It is common knowledge that songs have the power to make audiences smile. Cultures all over the world – since the beginning of humanity as we know it – have used music to celebrate, to mourn and to bring communities together. The inherent power of this art form is woven into the very fabric of society. However, few people understand the impact their favorite melody has on their brain. Some people feel only certain genres are good for you, while other genres have detrimental effects. What is the reality here? Dr. Neal Barnard sat down with TheCelebrityCafe.com to talk about music, mood, anxiety and why the link between them is important.
Dr. Barnard is presently on the faculty at George Washington University’s Medical School. Additionally, he founded the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). His work revolves around researching and promoting healthier medical practices. This includes working with patients who suffer from chronic pain or diabetes, achieving whole-body health through nutrition and lifestyle changes. Dr. Barnard also applies his principles to work on finding alternatives to animal testing.
In addition to a passion for helping people live healthier lives, Dr. Barnard has a deep love for music. At age six he began playing the piano and added the cello not long after. Then, as he put it, “When I became aware of rock n roll – for me it was like a black and white world suddenly turned into color and I thought: This is it.”
Though his preferred instruments and genres have changed over time, the pursuit of his music has been a constant. Combining his melodic and medical sides, Dr. Barnard is just the man to explain how music impacts us.
TheCelebrityCafe.com: How did you decide to bring these two loves in your life together – to talk about music and health and how they coincide?
Dr. Neal Barnard: I never talked about music before at all. In fact, I thought – being a musician doesn’t help your medical credibility really. Although I started to rethink that when I learned that Albert Einstein was quite a violinist and in fact would perform a lot with symphonies. So if it’s good enough for Albert, it’s good enough for me.
Once I had an experience where the two kind of got together in not such a good way. I was working on the psychiatry board at GW hospital and I was taking care of quite a group of patients. And one of my patients was cognitively okay, but she had just a terrible, terrible, terrible eating disorder that got to the point that she could really hurt herself. So she was hospitalized. But on the weekends they would let her go home for a little while and come back. Anyway, I’m sitting in the 9:30 Club dressing room and in comes this patient … and she looked at me and she was shocked that her doctor was in this punk band playing at 9:30.
Monday morning I go in the hospital and one of the other doctors – one of the senior doctors – grabs me and says ‘Neal come in here. [The patient] came back in the hospital and she is completely decompensating. We need to start her on some medications urgently.’ And I said, ‘What happened?’ And he said ‘She’s hallucinating. She thought that she saw you playing in a punk band on stage at the 9:30 Club …’ And I said ‘hmmm, [laughing] let me handle this.’
We [PCRM] had a slightly different transition … I began a new research enterprise where I started doing something called genotyping. Where you take blood samples and you take DNA and you look for specific genes. And I identified something that had never been identified before, which is – this is back in 2009 we published this – in half of people who have Type 2 diabetes, which is the kind that comes mostly from overweight and eating habits. In half of these people there is a gene that causes them to have too little activity in the brain of dopamine. Dopamine is the brain chemical for reward and happiness and pleasure. No one had ever found this before. And so I started researching more and more people – and it’s true …
The important thing is that while heroin and cocaine and tobacco and every drug and junk food cause dopamine release, there are healthier ways that you can put this into your life. And the three big ones are intimacy … physical activity … and the third thing is music.
Research has shown that music will reduce anxiety before surgery. It reduces pain after surgery. It reduces pain medication use.
TCC: We were struck by the [McGill University] study with patients who went into surgery listening to music and those that went in with anxiety medication instead. It was really interesting that anxiety levels were actually lower in people who listened to music rather than taking medication. Do you have a perspective on why this isn’t more widespread?
DNB: Medicine is often conservative and slow to incorporate something that wasn’t there before and that we’re afraid people are going to laugh at us for. But, the beauty of music is – well, a couple things. There are no side effects that are harmful. There can be side effects that are good. Like, you might have some good memories coming back because of it. You are not afraid of it …
Drugs always effect a variety of neurotransmitter systems, not just the ones you are hitting – In the same way that alcohol does release dopamine but it also hurts your motor control, so you can’t drive. Drugs do the same. Music doesn’t do that. It doesn’t have any negative effects whatsoever. So I do think it’s going to come, but I think it’s a new idea for people.
TCC: Do you think there is any tie to the drug company issue that would cause providers to not want to go with this approach over medications?
DNB: Yes, there is. It’s not that they’re trying to squelch it. But they simply over power it … It’s gotten good press, but the continuing medical education that doctors get – and that is so decisive – is paid for by the drug industry, that has so much in the way of resources that is just crowds everything else out. To the point where now you go to see the doctor and you say ‘what can I do for my diabetes? I need more control.’ And this is kind of the last thing they think of.
TCC: Some information came out of Sussex University regarding the link between music and immunoglobulin A. They were studying the link between a person’s immune system health and listening to music. Do you have thoughts on that?
DNB: I’ll tell you what I think is happening is that you can do the opposite with anxiety. If I do things that cause you chronic anxiety, your stress levels will impact your immunity. And impairing your immunity means susceptibility to infections like colds or other things. And also susceptibility to things like cancer, which your immune system is supposed to recognize and destroy. So what does music do? Music is the exact opposite of anxiety. It’s there to relieve anxiety, to calm you down. And to just get the noise out of your biological system. So that, it’s not going to make your immune system stronger than normal. What it does, in my view, is allow your immune system to work with the full force of normality. So I think that’s what we’re seeing here.
TCC: Playing the devil’s advocate – many of us grew up with adults telling us that rock music kills brain cells and makes us all go deaf. Are there down sides to certain kinds of music that you see? Whether it be changing the register that a person can hear, or something psychological.
DNB: First of all, let’s be real about this. When we’re talking about – it’s back where we started, because as sources of dopamine, if I compare Velveeta to Beethoven, there is no contest here. In fact, I actually ran the numbers and I’ll share them with you. Two ounces of Velveeta has 170 calories and two ounces of Beethoven has exactly zero…
But are there down sides, yes. You can hurt your hearing, I really think you can. And if you jump off the stage into the pit and there’s nobody there to catch you, you’ll have an injury [laughing]. No, music is fine. And people use music to identify themselves. And its expected that one generation is annoyed by music of the next generation.
TCC: Do you think certain kinds of music are better for you than others?
DNB: Even music that is associated with every sort of violent imagery – I think one can comment if one wants to about that imagery or about the depiction of women. And, fair enough. In regards to the music itself, I don’t feel prepared to say there’s an issue.
TCC: If you could write a prescription for the general public for music, what would it say?
DNB: It would express not one or another genre of music, but rather the freedom to jump into that music and make it a part of your life as much as you want to. Without fear of anybody making fun of you, worrying about your status, what you look like, or how goofy you look when you move around to it. So, it would be the freedom to jump into it.