Some years ago, I remember standing for The National Anthem at a college basketball game as a talented female vocalist belted out the song with no musical instrumental support. Nothing new really, except for I became acutely aware of my own body and noticed I was moving, almost dancing, to the song. My head nodded, my body swayed, rocked gently, and my foot tapped. I looked around at the crowd seeking to hone in on other moving comrades. I saw none. I am sure they were there in this crowd of 5000 but my vision repeatedly landed on still patriots with a hand on their heart, a cap off their head, or their lips syncing the words. None the less, they were still.

As I pondered this curiosity, I came to rationalize my movement being a result of having arrived at a point in my life following a personal tragedy some years prior, of not caring as much as in my younger years, what others thought of me. I had worked hard to get out of the “freeze state” I had been in for years after suffering a traumatic loss. The “tonic immobility” had left me finally I mused, but surely my experience does not make me so different from my fellow humans in row after row of stadium seating.

As the basketball game ensued and my attention shifted to engaging in all the rituals and traditions I know to do as a good fan of my team, I forgot about earlier questioning and experienced the thrill of watching complicated movements, gestures, and emotions of the young and spectacular athletes displayed on the wooden floor below. The school band played, and moved, and rocked, and shouted and the stadium was filled with a joyful energy that left with me that evening. The exhilaration lingered with me into the next morning.

Upon awakening, it was then the pondering reappeared in the form of a question: “what is it about music, and movement, and mood? What connects us all to these everyday experiences involving our senses, our nervous systems, our emotions and result in our feeling better when listening, moving, dancing, singing, playing music, alone or with others that connects us to healing from resulting increased energy, motivation, and improved mood?”

And thus the research began. The neuroscientist in me looked to studies on the human brain to find out more.

Music moves us; no matter what culture we identify with, no matter where we live, no matter what age we are. It is a universal or collective experience of humans and has been so across history. We know music has the capacity to elicit powerful emotional responses; which can run the gamut of joy, peace, and love to the more difficult primal feelings of sadness, emotional pain, and even fear. Neuroscientific research has shown that our experience of music and/or sound is rooted deep within the more primitive structures of the brain. Recent studies have identified specific brain regions that are directly connected with our emotional responses to sound. They include the Hippocampus; which is involved in memory formation, The Amygdala; the brain’s alert system which processes emotions and memory, The Thalmus; which regulates sleep, and the Insular Cortex; which is connected to empathy and also regulates our heartbeats. These are just a few of the brain regions we know are linked to our emotional response to certain sounds.

Music particularly is experienced in the brain regions that are also connected to motivation and reward. We have all experienced hearing a certain song, beat, tune, with a rhythm that propels many of us to move. We know that when this occurs in the brain we have neural oscillators that synchronize with the beat of the music. When this happens, we are driven to movement or dance because the brain will provide us a reward for responding to and anticipating the next beat. A reward in the form of a hit of Dopamine; a neurotransmitter , is delivered to us although we are not conscious of this process. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is released during engagement in pleasurable activity. The release of Dopamine also drives us to seek out pleasurable activity. Knowing this provides a neuroscientific explanation for the movement, music, mood connection. I know specific music has helped many decrease depressive symptoms. Add a little dance step to a favorite tune and experience the natural uplift of your mood.

Dance, dance, dance!

©Nancy Jarrell O’Donnell MA, LPC, CSAT 11/09/2016

©The Sabino Model