Brains Work In Sync During Music Therapy

The brains of a patient and therapist become synchronised during a music therapy session, a study from researchers at Anglia Ruskin University has demonstrated. The finding could improve future interactions between patients and therapists.

This is the first music therapy study to use a procedure called hyperscanning, which records activity in two brains at the same time, allowing researchers to better understand how people interact. The study was conducted by Professor Jorg Fachner and Dr. Clemens Maidhof of ARU.

During the session documented in the study, classical music was played as the patient discussed a serious illness in her family. Both patient and therapist wore EEG (electroencephalogram) caps containing sensors, which capture electrical signals in the brain, and the session was recorded in sync with the EEG using video cameras.

Hyperscanning For Moments Of Change

Music therapists work towards “moments of change”, where they make a meaningful connection with their patient.

At one point during this study, the patient’s brain activity shifted suddenly from displaying deep negative feelings to a positive peak. Moments later, as the therapist realised the session was working, her scan displayed similar results. In subsequent interviews, both identified that as a moment when they felt the therapy was really working.

LORETA source localization results.

Credit: Jörg C. Fachner et al, CC-BY

The researchers examined activity in the brain’s right and left frontal lobes where negative and positive emotions are processed, respectively. By analysing hyperscanning data alongside video footage and a transcript of the session, the researchers were able to demonstrate that brain synchronisation occurs, and also show what a patient-therapist “moment of change” looks like inside the brain.

“This study is a milestone in music therapy research. Music therapists report experiencing emotional changes and connections during therapy, and we’ve been able to confirm this using data from the brain. Music, used therapeutically, can improve wellbeing, and treat conditions including anxiety, depression, autism and dementia. Music therapists have had to rely on the patient’s response to judge whether this is working, but by using hyperscanning we can see exactly what is happening in the patient’s brain.

Hyperscanning can show the tiny, otherwise imperceptible, changes that take place during therapy. By highlighting the precise points where sessions have worked best, it could be particularly useful when treating patients for whom verbal communication is challenging. Our findings could also help to better understand emotional processing in other therapeutic interactions,”

said lead author Jorg Fachner, Professor of Music, Health and the Brain at ARU.

Music

For the music therapy session, a nurturing themed program of music was selected to be listened to, consisting of the following pieces; Britten: Simple Symphony: Sentimental Sarabande; Vaughan-Williams: Prelude on Rhosymedre (4:10 min); Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ (Flight into Egypt, Overture (6:55 min); Shepherd’s Chorus (5:00 min); Puccini: Madame Butterfly (Humming Chorus) (2:47 min); Massenet: Scenes Alsaciennes (Sous les Tilleuls) (4:58 min); Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne (Brezairola) (3:13 min).

A recent study by Dukic et al. (2019), testing the Guided Imagery and Music process of the “Nurturing” program with 23 participants, confirmed that music of this type can have the psychological function of creating an emotional-scenic background.

The authors note that this is an explorative single case study investigating a real-life music therapy session. Therefore, findings need to be interpreted with caution and cannot be generalized.

The research was supported by a grant from the Music Therapy Charity, London, and from the Christian Doppler Foundation, Vienna, Austria. Open Access funding was granted from Anglia Ruskin University.

Jörg C. Fachner, Clemens Maidhof, Denise Grocke, Inge Nygaard Pedersen, Gro Trondalen, Gerhard Tucek, and Lars O. Bonde
“Telling me not to worry…” Hyperscanning and Neural Dynamics of Emotion Processing During Guided Imagery and Music
Front. Psychol., 25 July 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01561

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