Sunday, July 5, 2009

Why Music is So Important to Health

Prelude: Here are three very short, insightful videos on music and health (warm thanks to Dave Lull for providing many of the links below).

(Above: Notice that music 'recalibrates the brain' ('pacesetting'), that there are no known negative side-effects, and it's cost-effective. Like I said, music is a 'cheap health option'--iTunes away; let music reign.)

(Above: Dr. Oliver Sacks discusses the powerful therapeutic benefits of music. It's energy medicine, and the rhythms of music free and mobilize our minds, hearts, and bodies--our spirits--as Dr. Sacks has experienced with Parkinson's disease patients.)

Premise: Music is an ancestral, primal tradition; it reverberates deep to our bones (all the way down to the carbon-hydrogen bonds and beyond), in more than one way -- music is a universal language (a method of communication) that changes, among many things, our moods, brain structures, heart beat patterns, and, as a result, ourselves. It appears that the earliest forms of language possessed greater musical characteristics than do our contemporary forms of speech; we seem to have bifurcated linguistics (communication of information) into music and speech along the way, and rarely do we speak in musical fashions nowadays when we converse with each other.

Experiment: Read the following two lines to yourself, either out loud or internally . . .

a) 1, 2, 3, 4

b) 1, 3, 2, 4

Now, reflect on the tone/pitch/rhythm/sound of how you pronounced these two sequences of numbers. What differences did you discern in how you said "One. Two. Three. Four." versus "One. Three. Two. Four."?

After conducting this experiment (that I invented) on a small sample size, the common responses tend to be of the following nature:

1) "... the same level of intonation with 1,2,3,4 and with 1,3,2,4 I go up and then down in intonation."

2) "... 1,2,3,4 was said in a sorta flat tone. 1,3,2,4 was said in a slight low (1), high (3), low (2), lower (4) pattern."

When devising this experiment in hopes of eliciting insights on language, music, and communication of information, I kept raising the pitch of my voice on the 3 in the sequence 1,3,2,4 -- my results were replicated by others as well. Of course, these distinctions are small, but, if these divergent patterns were to repeat hundreds of times, those differences would accumulate quickly, leading to large deviations in communication.

Why deviations in communication?

First, let's examine the information content of these two sequences of numbers. The 1,2,3,4 sequence contains less information--it's pattern is predictable, repetitive, and simple--than does the 1,3,2,4 sequence--it's pattern is less predictable and more sophisticated. Algebraically, the 1,2,3,4 sequence finds the next number in the series by simply adding one to the previous integer, progressing linearly from low to high. In effect, this sequence communicates minimal information. On the other hand, the mathematical interpretation of 1,3,2,4 could be jump ahead two integers (1 --> 3), move back one integer (3 --> 2), and then jump ahead two integers (2 --> 4). This pattern is more involved and more musical in nature. When language first emerged many years ago, incorporating musical components into verbal communication helped people capture and share increased amounts of information more efficiently and effectively. A complex pattern can be transmitted, remembered, and replicated quite well when it is encoded in a musical message (just consider how well you remember the lyrics to songs once you hear these songs' beats).

Clearly, these two sequences of numbers, despite both containing the same digits, deviate in the information messages that they capture and communicate, and this relates closely to healthy heart beats.

So, then, what does this have to do with health?

Math matters. Patterns matter.

When Stephen Colbert asked Steven Pinker to explain how the brain works in five words or less, Pinker responded, "Brain cells fire in patterns."

A musical song that followed a mathematical pattern of 1,2,3,4 would bore us--our sensory systems would not respond with 'musicophilia' because, as the research subjects commented above, this low-information, linear sequence leads us to experience a repetitive and flat (monotonous or metronomic) rhythm.

Conversely, music, at a foundational / basic level, better resembles the 1,3,2,4 number sequence. In creating music, composers / song writers take sets of segments--words (like the chorus, etc.) accompanying different melodies and instrumentals--and arrange them to create harmonic, resonating patterns that elicit positive, uplifting responses from our sensory systems: 'musicophilia'. As an arrangement, the sequence 1,3,2,4 is one such pattern, and these patterns combine and evolve into non-linear, multifractal structures in the final musical products.

