

“The Splendour,” Pantha du Prince
Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major
“Diamond in the Rough,” Shawn Colvin
“Every Breath You Take,” Police
“Here Comes the Sun,” Beatles

Mindlin, Galina and DuRousseau, Don and Cardillo, Joseph (2012). Your Playlist Can Change Your Life: 10 Proven Ways Your Favorite Music Can Revolutionize Your Health, Memory, Organization, Alertness and More. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.

Siegel, Daniel. (2010). The Mindful Therapist. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Interview with Neuropsychiatrist Galina Mindlin:

Additional Information:
Interview (2006) with the Today Show’s Matt Lauer
Dr. Peter DeShane offers 7 PowerPoint Presentations on BMT – One example includes:
Part 3