We live in a unique time in human history where the brain has to cope with the sheer amount of sensory information that it has not yet evolved to deal with. Brain care cuts through this noise and keeps the brain in prime condition to do the things it is designed to do in the first place. Australian neurologic music therapist and brain care specialist Allison Davies joins Dr. Timothy Hayes to talk about some of the fundamentals of brain care and the role music plays in maintaining a healthy brain. Allison believes that humans are musical beings and that the brain is a musical organ. She encourages us to care for our brains by releasing our pent-up emotions, reducing sensory overload, and reclaiming our inherent musicality.
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Music, The Brain And The Fundamentals Of Brain Care With Allison Davies
Allison Davies is a multi-award-winning registered music therapist, using music to support brain function and reduce anxiety for you and your children and teaching you how it’s done. She is the Creator of Brains = Behaviours and the Brain Care Cafe.
Welcome, Allison. Thank you for joining us here.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
I have been following your work for a little bit. I’m excited to talk to you about Brain Care. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into this? What motivated you to get into this work?
I’ve been a registered music therapist for many years in Australia. As we all did throughout the ‘90s and beyond until now, I worked in a model that was focused on behavioral outcome and goals that I started to feel, “Is this the best way I can work? Is this the best way I can offer my service as a music therapist?” I started to become less and less fulfilled with the model of which I was working in. This happened slowly over time. I didn’t recognize it until I had a light bulb moment in 2016 where I started to learn about the brain. In 2016, I trained in the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy.
It hit me so hard that all of the behavioral outcomes that we’d all always been working towards were always a byproduct of what was going on inside the brain or the body, the nervous system. By constantly focusing on behaviors, we were exacerbating this paradigm that no longer made sense because the more I was looking at the research and the science, we’ve learned a lot about the brain over the last several years. As I was getting up to date with what the research was telling us and our understanding even, there’s a lot of information on specifically on music and how the brain responds to music.
The more I read it all, the more it became clear and clear that I needed to change the way I was working. I needed to focus on the brain. I went through a few different stages of how I wanted to do that. First, I started working purely with autistic children. I realized that there were a lot of people in the world who are experiencing anxiety, executive functioning and sensory difficulties, whether they were neurodivergent or not. I wanted to expand my work and be able to provide information to so many people. I completely stopped my clinic at this point and started creating resources.
I created a workshop. Luckily enough, I got a grant that allowed me to run this workshop around Australia in regional centers. It went from there. My two-day workshop, which was called Brains = Behaviours became popular. I had not realized how many people were looking for this information. I didn’t even realize until I started doing the workshop. Also, another byproduct of this allied health model that I was working in Australia where you go and see your client, your client comes and sees a therapist once a week or once a fortnight.
I did not realize how disempowered so many of the parents were. I started to realize, for example, when we go with our health. For example, a doctor, we know the basics about healthy eating and exercising. We have our vitamins, minerals and green smoothies. We know about the importance of sleep and exercise. We do that as best we can. When there’s something acutely wrong, we go to the doctor. In the allied health world, everyone was going to see their therapist once a week or once a fortnight, as much as they could get in because there’s a long wait list. It became a very separate type of health and wellbeing. One in which parents were not being given the information. That’s no fault of the therapist is this model that we’re entrenched in.
There’s no space or time to be able to educate parents in between or during sessions. I realized with a lot of clarity that this is how it all looked from a bird’s eye view looking in when I assessed everything. I realized how many parents and caregivers were feeling disempowered by not having the information. Around about this time, my daughter was diagnosed with autism. I wasn’t acutely experiencing this in my own world as we went off to see different service providers. I was like, “Someone tell me, what’s going on?” I’m a proactive parent and I want to be the change maker at home and in our lives. I realized there was a gap.
I started creating resources, workshops and it very quickly snowballed. I started being asked to do big workshops, big conferences with hundreds and thousands of people and lots of keynote speaking. Within Australia, it’s my aim and goal to create a platform where as many people who are looking for the information around their brain or their child’s brain and how to support their child’s brain to function at its best is being offered without it needing to be, “Go to Allie as a therapist to see her once a week for half an hour.” That’s where I’m at.Brain care is giving our brain more of what helps it run and less of what shuts it down. Click To Tweet
One of the things that a lot of people are doing to try and get their work out there is online groups or seminars. Are you doing any online coaching that you allow groups in to hear what you have to offer?
