Rhythm Regulates the Brain: The Impact of Music (& More) on Mental Health


In a short article in The Underground Music Report, music therapist Molly Warren relates success stories from her work at a psychiatric hospital and residential treatment center, noting how enthusiastic many patients are at the opportunity for “expression and for experiencing safety, peace and comfort” that music provides:

“Research shows the benefits of music therapy for various mental health conditions, including depressiontrauma, and schizophrenia (to name a few). Music acts as a medium for processing emotions, trauma, and grief—but music can also be utilized as a regulating or calming agent for anxiety or for dysregulation.”

Kathy Brous, in her blog Don’t Try This Alone, goes further into the neuroscience explaining music’s—and other rhythmic activity’s—salutary effect on the mind-body. She quotes from psychiatrist and child trauma expert Dr. Bruce Perry who says repetitive, patterned activity is essential in helping bring down the high stress levels of traumatized people:

“He and other trauma experts are reporting revolutionary success with treatments using yoga, meditation, deep breathing, singing, dancing, drumming and more.

These principles are so fundamental to our brains they go back to the dawn of man; the Vedas were sung before 5,000 BC (likely with yoga and meditation). My book describes how yogic chant and meditation saved my life in 2010, before I ever read a word about brain science.

One California county is trying to cancel such programs, insisting on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which relies on the thinking brain. But Perry and many experts say talk therapy alone can re-traumatize trauma survivors . . .

The Brain Stem Rules

Perry simpler 4 brain from web‘The brain organizes from bottom to top, with the lower parts of the brain (brain stem/diencephalon aka “survival brain”) developing earliest, the cortical areas (thinking brain) much later,’ Perry says. ‘The majority of brain organization takes place in the first four years.

‘Because this is the time when the brain makes the majority of its “primary” associations… early developmental trauma and neglect have disproportionate influence on brain organization and later brain functioning… When a child has experienced chronic threats, the brain exists in a persisting state of fear… and the lower parts of the brain house maladaptive, influential, and terrifying pre-conscious memories…’

‘People with developmental trauma can start to feel so threatened that they get into a fight-flight alarm state, and the higher parts of the brain shut down,’ says Perry. ‘First the stress chemicals shut down their frontal cortex (thinking brain). Now they physically can not think. Ask them to think and you only make them more anxious.

‘Next the emotional brain (limbic brain) shuts down. They have attachment trauma, so people per se seem threatening; they don’t get reward from emotional or relational interaction.

‘The only part of the brain left functioning is the most primitive: the brain stem and diencephalon cerebellum. If you want a person to use relational reward, or cortical thought—first those lowest parts of the brain have got to be regulated,’ Perry concludes.

. . . ‘The only way to move from these super-high anxiety states, to calmer more cognitive states, is rhythm,’ he says. ‘Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing—you use brain stem-related somatosensory networks which make your brain accessible to relational (limbic brain) reward and cortical thinking.

‘Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is great if you have a developed frontal cortex—but we’re talking about a five-year-old kid who’s so scared to death most of the time that it’s shut down his frontal cortex ’cause he just saw his mother get shot,’ Perry told an audience of therapists. ‘You’re going to do 20 sessions of CBT and expect change? That’s a fantasy.’

. . . ‘One of the most powerful sets of associations created in utero is the association between patterned repetitive rhythmic activity from maternal heart rate, and all the neural patterns of activity associated with not being hungry, not being thirsty, and feeling “safe” (in the womb).

‘Patterned, repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory activity… elicits a sensation of safety. Rhythm is regulating. All cultures have some form of patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity as part of their healing and mourning rituals—dancing, drumming, and swaying.'”


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  1. We have so much to learn, don’t we, about what really heals!

    The whole discussion about brain stems may be palliative to some, but it’s way off the mark for me. But in rhythm and music, we have several factors all working together to – at a minimum – calm a person down if not switch their attention totally off what was bothering them to something happier or at least neutral.

    The primary factor I am aware of that others might miss is Aesthetics. Beauty attracts attention. Look at how advertising continues to rely on it. A simple song or rhythm is more likely to be emotionally neutral or a bit positive. Introducing that into the environment of someone who is worried or upset helps them pull their attention away from the misemotional events that were triggered and onto a more neutral or positive present time.

    A secondary factor is that music is non-verbal. This takes a huge burden off anyone who is having difficulty explaining what they are experiencing using language. And language itself can be triggering.

    My training includes basic assists for the deeply disturbed and they do not include language. If you are stuck in too much trauma, you can’t talk coherently.

    I don’t know much about CBT, but it requires a level of “hereness” that not all people may be able to attain. I have met several people like this. These people have jobs and “seem normal.” But you try to have a serious conversation with such a person, and you see how out of it they really are. You’ve got to get a person’s attention well back onto present time before any sort of talk therapy will have much effect.

    The techniques I have been taught do not include music, but it makes sense to me that music could have this effect.

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