For Better Recovery from Surgery, Tap Into Music’s Rhythms

What if you could improve the outcome of an open-heart surgery simply by pressing “play?”

Doctors, psychologists, and other scientists have been using music therapy for years, treating a number of diseases like dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cerebral ischemia. Even for people without those diseases, music has positive psychological and emotional affects. A study last year even demonstrated that listening to Mozart could help people resolve cognitive dissonance.

Now, researchers in Tokyo might have evidence that music really can make us feel better physically, not just mentally or emotionally. They serenaded a group of mice which were undergoing organ transplants with varying types of music—from Verdi’s to Mozart and even “The Best of Enya.” The results were promising. Here’s Maria Konnikova writing for The New Yorker:

At Teikyo University, Masanori Niimi and his colleagues began to notice differences between the groups as the mice recovered: the mice placed in the silent or the single-frequency rooms suffered from acute graft rejection, as their immune systems rejected the foreign cells from the transplants. Those who had been listening to either Verdi or Mozart showed significantly improved survival outcomes, living an average of twenty days longer.

Unfortunately, the mice who listened to Enya didn’t do as well, living an average of just four days longer than mice exposed to the flat tone or nothing at all.

baby-headphones
Listening to music could help patients recover from complex surgeries.

Of course, any study that involves mice is subject to further scrutiny, since what works in mice might not work well in humans. World cultures may be attuned to music differently, too. But the key point is that rhythm appears to have a physiological and biological basis. The human auditory cortex particularly adept in its ability to differentiate between frequencies of sound:

In fact, single neurons can adjust to barely noticeable frequency shifts at a level that exceeds almost all other mammals (bats are the exception). Music with a four-four tempo, which corresponds closely to a normal heart rate, can help regulate heart rate, circulation, and breathing. Lyrical melodies and rhythms of about sixty to eighty beats a minute, which is common to much classical music and bird song, can stimulate relaxation and alpha brain waves, a type of pattern associated with wakeful relaxation. Yet music that departs from either of those tempos confers none of the benefits.

Presumably, then, implementation of the right kind of music could help patients recover from a variety of procedures. Other scientists have even studied the effect of music on our sympathetic nervous system, metabolism, and even immune system. Perhaps someday doctors may prescribe a soundtrack to our surgery specially tuned to our biorhythms, making a speedy recovery not just dependent on medicine and rest.