I am no longer doing one-on-one consulting. I also live in a very regional part of Tasmania. I live in the rainforest. I realized that if I wanted to continue to work, I needed to go online because there’s not many people where I live. I started with a Facebook page as we all do many years ago. I didn’t know what else to do. I started a blog and I started writing about things that I was thinking about. It moved from there. I have a large Facebook page where I share a lot of content. I aim to share as much content as I can for free so that people can find it and access it.
Part of my content is me telling my own story because I do believe that storytelling is one of the best ways to educate people if it isn’t through song. I’m a Bard by nature. I wish that I could set some time aside to put all of the information to music and sing it to people so they’d remember it. Right now, it’s storytelling. I share a lot of my own story. I like to write. It’s a beautiful creative outlet for me. I offer that as my work as well. I have this mixture of I’m using the research, the science and what we know of about the brain and music. I’m mixing that with my own lived experience as an autistic person.
I should have mentioned that I’m an autistic person and so is my daughter. I blend that and also all of my experience as a therapist. I mix all of those hats together and share content around that. I do have two online resources. One of them is my ten-week eCourse. That workshop I spoke about at the beginning where I started, that became an eCourse. That’s been wildly successful. Thousands of people have been part of that. The community there continues to grow. The focus of Brains = Behaviours is understanding what is going on in our children’s brains and in a way that allows us to have a complete and instant paradigm shift of understanding that the behaviors are not the problem.
The behaviors are always a byproduct of what is going on in the brain. It doesn’t mean that what’s going on in the brain is a problem either. It usually means that there’s some dysregulation, trauma, anxiety, survival mode, patterns, unconscious belief systems. The focus of Brains = Behaviours is that we focus on brain care, not behavior management. Most of the people accessing that work are parents, carers and teachers who have children who are having a hard time. That’s being expressed behaviorally so self-harm, lots of meltdowns, aggression, violence, hyperactivity. Sometimes it’s the fact that my child cannot focus. There’s a lot of neurodivergent families in there as well.
A lot of families and carers of people with ADHD, autistic or ASD, Tourette’s syndrome, it’s not the neurodivergent families. It’s open to anyone. There’s also a lot of people in the Brains = Behaviours course who were interested in understanding more about their children’s brains and how to support them. The information around brain care and what’s going on in the brain and how the brain relates to aggression, anxiety, hyperactivity, meltdowns, sensory overload, all of that executive dysfunctioning, that’s the key part of what we offer in that course. There’s a lot of looking at these are the strategies for how we can support this through music. Mainly we’re talking about music-based strategies.
Do you have a story or two that you can share with us, a success story as it were?
I can tell you one of my own success stories. I was diagnosed with autism in 2016 when my daughter was. I started going through all of her assessments and I was like, “It sounds familiar.” I was looking at all of the little criteria and all the lists and I was thinking, “I thought everyone did this.” I realized that even as a therapist who thought I knew autism and had been working with autistic people for years and thought I should know more. I realized that I had not been able to have a perspective into my own needs, my life, my scaffolding and coping strategy throughout my life.
I’d always known that it was very difficult to make eye contact. It’s something that I taught myself to do, which isn’t something I would ever recommend. It’s something that I did myself. No one tried to train me to make eye contact, but it’s something as a child that I felt motivated to do because the other girls that I was watching and learning about what they did. I spent my early childhood like I felt like I was trapped inside my head and my eyes were windows. I was looking out. I’d chosen the people I wanted to be like. I was studying their every single move and I was working out how to be in the world by observing and mimicking, which is a very common autistic trait for women especially.
One of those things was not having external behaviors. There was no rocking. There was no running away. There were no outbursts even though I felt them inside my body. I constantly had to do things with my hands. I’m squeezing my muscles in my feet or my legs to stop my hands from flapping. No one asked me to do any of these. It’s things that I was doing because the other girls I was watching weren’t doing them either. I realized I had a whole life of suppressed needs. There’s a whole list of things I could reel off. I had been supporting my needs as an autistic person through playing music. If we’d known I was autistic as a child, we would have called it my special interest.
I did have ALS. It’s one of those interests that if someone is spending hours on music every day, everyone loves it and accepts it. If I was lining up toys for hours every day, everyone would have tried to change it. No one recognized this. All of these hours of music every day were doing wonders for my nervous system, for my breathing because I played the saxophone for repetition. The melody and all of the things that I know that which we will get into that music does to support the brain. It was wonderful. It was keeping me regulated. When I had children, I stopped playing music partly because I was very sick when I was pregnant and I couldn’t do anything. My daughter was unsettled.
