Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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The Music in My Brain

Published on Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Music in My Brain

The Mind-Body Connection: Movin’ and Dancin’ to the Beat


I love music! And I absolutely love to dance. I have the Pandora app on my cell phone, and there are specific stations that I tap into at certain times during the day. For exercising on my treadmill or power walking in the neighborhood or nearby park, I usually listen to the Hall & Oates station. (Ever try to exercise with “... why don’t we steal away ...” running through your head?) And then in the late afternoon, while relaxing getting ready for an evening with friends, I’ll listen to Simon and Garfunkel’s station, taking me back to graduate school days (searching for America on the New Jersey Turnpike ... two lost souls on a Greyhound bus). And then maybe best of all, while I’m cleaning up the kitchen and making coffee before bed, dancing my way through the day’s last tasks with the sounds of Fleetwood Mac flooding my kitchen and brain with the beat, I dance my way upstairs to read and quiet down after the day’s doings. In short, I love music! I love to sing! I love to dance and move to the rhythms that signal my limbs to respond to the beat, to re-awaken memories, to relive significant experiences of my life.

Now you may be asking yourself along about here what has prompted this paean to music and dance. Well I will tell you. Most of you who follow my blogs know that I’m both a writer of books and a preacher of sermons. And writers and preachers are always on the alert to what’s going on around them – to news reports, films, TV shows, novels, interviews, and so on – that inspire a written piece or a sermon. (“That’ll preach!” “That would make a good blog” “Would that idea possibly be a clue to a book base?”) Always on the alert.

A couple of weeks ago, in fact, there were two TV broadcasts on two consecutive nights that caught my attention and resulted in this current blog. On the March 3 NBC Nightly News, there was a segment dedicated to a discussion of Folsom Prison’s rehabilitation program for prisoners. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Johnny Cash’s famous concert there and the recording of his comeback hit, “Folsom Prison Blues” ... shooting that guy in Reno, just to watch him die! Shocking lyrics, sad, reaching deep into the lives of the prisoners who gathered to hear the Man in Black. (See lead photo.)

Anyway, that song and Cash's album it inspired, "At Folsom Prison," put Folsom Prison on the map. Today, in addition to still capitalizing on the Cash connection, the prison itself is a different place than the one Cash visited. Death row was subsequently moved to San Quentin and the Folsom Prison site has apparently shifted focus to rehabilitating its prisoners, training them for a life after prison, giving them skills to take with them when they leave. But in addition to trade skills, prisoners are offered the opportunity to learn to play music, to write songs, to perform in what used to be the death row cells, now housing electronic keyboards, drum kits, guitar amplifiers and other music equipment.

The guy who runs the music workshop, named McNeese, is serving a life sentence for murder. He teaches in the dining room where Cash and his wife June performed all those years ago. He says, “When we’re playing, and everybody locks in together, I’m not in prison anymore.” In contrast to Cash’s prisoner population at the time, mostly white and into country and western rhythms, today’s prison body is made up mostly of black, Latino and Asian inmates who favor hip-hop, hard rock, Latin rock, jazz and so on. McNeese – who plays keyboard and knows music from his previous, pre-prison life – insists on this rule: he allows no racial barriers in the music hall – no separation among groups, no cliques to disturb the music they make together.

So anyway, that was my first inspiration about music. The following night, I watched a “60 Minutes Overtime” anchored by Anderson Cooper titled “The Malawi Mouse Boys.” (See the second and third photos below.) The Boys’ band is so named because, since they live in a dirt-poor area of Malawi with no running water, no electricity and little food to eat, band members dig up rodents, roast them, and sell them alongside the road near their village when they're not playing music. Cooper and his team happened across the Mouse Boys while filming a group of musicians who are also prisoners in a maximum-security prison in the area called Zomba. The producer traveling with Cooper on this segment discovered the Zomba prison band while traveling the world looking for music in “unlikely” places. He was so impressed with his earlier finding that a recording made of the inmates’ music, championed by that producer, was nominated for a Grammy in 2015.

For both of these music groups, and for the Folsom prison players, while they are playing their music and singing their songs, their poor or confined  lives have not actually changed. They are still behind walls or digging rodents for food. But on the other hand, while they are playing their music, they are all removed from their immediate space and are transported to another place entirely. In that sense, they are free.

Now where there are curious social happenings, social and behavioral scientists are hot on the trail to gather empirical data. Turns out I came across an article published in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy in 2013 titled “Music therapy inside and outside prison – A freedom practice?” In the abstract to that article, the investigators report that “the sense of freedom through music that was ... analyzed is related to the dual nature of reality, through the categories of finding freedom by ‘escaping [one] reality’ and ‘entering [another] reality.’”

In my writings, and especially in my last book (The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime), I have discussed at length how our brains are wired for song and story – we shape our lives in story form by weaving together our past, present and future hopes. When we hear a song that awakens nostalgic memories or when we are immersed in reading a gripping novel or fascinating memoir or biography, we truly are transported into a different world, a different time and place. On describing brain wiring and music in my book, I write:

Recent brain studies have shown – in response to musical upbeat rhythm – an increase in “feel-good” neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin that soothe the brain and calm the emotions, again suggesting an ancient, evolved advantage to playing music in our earliest ancestors. Researchers have speculated that such neuromodulators may have diffused hostility within tribal groupings, raising levels of trust and social bonding ... diffuse neuronal centers across the brain layers ... [with] pathways that directly connect incoming aural sensation to ... areas stimulating emotions and memories, triggering movement in motor neurons. These pathways extend to the forebrain where the imagination provides layers of significance based on both memory and meaning now. (pp. 106-7)
In sum, our marvelous brains are wired to respond to music and prompt us to move rhythmically in response to the beat, and when the tune or lyrics bring back memories, we also become transported to another place and time. So it does make sense and make understandable the role music can play within times of confinement, suffering, and hardship. For the prisoners now at Folsom or the maximum-security prison called Zomba, or for the Malawi Mouse Boys, the songs they sing release them from confinement and offer life and comfort in harsh places.

So what is the takeaway point? For all of us – in good times and bad – play your favorite CD (am I dating myself?) or iPod or Pandora station ... or whatever your source of favorite music ... and let the music transport you to other places, flooding your brain with feel-good neurotransmitters. And then spread the joy to those around you. Happy dancin’!
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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