Music – a super-stimulus for the brain

Gracia Seal (centre) and St. Andrew’s Regional High School students Jessica Coady (left), Claire O’Neill and Mari Chambers on percussion, practice with the Voices in Motion dementia research project.

On learning something that scares you

“Volunteering to learn something that scares you and then observing what helps you through this experience, or what makes it worse, can provide excellent insights into what your own students are feeling.”

A quote by Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher, taken from chapter 20 on Staying Sane: 16 Maxims of Skillful Teaching. This quote is from Maxim #6 – Regularly Learn Something New and Difficult.

In 2019, I was tasked with organizing a public event that demonstrated some of the leading research happening within our faculty. The School of Nursing, one of the largest schools on campus (second to Engineering), has been making international news thanks to the work of Dr. Debra Sheets, a nursing professor and researcher who is studying the effects of choral singing on people living with dementia.

She and her research team wanted to find out if brain health could be improved for those diagnosed with dementia by encouraging them to sing in a community choir with their care providers, as well as with local high school students who wanted to join in the fun.

The results are amazing: the team has proven that cognitive health can be improved through singing. Participants also enjoy themselves, make new friends, and interact with young people.

At our event held during UVic’s 2019 Ideafest celebrating academic research, we arranged for the research team to share their findings and for the choir to sing for the audience in attendance. This was quite an experience for the 150 people who attended. With three short lectures on how health had markedly improved for all, followed by a trio of three Beatles’ hits, the event closed with a standing ovation. Many were in tears; those in the audience as well as those in the choir were collectively moved by the event.

I realized that all of us were so grateful for this learning, for the evidence, for the improved wellbeing and heightened quality of life. I think, too, so many were turned on by seeing something as challenging as coping with a dementia diagnosis enjoying life in a meaningful way.

Singing is free, participation is free and the testimony of dementia patients, their caregivers, the high school teens and their families all point to how free access and participation was part of the beauty of this project.

When the pandemic hit, many expected the choirs to stop operating. The research project has expanded and there are now nine choirs in Victoria alone. But the research team moved the rehearsals and performances online. The results have been overwhelmingly positive.

It turns out, whether rehearsing in person or online, this choral community can still combat the stigma of dementia. Stigma leads to social isolation, which elevates stress and inflammation and increases risk for other diseases. By contrast, and even compared to singing alone, singing in a choir activates social connections and enhances brain activity. Social singing increases oxygen flow in the brain, and releases neurochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that enhance contact, coordination, and cooperation. Their research also shows reduced agitation for dementia patients and significantly reduced distress for their caregivers.

Music also acts as a so-called super-stimulus: it draws on areas of the brain unaffected by dementia including procedural and emotional memory systems. That allows people living with the disease to participate as fully as others in the choir, creating an equal experience for all.

“The choir is still joyous, and moving online has made it even more inclusive.,” said Dr. Sheets, truly amazed at everyone’s ability to adjust to pandemic lockdown orders.

Another observation: we were all so impressed at the quality of the choir. The singing was excellent and that, too, surprised the audience who were expecting not as polished a performance. One participant said to me at the reception that followed, “This isn’t campfire singing,” she laughed. “This is hard work.”

After our event, a young man came up to me and introduced himself. He was with Shaw TV and wanted to know if he could produce a documentary on the choir. We organized a process for script development and helped him gather the necessary content for what would become a terrific salute to the power of nursing research.

Here is a link to that documentary film, titled Voices in Motion and posted on the Shaw Spotlight website of feature films produced in Victoria, BC.

All this is my way of saying that I love my job because it teaches me so much every day. Sometimes, I resist that learning but more often than not, I still want to learn more, to try new things, to work through the stress and anxiety and to carry on learning more.

Yes, I am still afraid to learn mathematics but I think even that’s on my horizon as something I really need to do for myself. My math stigma is all about fear of failure but, perhaps like Dr. Sheets, I could turn this learning into a research project where I observe and track what helps me learn and what makes my learning suffer in my attempt to become a more skillful teacher.