Sunday, April 22, 2012

Music Making and Flow

Here's a great post on all of the things that need to be happening to achieve a flow experience while making music. It's the best summary of the causes and conditions I've ever come across.

Practice and Brain Plasticity

This article talks about the neuroscience of spirituality and I was struck by the similarity to what the neuroscientists are saying about making music, in that multiple areas of the brain are simultaneously involved. 

“We have found a neuropsychological basis for spirituality, but it’s not isolated to one specific area of the brain,” said Brick Johnstone, professor of health psychology in the School of Health Professions. “Spirituality is a much more dynamic concept that uses many parts of the brain. Certain parts of the brain play more predominant roles, but they all work together to facilitate individuals’ spiritual experiences.”

The article goes on to talk about how people who've had trauma to that part of the brain dealing with the "self" tend to have, 

"an increased feeling of closeness to a higher power."Neuropsychology researchers consistently have shown that impairment on the right side of the brain decreases one’s focus on the self,” Johnstone said. “Since our research shows that people with this impairment are more spiritual, this suggests spiritual experiences are associated with a decreased focus on the self. This is consistent with many religious texts that suggest people should concentrate on the well-being of others rather than on themselves.”

Johnstone says the right side of the brain is associated with self-orientation, whereas the left side is associated with how individuals relate to others. Although Johnstone studied people with brain injury, previous studies of Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns with normal brain function have shown that people can learn to minimize the functioning of the right side of their brains to increase their spiritual connections during meditation and prayer.

Johnstone makes the comparison to other kinds of disciplines; "It is like playing the piano, the more you train your brain, the more the brain becomes predisposed to piano playing."

The fact that deactivation of some areas of the brain is apparently just as important as activating others for some mental states reminded me of this post talking about what's going on in the brain during improvisation. 

Another point to make, that ties in with the previous post, is that as you practice, all kinds of new connections (and activations and deactivations) are being made in your brain, most of which you're probably not fully conscious of. The more mindful you are of creating positive mental states, and the less you build associations between music making and negative emotions, the more enjoyable your music making will be. It's not just a question of increasing brain plasticity, but the quality and nature of that newly created brain function.

It's also worth noting that that lack of "self" seems to be a part of "flow" and that's probably why many, but not all people, tend to associate the flow experience with spirituality.

Practice Tip

Before you begin a self-training session RELAX, this ain't Wall Street. You can't lose riding a mountain bike. If you are working on a technique and you fail two or three times in a row, STOP!! Do something else and try again later. This is called "Training To Failure" (positive progressive training; pushing the envelope). If you push a training session beyond three successive failures you are "Training To Fail" (negative regressive training; more pain than fun). As you become more adept at self-teaching and pushing yourself appropriately you'll be able to discern where good (beneficial) training ends and bad (regressive) traning begins. [Hint: lack of fun marks the spot.]
mountain bike manual1.jpeg

This excerpt from a book on learning how to mountain bike makes a lot of sense about how to practice anything, music included. For one thing, it makes clear that when you're learning to "self-teach", you need to stay aware your overall mental/emotional state as well as the details of technique. How you go about learning makes a huge difference in outcomes. Without mindfulness, practice for practice's sake can be harmful.

That first sentence is also a great way of looking at motivation. If you're trying to make a living or get a scholarship with your music making, how you approach practicing will be different from someone doing it just for fun and personal enrichment. 

I found this over on Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools site. He was one of the people behind the Whole Earth Catalogs and this site is an internet version of that wonderful idea.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

iPod Therapy

iPods are being used to great effect in nursing homes. This video which popped up on Boing Boing is narrated by Oliver Sacks and shows something I've experienced a number of times when playing music for elderly clients suffering from various dementias and depression. While I think live music is nearly always more effective, the ease of use and enormous capacity of iPods are tough to beat.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Creative Capability of the Brain

A new book by Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight, has gotten a number of interesting reviews. He's a Nobel Prize winner for his basic research into neuroscience who also has studied and written about art and culture. This book, with the subtitle, "the quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain", delves into the scientific and artistic ferment of 19th century Vienna.