Our physiologies like non-linearity; we thrive on multifractal complexity ... except, under certain conditions. What conditions are these? Many of the chronic stressor conditions of our modern environments (unfortunately). The human condition in the information age involves tremendous exposure to 'linearizing forces'. Rigid, routinized work (9-5 jobs), education, and life schedules impose linearity on our energy expenditure and activity patterns. In response to these chronic, linear, and constant stressors, our bodies respond and adapt by adopting linear, sinusoidal, and metronomic heart rates to match the demands of our environments. In this manner, we live like combatants bombarded by rote negative stimuli (full email boxes at 9:00 AM each morning, project deadlines every Friday at 3:00 PM, etc.). Research on military soldiers exposed to chronic stressors determined the following:
It turns out that the best survivors don't have a lot of heart-rate variability. Instead, they've got "metronomic heartbeats"—their hearts thump steadily like metronomes—with almost no variability between beats. That is, the intervals between the beats are evenly spaced. Morgan believes that a metronomic heartbeat is an easy way to detect good survivors and high neuropeptide Y releasers. It makes sense biologically because your brainstem, which controls your heartbeat, has a high density of neuropeptide Y.
But, this survival advantage in a chronic, repetitive stress environment is detrimental to health by increasing the chance of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD):
Unfortunately, this metronomic effect is usually associated with early heart disease and even sudden death. Morgan wonders whether the same thing that makes you really good at surviving under high stress may not translate into excellent heart health when you're 50. Without it, though, these elite forces might never even make it that far.
Mathematically, these soldiers' metronomic heart beats resemble the 1,2,3,4 sequence of numbers from above that features evenly spaced beats. Their bodies developed these heart rhythms in response to repetitive stressors. Although most of us are not living in these same conditions, our modern ecologies bombard us with regular stress each day. The major implication for achieving health is that we must be aware that our physiological response to this stress pattern is increased linearity and simplicity in our heart rates; we lose heart-rate variability as a result.

Remember, a Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) patient's heart beat pattern looks like this when graphed:

This is a metronomic heart; this is the heart beat pattern that may confer survival advantage in a repetitive, chronic and linear stress environment--that is, it may be an adaptation to our modern environments (cubicles, freeway traffic, classrooms)--but it is a dangerously unhealthy evolution that increases risk of heart problems, including sudden cardiac death, and is also linked to mental health challenges (see below).

Remember, a healthy person's heart rate appears like this when graphed:

This is a fractal heart; a flourishing heart. This rhythm is non-linear, displaying power-law long range correlations and multifractal complexity on many levels (despite its messy appearance on the surface). The math of this healthy, non-linear heart rhythm resembles the 1,3,2,4 sequence of numbers; the same sequence that reflects musical constructions. The mathematics of this healthy, high variability heart rate pattern express and represent much more information content--an important physiological dimension--than metronomic hearts do.

However, it appears that this type of high heart-rate variability--though coherent, sophisticated, and 'information rich'--could be less adaptive under chronic, repetitive stress conditions than a metronomic heart would be. Why is this? Well, in our ancestral environments, we encountered and coped with dramatically different stressors and in varied orders and presentations than we do today. Life, for most of human history, featured much more patchiness and non-linearity in terms of lifestyle dynamics--just imagine what your life would be like if you were living as a hunter-gatherer dependent upon nature (nature abounds with fractals, by the way). Thus, our physiologies thrive on the non-linearities of our ancestral conditions, but, at the same time, readily adapt--we are quite plastic and flexible--by imposing linearity on our body systems in response to the linearizing, chronic stressors and forces of our modern, contemporary environments. The direct result for our health states is that we hurt our heart health, we increase our obesity rates--Neuropeptide Y, as mentioned above, is associated with fat deposits in our body cores, especially in the stomach--and, as I recently learned, we dramatically inhibit our mental health experiences as well.

Music, the 1,3,2,4 sequence, and fractal heart rhythms all contain high variability; variability that captures and communicates more information per unit. This has important implications for mental health because research in this domain has found that people with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders display reduced variability in their autonomic nervous system patterns, including their heart rates:
"A rather common finding in the literature on anxiety and autonomic control is diminished heart rate variability in anxiety disorders ... A similar diminished lability has been reported even for trauma-related material in post-traumatic stress disorder. ... Depression has often ... been reported to be associated with an overall reduction in total heart rate variability."
As these statements reveal, when our bodies cope with chronic, repetitive stressors, we lose heart rate variability (linearization of our physiologies occurs), and this degradation is associated with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorders. The epigenetic (our body responding to our environmental stimuli) outcomes are dramatic: in our modern environments, we continue to adapt to our world--it confers a survival advantage in the short-term--but these performance adaptations continually result in more and more overweight people with poor mental health states.