That was the end of me spending hours a day or even any time of doing music. I became almost completely non-functioning. I could not talk. It was nonverbal. I couldn’t make a cup of tea. I couldn’t remember how to drive, which way. I couldn’t get to an intersection and not be able to work out which way I had to go to get somewhere in my own hometown. This didn’t happen overnight. This happened slowly. The first it was assumed that it was postnatal depression, but I very vividly remember that I absolutely had no experience or self-feelings of depression. There was nothing in my own mind that felt depressed. I couldn’t do the things that I used to be able to do.
This led to my autism diagnosis. That was one part of it. I started having meltdowns at this time. I was having maybe three a week. About a few years ago was when I started looking at the concept of brain care. I wanted to do that for my work, but I also wanted to do it for myself. I was Googling brain care, looking up everything and this word wasn’t being used. I thought, “We have so many different types of care. Surely someone’s talking about brain care. I wanted general, healthy, daily good living practices for my brain.” I couldn’t find anything. I started looking through the research, the science, the books, what other people were doing, what my own experience was, what I know about music and how we can use music to support the brain.
I came up with the twelve pillars of brain care. When I started supporting and caring for my brain in very tiny ways, but as part of my daily lifestyle, slowly but surely my melt downs became less. It’s probably taken close to four years maybe of this dedication to supporting myself, supporting my brain. I didn’t have a single meltdown in 2019. I tell everybody, it’s not like you work on yourself and then you’re done. It’s a constant daily lifestyle choice, as you know, but one that I found beneficial. I’m not trying to change my neurotype. I’m absolutely a very autistic happy person. I accept it and embrace it. I own that, but I also do want to live the best life that I can. That’s what’s happening for me.
The idea that I take what I have and use it to the best of my abilities is optimal for everybody. Some people are fabulous in organizing and they want anything and everything in its place. If they had to live that way, they’d be suicidal. It doesn’t make one right or the other wrong. If you’ve worked with people on the spectrum what they’re calling autism long enough, these are delightful people. These are full range of people with interests, abilities and sensitivities. Some of them know how to do self-care and some don’t. That’s one of the things I love about the work that I found that you’re doing is that you’ve got things like the twelve pillars of brain care. It’s helping people. Maybe they won’t gravitate to the ones you did, but in reading the ones you got set up, they might get sparked to find something that works better for them.
That’s the aim. It’s never like, “This is how you do it, guys. This is right. I’m right. Follow me.” I’m creating resources and a platform with information that people can pick and choose from. All of the different pillars of brain care, they’re all beneficial. Even if someone went, “I need a bit of that one in my life and that was it,” then that’s going to be a good healthy thing. The aim is always to give ourselves the opportunity to function at our best. It’s never to try and change anyone or to try and make them better or function differently or achieve more goals.
My own executive functioning is shocking. My husband is basically my carer in so many ways and that’s okay. I’m quite fulfilled right now. He’s fulfilled. It’s not that I’m trying to make myself be able to do things that are difficult for me. I’m recognizing my support needs and supporting them. That’s something that needs to change in the narrative as well. You touched on it. Our capabilities or abilities in terms of what people can see externally don’t define our worth or our value. It’s a much more important focus to focus on supporting ourselves to be our best rather than trying to improve ourselves.
You’ve listed these twelve. The first one is emotional release. What’s the 1 or 2-sentence summary of how you feel that emotional release is a pillar of brain care?
Firstly, the definition of brain care is giving our brain more of what helps it run and less of what shuts it down. Our brain needs more emotional release. My two sentences here, emotion is quite energy in motion. It needs to move. In the Western world, not so much in the old days, we keep it inside. We keep it pent up and it’s locked in. That’s when our brain can’t cope anymore. We cannot regulate if we are pent up with emotions. We need more opportunity for emotional release in our daily living, in our day-to-day lifestyle.
Part of your work, are you coaching people in how to release emotionally in more constructive ways?
Yes. I also have an online membership called the Brain Care Cafe. In the Brand Care Cafe, we focus on a pillar of brain care. Luckily these twelve, we focus on one pillar of brain care each month. Every weekend, I deliver in the community a new brain care strategy. Each of these strategies are specific little ways that we can incorporate emotional release or whatever the pillar is into our daily lifestyle. There’s a big library full of strategies there because we’ve been going for a long time. People might go, “I don’t know if I like this one and then they might find something else that’s beneficial.”
