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Brain Health by YOU...and by Music!

Positive Psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing; the study and application of what it takes for people and communities to adapt and thrive; and the study of building the best things in life.

Chris Peterson, PhD

Join me in gratitude for Liliana Alberto. Liliana and I are cofounders of Brain Health by YOU. We make a wonderful team in part because I could live in the scientific literature, devouring all the evolving neuroscience I can get my mind around. All I really want to do is read, write about this cutting-edge research for anyone who wants to know about it, speak to every interested audience, and teach you the many ways that you could use the concepts and principles of Positive Psychology to apply the science which suggests that you could build a better brain at any age.

That is why Liliana and I decided to name our international efforts Brain Health by YOU. We are emphasizing our invitation for you to take evolving neuroscience to your healthcare provider for their wise guidance on how using this information could lead you to tweak your current efforts to earn vigorous longevity with a brain to live for.

Liliana has been teaching from my publications in her home country of Argentina AND in Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil and other places where she has developed connections through her decades of involvement with the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. All you have to do is look at those countries covering about 75% of South America to see that her reach far exceeds the land I’ve covered by speaking in USA and Canada. That’s one of many reasons you might want to join me in gratitude for Liliana.

Another thing that quickly becomes evident in considering our international efforts to improve Brain Health is our need to bring evidence-based interventions to a very diverse audience. What is one intervention which could be applicable anywhere by anyone with any amount of resources?


If there is a culture or country with no music, that must be exceedingly rare. Various forms of music have been part of the human experience dating back to antiquity. The Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to Homer, are among the oldest Western literature and are often dated within the 8th Century BC. These very long epic poems set to music facilitated preliterate societies retention and transmission of elements of their culture through the ages. Lullabies may have served the same functions across the centuries.

This is a good place to emphasize our capacity for enhancing brain plasticity at any age.

Fascinating recent research has shown the purchases of music in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). One of several goals of soothing music in NICU has been inducing the most sedation possible. A review of studies led to producing guidelines for using recorded music for soothing babies as well as for enhancing neuroplasticity. Since a tiny human begins to learn sounds like music and the mother’s voice while still in utero, these little people, born too early, need this kind of stimulation in NICU. According to these guidelines, for optimal neurodevelopment this recorded music needs to be simple, soothing and light with only one voice, preferably that of the mother; played for 30 minutes alternated with 30 minutes of silence; and with the total time listening to music at a maximum of four hours a day. And the music should only be used if there is an observable calming effect for the infant.

It is unknown if similar guidelines might be useful in working with elders with whom we have the advantage of letting them select what they listen to. Among the reasons that self-selection matters is the capacity of music to elicit a broad range of emotions from increased joy and relaxation through sadness, anxiety, anger and even rage. Oliver Sacks, MD1, wrote about music this way:

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation … and there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.”

A review of studies using music therapy and reminiscence therapy in facilities providing care for elders found improved wellbeing and quality of life as well as reduced anxiety, stress, disruptive behaviors and depression. These studies included singing, playing and listening to music.

In addition to evoking a wide spectrum of emotions, music can regulate your state of arousal, improve one’s concentration, build social connections, ease one into sleep of better-than-usual quality, and improve your executive skills. Music might be one of our best nonpharmacological interventions for building better brains since it can induce structural and performance improvements whether by learning to play an instrument through active practice or by simply imagining practicing. Also, individuals who reported having four or more years of music training during their public-school years had 30% higher probability of maintaining good cognitive function in advanced years.

Music might also be the nonpharmacological intervention of choice for helping individuals with dementia since it has been shown to help these individuals communicate and access memories. When music is combined with physical exercise, more gray brain matter and more white brain matter can be retained and patients with dementia have maintained better functioning in their activities of daily living such as eating, walking, toileting and dressing.

These are some of the research studies that provide insight to the value of several programs. One such is Music & Memory in which people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are provided with music tailored to their preferences followed by research findings that less antipsychotics and fewer anxiolytics were prescribed. Alive Inside is a documentary illustrating the potential of this intervention. Liliana has helped Rotarians establish a Memory Café and related programs. Music Mends Minds, is an organization associated with Rotary that was founded by Carol and Irwin Rosenstein and may include listening to music, making music and dancing. That’s particularly pertinent to Brain Health by YOU since both music and aerobic exercise can help you enhance Brain Health; as a quick review, aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce toxins in your brain, even those associated with Alzheimer’s disease; reduce inflammation which has been associated with neurodegeneration; reverse some of the effects of aging; improve your immune response; increase your healthy cholesterol and lower your LDL; elevate your mood (better than medications); AND improve your sleep, memory, concentration, speed and executive functions. Add to that the benefits of social interaction in the groups gathering for Music Mends Minds. You can learn more about that at

Thus, we have ample evolving neuroscience on the neuroplasticity benefits of adding music of your own choosing to your efforts to earn Ideal Aging with vigorous longevity and a brain to live for. Music has shown brain plasticity benefits for tiny humans in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU); in healthy elders; in individuals with dementia; and in combination with aerobic exercise. And, as described in a previous writing for Rotary eClub One, we have the study of Robert Marchand as the first proof that even a centenarian can “add life to life.” Let there be dancing and music! Brain Health by YOU at any age might be the best gift you could give to yourself and to those you love and care for.

1. Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Random House, 2008.


  • Joyce Shaffer, PhD, is a psychologist, nurse, speaker, global bicyclist  and author. Nothing that she writes or says is intended as healthcare advice; her only promise is to bring you as much evidence-based information as she can get her mind around.
  • “Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health” is her open source peer reviewed research article published by Frontiers in Psychology.
  • © Joyce Shaffer
  • The opinions expressed in this Make-up Article do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rotary eClub One and its editorial staff

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