About this blog

I am a high school human anatomy and physiology teacher by trade and I double as a mother of a little girl with Williams Syndrome. When my daughter was diagnosed, I was thankful that I understood how the body worked so I could navigate through the condition and understand what the doctors had to say. This is my way of sharing my knowledge so other parents can have that same power.

Information contained in this site is strictly for education purpose to better understand the conditions associated with Williams Syndrome. You should in no way use this site for diagnosis, treatment or medical guidance. Always seek medical advice from your doctor.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Music, brain studies and its link to emotional learning

Ask any parent whose child has Williams syndrome and they will tell you they are musical.  My daughter has been drawn to music since infancy and shows high emotional ties to it.  Sad songs get tears.  Happy songs get squeals of joy.  She's like a musical sponge.  When Katy Perry's "Roar" hit the airwaves, Katie knew the lyrics after listening to it about 3 times.  She's four.  Since before she even started school, music has been a way for us to teach her things.  I've invented more songs than Paul McCartney.  In all seriousness, though, there is not an overabounding amount of research that explains the underlying connection to WS and music.  We know there is something there but science hasn't had the chance to explore it in depth, yet.

There are several brain studies that show that individuals with WS have more active brain patterns when music is used in learning than the typical person.  A recent study published in summer of 2013, looked into the link between this musical affiliation to the social and empathetic personalities of a person with WS.

Although the study used a relatively small sample size (a total of 55 individuals including a control group of typically developing adults) it resulted in significant data that suggests music therapy can positively affect individuals in learning environments and can help them cope with difficult social behaviors such as anxiety and heightened emotional response.  The study began with a goal to find a connection between verbal comprehension and use of music.  They also wanted to discover if those with WS had a greater emotional response to music than someone who is typically developing.

Previous studies suggest that the brain of a WS individual functions differently than most people.  Particularly, the amygdala's function is overly active during music.  There is also an activated visual cortex during music which is unusual.  This study suggests that there is a connection between music emotion and learning activities.

The amygdala is found inside of the brain towards the base and it is understood to correlate with emotion, emotional behavior and has strong links to learning.  It receives information from all major sensory organs especially those of sight, smell, and internal stimuli.  It is strongly linked with pathways to the hypothalamus which is the area of the brain that controls internal regulators.  The hypothalamus controls portions of the pituitary, the master endocrine gland that controls various hormones.  It also controls important vital functions such as heart rate, digestion, breathing rate and temperature regulation.  The pathway that connects the amygdala and hypothalamus are primarily involved in motivation and drive concerning emotional interest and response to rewards and consequences. (Wright, Neuroscience online).   This is a major motivator in this study.  If this area of the brain is more active during music there is a strong suggestion that there is a correlation between emotional response to music and learning.  The activity of this region is associated with empathy.  The ability to read other's faces and recognize their emotion is primarily controlled by this area, explaining a strong state of empathy in those with WS.

This study focused on three aspects of music:
  • Interest in music- Specifically the amount of time spent in music related activities 
  • Creation of music- The ability to remember songs.   This portion of the study also considers the level of complex music they participate in relation to instruments, rhythm and lyrics. 
  • Emotional response to music- How frequently they express emotion during musical activities.  It particularly measures empathic and sensitivity responses to others emotions.  This portion also considered verbal comprehension when music is present. 

Findings of the study show that individuals with WS don't necessarily have a talent or ability to create music compared to the typical person but they have a stronger emotional response and chose music over other activities at a higher frequency.They develop an interest in music at an earlier age despite any additional influence of their parents or caregivers and spend more time throughout the day playing instruments or participating in music related activities.  They found a strong connection between music and emotional response.  They also found that those with WS will learn their language more successfully if emotional and social use of music is incorporated in the introduction of new vocabulary.  Important to note, there are also related studies that show music can increase mathematical comprehension as well.

This study and others related to social dysfunctions such as anxiety find that music can act as a learning strategy as well as a therapeutic activity.  It is shown to reduce anxiety and depression in individuals with WS.

On a personal note, my daughter is an active participant in music therapy and she shows remarkable gains in her IEP goals when music is involved in the activity.  Although she is only one child, her data suggests and increase in up to 30% comprehension of vocabulary than without music!  We are very thankful that our school district offers this therapy as a part of her education.

This blog post is a summary of the findings from the scholarly article:

Ng R, Lai P, Levitin DJ, Bellugi U.; Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California.J Ment Health Res Intellect Disabil. 2013;6(4):268-279.

Additional sources used to enhance understanding of this article from:

Chapter 6: Limbic System: Amygdala; Anthony Wright, Ph.D., Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, The UT Medical School at Houston