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Young and old alike, music enhances focus, boosts memory and cognition

Falcon News Service

April 4, 2018

Job shadowing at an assisted living memory care unit in Hudson, UW-River Falls senior Brandon Westholm got the chance to see one effect of music on an elderly patient with a severe case of Alzheimer’s.

“They brought out a gentleman who had Alzheimer’s,” he said, “and he was having a rough morning and couldn’t really respond well.”

Observing the man’s weak ability to interact socially, Westholm had no idea the patient used to be a singer in a barbershop quartet.

“They played a copy of him singing from however many years ago, probably 40 years ago, and it was like his brain was waking up, and he started to sing his part,” Westholm said. “He wasn’t able to carry a conversation at all before, and then, after they played the song for three minutes, he was able to respond to these people. He was able to actually answer questions.”

Amazed by what he saw, Westholm decided he wanted to take what he had learned as a major in both music and psychology to conduct research on the effects of music on the brain. Now he is one of 23 UWRF students who will present their research at the UW System Symposium in Green Bay on April 20.

“We weren’t able to find any research that’s the same research as what I’m doing, which makes it cool,” he said. “We wanted to measure multitasking because it draws a lot of your cognitive attention – you have to spend a lot of attention on it to do well.”

Conducting his experiment with 80 student participants, all of whom volunteered to help with the research, Westholm provided two different sets of conditions.

“In both conditions they are instructed to create a list on Spotify,” he said, “and one condition gets to play their music while the other one doesn’t. The other one is told to listen to a pre-made playlist.”

Shortly after the music began playing, participants in both groups had to accomplish a computer-simulated multitasking assessment, which required high levels of focus and concentration. Suspecting the group that got to choose their music is the group that performed better on the assessment, Westholm is still in the process of analyzing the experiment data and cannot yet confirm the official results.

“There’s evidence to support that when people have control over their environment – just like the things that they’re doing in their daily schedule – they’re happier and they feel good,” he said. “It’s like you’re your own boss type of thing. But when you’re going through life and you know what you have to do but you don’t have much control, that generally produces more of a negative effect.”

Another factor that helps determine the different effect music will have on people has to do with its connection to memory.

“People have memories, obviously, and memories are interesting things, because it’s not like a filing cabinet where you go back and pull out a memory and it’s the same thing. Your brain recreates the memory each time. That’s widely supported; that’s not up for debate,” Westholm said. “When you recreate your memory each time, anything that’s linked to it will help you get back to it, and researchers found that some of the strongest things that link people back to memory is music.”

Grateful for the strong relationship between music and memory, UWRF freshman Jacob Traynor recalls how it has helped him to reflect on some of life’s most difficult circumstances in a way that prepared him for future challenges.

“I’ve been an outcast my whole entire life, and the thing about music is it helps you bring back memories; it helps you recall times that you might consider as being dark in your life but helped shape you into the person you currently are,” he said. “It’s really cool when you listen to a song, and all the emotion just floods right back into you. You can either get the same feelings that you had before, or you can realize how much difficulty you’ve gone through and how much you were able to cope with all that through the gift of music.”

In addition to helping him reflect, Traynor also believes that music is a factor that significantly improves his cognitive abilities.

“I just finished writing an English paper, and I listened to Disney songs the whole time I was writing it because the music helped me concentrate and focus on it,” he said. “As (the music) was going in my ears, I would get inspiration from it. I’d be looking at the paper, not knowing what to write about, and then a certain song played and I’d get more ideas in my head.”

Desiring to help college students like Traynor and/or elderly patients like the man with Alzheimer’s, Westholm hopes to eventually apply his knowledge of music and psychology in a clinical practice setting. Accepted to begin a graduate program at Augsburg College as early as next month, he intends to pursue a master’s degree in music therapy.

“I don’t know the details of which specific disorders music therapy helps, and I’m hoping to get more research on that through the graduate school I’m going to,” he said, “but definitely Alzheimer’s and dementia – those things can be really affected by music, and music therapy specifically.”

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