They’re all very simple. For example, emotional release, the brain melody, if we had to pinpoint how the brain responds to music, in a real nutshell, we would say, “Melody goes with emotion and rhythm goes with movement.” When we experienced melody, when we listened to something melodic, even if we sing a simple melodic tune or hum or even think about a simple melodic tune, that activates our limbic system, which is the part of the brain in charge of emotions in a way that allows us to feel the emotion. It doesn’t lead to a threat response. It doesn’t make us feel anxious.Every tiny piece of sensory information that we remove from our environment makes a lot of difference to our brain’s health. Click To Tweet
It doesn’t add to the hyper arousal of the limbic system that puts us into survival mode. The way I think of it is it takes the top off the limbic system and allows some steam out. This is why we cry when we watch Disney princess movies or music theater, musical theater or soundtracks. The music has always very melodic and that allows us to release. It can be as simple as listening to a tune that’s not a rapper, hip-hop melodic type of piece of music. Experiencing something like that allows our limbic system to release some emotion. That is a strategy, but there are many.
The next pillar is predictability. You say here it’s something that gives our brain something to focus on as a reference point.
It is good for us to be in unpredictable situations as well. If we are anxious, if we are needing some support, having predictability in our environment is helpful. When our brain knows what going on, what is coming up next, and then that thing that it predicted happened, the brain goes, “I know what’s going on here. I’m in control right now.” A brain that feels in control is not a brain in survival mode. It can be as simple as the song, every little cell or any song that we sing over and over. Singing a song over and over like chanting creates repetition. It might be listening to African drumming. It might be hip-hop, just listening to it.
Anything that creates an auditory input of repetition in our environment is integrated by our brain and the brain sees it, acknowledges it, predict what’s coming next and then enjoys the fact that it is so predictable. What’s coming next is exactly what came before and then that thing is coming again. The brain knows exactly what is going on in this environment. Even if there is a lot of stuff in the environment that still doesn’t make sense. Even at this time in our lives right now where there’s a lot of uncertainty. During the COVID-19 lockdown, there’s a lot of uncertainty. However, we can create a sense of predictability within our environment that offers our brains something to cling on to feel safe.
If you bring it out of that fight or flight response, now you’ve got a whole different mode of operating that’s more flexible. When you’re in fight or flight response, you don’t have as many options. You’re not as flexible. The third pillar is sensory breaks. What do you want to share with us briefly about sensory breaks?
Sensory breaks are so important. I say it about all of them. I always go, “This is the most important.” They all are. They’re all equal. Throughout the whole of human history, no brain has ever had to deal with the sheer volume of sensory information that we have in our environments now.
This is such a brilliant part of what you’re talking about. I want people to realize that our current structure is unlike anything our brains were developed to be aware of or to be able to cope with.
This is paramount. When we understand this, it should shape the whole narrative around anxiety, especially childhood anxiety. No brain, no people, no humans in the whole of human history have ever had to deal with the sheer volume of sensory information that we have in our environments. Our brains have not evolved to the point they would need to be able to cope with the amount of stuff we have in our environments. It’s only since the Industrial Revolution that we’ve even had lights, batteries and cars. That’s not very long. A couple of hundred years we’ve gone from having nothing but the natural environment to everything. Global brand conglomerates and consumers live where everything’s filled. There are moving things, flashing things, screens. None of this is inherently a problem in itself. The environment that we currently live in is not an environment that our brain was ever designed to cope with.
How do you take sensory breaks?
We need to look at the environments we do have control of. We don’t have control of all the environments we spend our time in. We do have some, our houses, our cars, our bedroom, our classroom if we’re a teacher maybe. We need to look at those rooms from a sensory perspective. What can I see in here? What can I hear? What can I feel? Go through the sensors and then go, “What can I remove or what can I pull back from what we can hear?” It might be turning off the keypads or turning off the toys that make noises or turning off the ringtones. What can I see? How can I reduce what we can see? It’s not about becoming a minimalist either. It’s about looking around. Spending time in your environment and becoming aware of what in here that I can see makes me feel, “Ugh.” At first, this can be difficult because we don’t know what that feeling is because we always feel, “Ugh.” We’re also sensory overloaded.
There are small places to start. I started with the clothes I wear. I looked at them from my daughter’s perspective. She had a very firm rule on what patterns, what colors she could wear and explain to me why. I thought, “That’s interesting. I’m going to go to my wardrobe and look at my clothes.” I realized that the patent things, even though there were beautiful are hanging up. I wasn’t wearing them because I realized they made me feel a bit, “Ugh.” That was where I started looking at everything individually. How does this make me feel and why from a sensory perspective? It sounds like an enormous task, but every single tiny piece of sensory information that we removed from our environment makes a difference. Starting off small, it might be putting a blindfold over your eyes for fifteen minutes or closing your eyes for fifteen minutes.
