How Music Stimulates the Unconscious Mind

Researchers are using music to light up unconscious minds, but the results only bring more questions about its effectiveness for coma patients.

Music plays with the brain in interesting ways. For instance, past studies have shown listening to a familiar, favorite song causes our brain to release dopamine — a chemical associated with pleasure and reward. However, some researchers believe music could be utilized to boost cognition in unconscious minds.


Alexandra Ossola from Braindecoder writes about the curious case of seven-year-old Charlotte Neve. In 2012, she had a had a brain hemorrhage while she was sleeping. Surgeons were able to stop the bleeding, but she had several seizures after and slipped into a coma. Ossola writes about her astounding recovery:

“Charlotte's mother, Leila, was at her bedside listening to the radio when Adele's hit 'Rolling In The Deep' started playing. Leila and Charlotte had sung the song together many times and, as Leila sang along to her unconscious daughter, she saw Charlotte smile. The doctors were stunned. Over the next two days, Charlotte recovered more of her faculties — she could talk, focus on colors, and get out of bed.”

It's uncertain if this recovery was caused by the music or if the entire thing was just a coincidence. However, it has become the basis of a recent study where researchers played music to 13 patients — all in comas for different reasons. The researchers split the patients into two groups; in one, the researchers played some of the patient's preferred music and in the other, researchers played a continuous sound to act as the control. Then, the researchers measured the patients' brains with an electroencephalograph (EEG) while they called the patient's name.

The researchers wrote in their paper:

“The cerebral response to the patient's first name was more often observed in the music condition, than in the control condition.”

These results have led researchers to demonstrate “that music has a beneficial effect on cognitive processes of patients with disorders of consciousness. The autobiographical characteristics of music, that is, its emotional and personal relevance, probably increase arousal and/or awareness.”

It's possible that this kind of familiar stimuli could help victims with brain trauma repair certain neural pathways. Past instances have also shown calling a patient's name shows increased brain activity. But it's uncertain. The unconscious mind is such a mystery — hopefully, one researchers will be able to figure out how to repair in the future.

Read more about the study at Braindecoder.

Photo Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr

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