Patch Adams gave us three wonderful things. (1) It is one of the world’s favourite movies. (2) It celebrates one of the world’s favourite actors and someone who is still sorely missed: Robin Williams. (3) It focuses on an incredibly forward thinking concept for its time: the use of non-clinical methods on terminal and debilitating illnesses.
The simple definition of ‘music therapy’ is the use of music for non-musical treatment goals. The benefits of music to one’s well-being, quality of life and emotional fulfilment are well known. What researchers and clinicians are now fervently discovering is the effect of music therapy on patients suffering from alzheimers, epilepsy and cancer.
If you were asked to describe a music therapy session, images of a world class piano recital at the Cadogan Hall would bypass your mind and you would probably conjur up images of people playing music aimlessly. This is a fallacy and something which fails to recognise the importance and effects of music on EEG in the entire cortex of a human body, and not just in parts of the brain.
Researchers at the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Centre are leaders in the field of why music affects memory. They have currently knuckled it down to two theories: (1) music has emotional content so exposure to/participation in music can trigger these emotional memories; and (2) music is stored as ‘procedural memory’ (otherwise known as ‘muscle memory’ and the kind which falls within our routine and repetitive activities). Dementia mainly destroys the part of the brain responsible for ‘episodic memory’ (associated with memories arising from specific events), however, leaves those memories associated with ‘procedural memory’ largely intact. This scientific explanation for why music has increasingly been helping dementia patients has brought music therapy to the forefront of being complementary treatment for Alzheimer patients. The YouTube clip of Henry, an elderly man with dementia, is now a famous and heart-rendering clip of how one can be transformed by the power of music.
While music therapists use a range of music genres for their sessions, many will swear by classical music. A research conducted as early as 2011 on 58 Taiwanese children (with a combination of focal and generalised epilepsy) tested them for EEG before, during and after listening to Mozart K448. 47% of the children were found to have reduced epileptic activity whilst listening to K448, and the majority of this 47% had continued decrease in EEG after the music ended. A more recent study, in August 2015 by the American Psychological Association, focuses on proving that as 80% of epileptic seizures start from the auditory cortex (the region of the brain where music is processed), electrical activity in epileptic patients’ brans appear to synchronize with the music, especially for temporal lobe seizures.
In the UK, around 7 young people aged between 13 – 24 are diagnosed with cancer each day. When thrown such life changing and devastating news, the psychological, emotional and physical effects are monumental. Cancer Research UK is increasingly advocating the benefits of music therapy in helping cancer patients reduce their anxiety, improve quality of life and importantly, reduce symptoms and side effects of life changing clinical treatment. Whilst music therapy cannot cure, treat or prevent cancer, it enables patients to feel connected, communicate nonverbally (at a time when words are likely an insufficient form of expression), and help assimilate the emotions which arise as a result of going through such a difficult time. The physiological and psychological benefits on cancer patients in turn relieves symptoms such as anxiety, pain and the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. So, whilst music therapists in the UK have traditionally worked within the fields of psychiatry, learning disabilities, general medicine and neurology, entering the field of oncology is something which will no doubt lead to life changing effects on patients and families of cancer.
Patch Adams is therefore more than just a film. It gave us three key things which have and will continue to change our lives.