Digital Music Technology And Effects on Alzheimer’s and Other Diseases

“I figure right now the world needs to come into music.”

 -Henry, dementia sufferer, after his mind was woken by music

Can Digital Music Technology Help?

Anyone who has ever had a loved one suffer through Alzheimer’s, dementia, or any other form of senility knows the anguished horror of seeing someone disappear. Someone who was so vital, so unique, so alive, and so present, as only creatures gifted and cursed with consciousness and memory can be, slip away, like a darkened beach eroded by a relentless tide. The worst part is knowing that there is nothing you can do to stop it. Some agents can slow down symptoms, but the lingering end is coming.

However, there is hope, located at the intersection of technology we created and the mysteries of consciousness we barely understand. A new documentary film, Alive Inside, shows how patients who have barely said a word or recognized a face in years suddenly light up when listening to the music of their youth. They do more than just light up, as this isn’t just an autonomic response – they remember the songs, how they felt when listening to them, other songs – in short, they remember who they are. An iPod, a bit of mobile technology we take entirely for granted, opened up doors that seemed not just locked, but lost forever.


Digital Music Technology and Memory

The organization whose work the film documents is called Music and Memory. Their mission is this (in their words): “MUSIC & MEMORY℠ is a non-profit organization that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.”

It is the personalized music that is key here. Digital Music Technology and Memory trains people in elder care or assisted living how to create a playlist that is relevant to the person (so, one assumes, very little Iggy Azalea). They work with family and friends to find out what kind of music the patient liked, what got them going, the songs they would sing to others, to no one in particular, to themselves.

Think about a memory you have of a song. I happened to hear the other day a strange song called “History Repeats Itself,” which was on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, which came out (speaking of getting old) 20 years ago. I really liked the song – it was strange and mysterious and ethereal, but I can’t say it was too terribly important to me, or that I had thought about it that much since the last time I had heard it (probably like 1996).

However, when I heard it, a whole flood of mid-90s high school memories came rushing back. Nothing even that concrete, but a vague jumble of emotions, of sights, of the tumult of hallways and the confusion of growing up, and a summer of driving around and listening to weird music. And the song wasn’t even that important to me.

But that is what music does – it situates us in a time and place. It has a special place in our brain. I am struggling to think of a specific teacher I had in 1994 – I can remember teachers, but am unsure of what year they were. But I remembered all the lyrics, the pauses, the strange swirling sounds, of – again – a song that wasn’t exactly the soundtrack to my life. And everyone can do that. We can remember lyrics from years ago, and those lyrics help to recreate a memory.

Sing, Memory

In recreating that memory, they do something more profound – they help us recreate ourselves. We’re the sum of our experiences, the things we’ve known, and the people we’ve met. There are a lot of theories of consciousness that go under the assumption we don’t make any real decision, that our sense of self creates itself a split-second after the fact – that really, we’re just riding the tiger and pretending it has meaning. This might be extreme, and is unsettling anyway, but the end result is the same either way. We are, in a very real sense, our memory. The rest is rust and stardust.*

That’s what makes the slipping of the mind so tragic. The person we love, and the person we know, is no longer there. But, as the film shows, they are there. They are somewhere inside that shell, past the glassy incomprehension, trapped inside that vast library of Babylon that is the human mind, which no curator could locate.

In the video above, Henry, who couldn’t recognize his daughter, and hasn’t been able to for 10 years, starts listening to the music he loved. He is then asked questions, specific ones, about his favorite songs. He even starts to sing, remembering lyrics from sepia-tinged years, long assumed lost to whatever is memory’s opposite, a dark, almost physical presence, a black hole, a snarling devourer. But it wasn’t lost forever. It was still there, in his mind, waiting.

More amazingly, he talks about the importance of music, why he likes it, what it means to him. And not just to him – why it is important. That’s the quote above – the world needs some music now. It isn’t just the brain hearing something friendly and responding dimly. It is a brain come alive, opening memories, and at least for a time, giving Henry back to the world. Even in a secular sense, it is miraculous. I can’t stress enough how happy you will be if you watch the video.

In it, Oliver Sacks, the great author and neurologist, who has long been studying the effects of music on the brain, marvels that something so small – “as big as a matchbox” – can have such an astonishingly powerful impact. But that’s where we are. We don’t totally understand the brain. Maybe we never will. There are legends and glamours in those grey folds that we might never fully comprehend. But we can stumble on some secrets, and our little devices, which seem to just be a convenience, can be the key to what amounts to nothing less than resurrection.

The Music and Memory foundation is always looking for people to help them spread the gift of memory. You can learn how to volunteer at their site, or how to donate your iPod. You’ll be helping a great group and an amazing cause.

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*As an example of how memory works, the poem I linked, the madman wail of longing by Humbert Humbert in Lolita, is one of my favorites. And the last stanza is my favorite. And yet, looking at it now, I see I always remember a few words incorrectly. And yet “History Repeats Itself” is always there.

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