Music is one way to save the day; it can be a piece of the solution when engaged in the right way.

We need to combat the linearization imposed by our modern ecologies and take back control of our lifestyle patterns and heart rates.

As the videos above show, music has the ability to reverse and counter linearizing forces by pacing our hearts and brains in non-linear, fractal ways. When we recognize the mathematical underpinnings of our depressed health realities, we can respond proactively by embracing non-linear, fractal, power-law living patterns each and every day. We need patchiness; the goal is to mimic our ancestral lifestyle patterns as much as possible in order to support the development of healthy heart rates. From intermittent fasting (a 'patchy' nutrition intake practice; see Mark's Daily Apple) to high-intensity, low-duration power-law exercises (a 'patchy' energy expenditure method; see Body by Science or Theory to Practice), we can take transformative steps to enhance, maintain, and resurrect healthy multifractal complexity and high heart-rate variability in all of our body rhythms. These rhythms cascade down and around throughout our bodies, descending from our hearts and brains, influencing the rates at which we release hormones, reconstruct bone tissues, and perform growth and repair operations. So, don't despair, modalities exist to reprime our 'pumps' and achieve health in the information age.

And, of course, music is a 'cheap health option' / 'pacesetting' pump primer, so tinker (iTunes) away. We are, after all, here to stay. Whether it is acetylcholine or dopamine release patterns in synaptic clefts or cardiac muscle cells cascading firing messages and electrical impulses from the SA node via Purkinje Fibers, our open-loop nervous systems are so intimately connected with our external environments that we must take perceptive roles in monitoring and shaping how energy, stimuli, and stress influence our bodies mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Listen to your body. Engage your body's positive--musicophillic--responses to music and know that your brain cells and other neurons are firing in fractal patterns in response to sound energy from songs; as you listen to the music play, these fractal patterns permeate your entire physiology, creating healthy heart beats as well as improved moods and mental outlooks. Instead of turning to drugs and addictions as cheap 'pick me ups', turn to music to punctuate your mood for the day.

The best way to deal with the chronic, repetitive, and linear stresses of Junior Year in High School may be to enact a rigid, routinized modus operandi, moving from class to class in a highly ordered, predictable, and repeatable manner, but just remember that this type of response pattern has consequential negative health effects (hence the need to de-linearize the education system for the sake of people's health and development). Ultimately, linearity does not support personal (human) development because our thoughts, perspectives, skills, and abilities to make and find our ways in this world, in reality, develop and evolve in highly non-linear ways.

Just remember, it's a HeartBrain thing.

Let music reign.

To good health.

Note: This post does not discuss the 'genetic' risk factors for sudden cardiac death and reduced heart-rate variability. I respect the genetics perspective, but we really know so little about genetics, epigenetics, and the inseparable interactions of genes and environment that I prefer to hold off on this domain until more research is done. We are living in the 'postgenomic era'.


  1. This is a great article Brent; I'm going to come back to it later cos there's a lot here, but I want to say in passing: I've known one or two people from China, and they have a very linear, chronically stressful way of working over there, probably even more so than in most places these days, and I believe you can see the impact writ large upon the individual. People there learn to behave in a machinelike fashion and it can really corrupt their thinking and give them a sickly, strung-out appearance. That's my subjective observation, anyway.

    I see the same thing among my own countrymen who are the 'get your head down and do what you're told' type. They lose something. They don't age well.

  2. Thanks, G!

    Count me in as another person who has made observations that correlate with what you have seen with appearance and aging.

    The image of the 'head down' captures the result of linearizing forces well. We do best with our heads up, reading and reacting to the non-linear world around us: this prevents us from too much unhealthy drudgery where we beat ourselves up linearly.

    Our bodies thrive on multifractal symphonies. It's our job to be the conductors who make these healthy mathematics realities.