Can’t sleep? Stressed? Need to focus? Need to relax? Instead of popping a pill, people can now put on headphones and literally take a dose of their own medicine: brain music.
Simply listening to the music, which is composed from an individual’s unique brain patterns, offers quick, natural relief with no side effects, according to Dr. Galina Mindlin, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York who introduced “brain music therapy” to the United States. Moscow University researchers invented the technology in 1993.
The treatment alleviates a variety of problems – including insomnia, anxiety, headaches, trauma and attention deficit disorder – and also effectively modifies mental states to increase focus or induce relaxation.
“[Brain music] works very well for me – it works like anesthesia,” said Dr. David Moore, a general internist in Lakeview,who began using it after being diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Moore first heard about the treatment several years ago while attending a neuroscience conference where Mindlin delivered a compelling brain music therapy presentation. Intrigued, he negotiated a deal with Mindlin and is now the only licensed doctor in Illinois to provide brain music services.
To make brain music, a doctor records the electrical activity in a person’s brain with electroencephalogram, or EEG, equipment. An EEG, in essence, represents the brain’s main musical score, and its rhythm and tempo deviate from this depending on a person’s waking state, mood and other factors. A complex computer algorithm then translates the recorded EEG patterns into a music CD with two tracks: one for relaxation and one for stimulation.
The tracks, which sound like a mix between classical and “New-Agey piano,” range from two to nine minutes long depending on the individual’s specific EEG architecture, Moore said. The person then uses headphones to listen to his own personal soundtrack, made exclusively by and for his mind. If he wants to sleep or relax, he listens to the calming track. If he wants to wake up or needs an energy boost, he puts on the activating track.
And every person’s brain plays a different tune. “It’s a different pattern for everybody, because your EEG is unique to you – as unique as your fingerprint – and over a lifetime doesn’t really change that much,” Moore said.
In fact, listening to other people’s brain music can actually produce adverse effects. “One psychiatrist I know played his music over speakers during a presentation and about 40 percent of the audience started getting headaches,” Moore said. In a 1998 study published in Neuroscience and Behavioral Physiology, Russian researchers effectively demonstrated that only people who listen to their own brain music improve – listening to other people’s brain music or regular music had no benefit.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security sanctioned a study last year to assess brain music’s effects on emergency responders, including how it may help fight fatigue, sharpen skills during times of crisis and produce calming effects after stressful experiences. “Over the past decade, the influence of music on cognitive development, learning and emotional well-being has emerged as a hot field of scientific study,” the agency’s Web site said in its explanation of the study, which is still underway.
Brain-music research is advancing on multiple levels. Nina Kraus, a neuroscience professor and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, recently demonstrated the powerful effects of music training on the brain. “Studying music seems to confer benefits on really important everyday tasks like speaking, listening, reading and wrting,” Kraus said.
Her lab recently developed a revolutionary technique that accurately depicts how sound waves transform into brain waves. “Responses physically resemble the sound wave,” Kraus said. “What’s even cooler is that it sounds a whole lot like the sound wave.”
She said her research has shown “which aspects of sound are sculpted by musical experience, and it’s not a volume-knob effect of bigger, better, faster." Rather, the nervous system pulls out the important patterns, even during sleep, she said.
Kraus did not know much about the “brain music therapy,” but said that she thought people remained skeptical about it.
Ongoing research and studies show that brain music therapy is scientifically sound. About 80 to 85 percent of people show a positive response to brain music therapy, both in self-reports and scientific studies. Brain music has been shown to significantly increase melatonin levels, a critical hormone in achieving restful sleep. In a head-to-head study with Ambien, a sedative used to treat insomnia, brain music had the exact same effectiveness without any of the addictive, mood-altering side effects.
Moore said, “Although drugs like Ambien induce sleep, they also, as a side effect, produce the brain wave activity that causes insomnia. I think that’s why people get immediately hooked on those drugs.”
“But it’s not just insomnia; most people have a co-morbid condition,” he said, noting that depression and anxiety commonly occur with insomniacs. “It also works well in kids with ADD, particularly if their meds start to wear off in the afternoon.”
Moore said brain music immediately captured his attention because of its direct relation to biofeedback, one of his long-term interests. Biofeedback, or entrainment, is a way of altering one’s physical and mental states through various practiced techniques, such as breathing deeply to lower the heart rate and quell nervousness.
“I’ve always felt that we needed to empower patients to take care of themselves, and learning biofeedback is a way that people can do that for a lot of things,” he said. “Instead of giving a drug, you give somebody a tool, a key to self-regulation.”
Similarly, a person’s brain music resonates like a tuning fork inside the head: a part of the brain immediately recognizes these patterns, and the music simply reinforces these rhythms.
“The whole field of EEG neuro-feedback is growing exponentially in terms of the number of papers being published and the amount of information coming,” Moore said. “Right now there are several paradigms of learning through EEG biofeedback, and I think that will coalesce as more and more data are gathered. Then there will be a body of evidence supporting that practice that doesn’t exist quite yet in the field of neuropsychology that will really help focus the learning process.
“If you can give a kid back his brain, you’ve changed his life. You’ve changed his life for all the people around him and all the work he does,” Moore said. “So, it’s powerful.”