A little over a year ago, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords suffered a gunshot wound to the head. The incident left her alive but suffering from aphasia, the inability to speak due to damage to the brain’s language pathways. Many people who suffer from this condition understand their surroundings but simply cannot put what they’re thinking into words. Fortunately, most aphasia patients can recover their language skills through rigorous therapy. In Rep. Giffords’ case, her family and friends turned to Music Therapy.
Music Therapy can be used to address many physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs. Music therapists assess the needs of each individual and develop treatment programs based around creating, listening, or moving to songs. This can help a patient recover from mobility issues, express emotional conflicts, or even restore normal brain function. For Rep. Giffords, Music Therapy helped create a new way for her brain to process language.
This is possible because the brain can change both structurally and functionally due to input from the environment. This ability is called “neuroplasticity.” We experience this everyday as we learn new things, but it also refers to the brain’s ability to recover from brain damage. As mentioned earlier, Rep. Giffords’ injuries were on the left side of her brain, where our language pathways our located. To recover her ability to speak, Giffords and her therapists would have to teach her brain to create a new pathway between her thoughts and her voice.
“Music is that other road to get back to language,” says Meaghan Morrow, Giffords’ music therapist. By setting words to melody and rhythm, the brain is able to reestablish the connections between words and their meanings. One of the most promising forms of music therapy is called “melodic intonation therapy.” Research has shown that, “using a combination of rhythm, pitch, vision and hearing, the brain manages to sing words that it can’t say.”
Though there have been signs of therapeutic benefits of music for centuries, scientists have only recently begun clinical research and trials on the subject. It is for this reason that the many of details of exactly how this works are not yet understood. Scientists believe a likely explanation is the fact that although language is processed in only two regions of the brain, music activates areas related to vision, coordination, memory, and emotion. So while a spoken word may not mean anything to Giffords, hearing it sung in the context of one of her favorite songs can activate stored knowledge of the word and help her brain piece together the meaning.
This of course is a difficult and sometimes frustrating process. But for Rep. Giffords, it has been a fruitful one. Though she recently resigned to focus on her recovery, she did so after delivering a message to her constituents in her own voice! To find out more about Rep. Giffords’s story, watch the video below. To learn more about music therapy, go here. Before you go, let us know how music has been therapeutic for you!
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