In this interview conducted by Jonah Lehrer (who also has a new book out - Imagine, How Creativity Works) Kandel says the following about how we process visual art, and it's a nice summation of how the same thing (or piece of music) can evoke different responses in different people.

I understand better, the nature of ambiguity in art – how each of us sees a slightly different version of a great work of art, and that this interpretation is subject to the creative capability of the brain. I was not aware, before, what a creativity machine the brain is, and how each of us sees a different view of art because we have different brain responses to it, and how, even for simple perception, there is not only bottom-up processing, determined by Gestaltian rules of grouping things together, but there is a lot of top-down processing, which is based on comparing what we see now to what has been stored in memory.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Music Reducing Stress in Medical Procedures

Here are two stories talking about the use of music to reduce the stress experienced by people undergoing medical procedures. It's not a new concept, but it does seem to be gaining ground.

In this BBC article, music was used during surgical procedures.

The group played music scored about a third less on anxiety levels and were also noted to have more relaxed breathing patterns during the surgery - an average of 11 breaths per minute compared to 13 breaths per minute in the non-music group.

This ties in with past studies have which have shown music may help ease pain and can help hospital patients on ventilators breathe more easily.

In this second story, music was used to reduce stress during prostate biopsies.

Among study participants in both groups with no musical intervention, diastolic blood pressure remained elevated after the procedure, compared to before. But the men who wore the headphones and listened to Bach had no such spike in blood pressure. Diastolic blood pressure often rises as a function of stress and anxiety.

This Is Society On Drugs

One reason I went into music therapy back in the 70's was the hope that it might offer some alternative to the psychotropic drugs given to patients I worked with in psychiatric units. Sometimes they worked, but sometimes it seemed they were used more as management tools than therapeutic ones. According to this article on the Washington Post, things seem to be getting worse rather than better.

. . . these days atypical antipsychotics — the most popular are Seroquel, Zyprexa and Abilify — are being prescribed by psychiatrists and primary-care doctors to treat a panoply of conditions for which they have not been approved, including anxiety, attention-deficit disorder, sleep difficulties, behavioral problems in toddlers and dementia. These new drugs account for more than 90 percent of the market and have eclipsed an older generation of antipsychotics. Two recent reports have found that youths in foster care, some less than a year old, are taking more psychotropic drugs than other children, including those with the severest forms of mental illness. . .

. . . Physicians, he said, have a financial incentive to prescribe drugs, widely regarded as a much quicker fix than a time-intensive evaluation and nondrug treatments such as behavior therapy, which might not be covered by insurance. . . .

. . . Scully suggests that a key factor driving use of the drugs, in addition to “intense marketing and some effectiveness,” is the growing number of non-psychiatrists prescribing them. Many lack the expertise and experience necessary to properly diagnose and treat mental health problems, he said. . . .

. . . In one Northern California nursing home in 2006 and 2007, 22 residents, many suffering from dementia, were given antipsychotics for the convenience of the staff or because the residents refused to go to the dining room. In some cases the drugs were forcibly injected, state officials said. Three residents died. . . .

. . . Mark E. Helm, a Little Rock pediatrician who was a medical director of Arkansas’s Medicaid evidence-based prescription drug program from 2004 to 2010, said he had seen 18-month-olds being given potent antipsychotic drugs for bipolar disorder, an illness he said rarely develops before adolescence. Antipsychotics, which he characterized as the fastest-growing and most expensive class of drugs covered by the state’s Medicaid program, were typically prescribed to children to control disruptive behavior, which often stemmed from their impoverished, chaotic or dysfunctional families, Helm said. “Sedation is the key reason these meds get used,” he observed. . . .

Some aspects of the modern world are wonderful; others, not so much. Assuming the pendulum will swing back away from overuse of drugs, I hope music therapy will have matured enough by then to be part of the answer to developing less drug dependent therapies.