That is a sensory break. That is fifteen minutes that you are not bringing gazillions of pieces of sensory information to your brain. It might be wearing noise canceling headphones or even popping headphones on to listen to a podcast. You are blocking out billions. I don’t know how many, there’s no research on that. You are blocking out so much sensory information, which means it is not coming to your brain. Every single piece of sensory information or any information that comes through our brain needs to be actioned, integrated, made sense of an action. That’s a lot of work. Our brain uses up so much energy on a daily basis. Any break we can give our brain is going to help it and help us.
I love the idea that you say even moments when you’re consciously taking moments of less noise or less visual clutter. Number four is use your voice. This is not obvious on the surface. How is this a pillar of brain care?
Our voices have become quite suppressed. The way we use our voice now, especially as adults, is very well thought out, sensible. We like to have conversations that make sense. We talk about our emotions. There are certain things don’t feel like we can talk about. We use our voices very sensibly. Our voices have become quite suppressed and ideally we’d be using our voice to wail, to cry, to make noise, to grown and to say the things that we need to say that are important to us, to stand up for ourselves and to stand up for our children and our loved ones. To be able to get to that point, we need to practice using our voice.
Many people have become conditioned to be nervous about using their voice when they’re feeling shaky. We practice using our voice through singing, toning, humming and whistling. All of that stuff is helping us become more confident with using our voice in a bigger way, which leads to a point where we can use our voice to express our emotion, to release our anger if we’ve got anger pent up inside us, to speak our boundaries, to stand up and advocate for ourselves and our needs. It starts from a very small place of practicing it using our voice out of the ordinary way of talking.
I like the idea that you say, use our voices to align with our truth. In order to do that, we have to slow down enough to get clear about what is our truth. Much in this Western world, as you talk about, is about suppressing everything that doesn’t fit into a nice little logical box. The emotions don’t like to fit in that box.
If we used our voices more in alignment with the way our children use their voices, it would be a lot healthier. Crying whenever we need to, crying out loud and saying what did we think when we think it. There are boundaries there. Raising our voice when we need to rather than keeping it pent up. When we do this work because there’s boundaries around this, it needs to be safe. It needs to be respectful and all of that. I’m not saying we should all yell at people. Children use their voice authentically.
As much as the idea of giving myself permission to cry, when I think to all the times I’ve worked with people and they’ve started to cry, I’ve encouraged them to stay with that thought and keep breathing. They have interpreted that as me saying, “Stop crying.” It’s an old tape playing in them that even the fact that I’m saying, “Feel that. Tell me the thoughts that are with that. Keep breathing. You can cry if you need to, but keep your breath moving,” they’re hearing me say, “Stop crying.” There was nothing in my words about stopping the crying. It leads me to understand how deeply we are conditioned to not want to cry, to not let ourselves cry, to think it’s bad or wrong or weak to cry. Crying is one of those ways to use your voice.
We wipe our tears away before they even drop off our chin. They’re gone. We even cry quietly. I’ve had a profound experience. One of my best friends died. We’re in isolation right now. I’ve been grieving in isolation. I found it a very powerful opportunity to wail and cry in ways that I don’t think I would have if I was around my friends and loved ones right now, even though I might have felt like doing it. I would have fallen in sync with how we were all being together and grieving together, which is also okay. I’ve very much had this experience of using my voice in grief. I felt like I can because I live in the forest. I’m in isolation. I felt very safe to do it. It has profoundly helped me.
I also have a daily tear practice myself. I listen to a song or I listen to music each day. A little snippet of music that I know makes me tearful. I allow myself to have that cry every day. That’s part of my brain care. This is not what everyone has to do, but it’s something that works for me. There’s no way I’m ever going to turn on the news to induce crying or do anything that’s detrimental. I don’t want to have any baggage attached to this cry. I want my limbic system to be activated a little bit enough for me to have some tears and move some emotion out so that I can carry on. That involves using our voice. We have been conditioned to have this silent cry.
I’m sorry for your loss. As you say that, I remember that you sent me some email and said something about that you lost someone. I apologize for the insensitivity there of saying, “Let’s interview her.” You’re doing great. Thank you for that. The fifth pillar is to pull back from information. This is one I’ve been banging the drum on for decades with people. What do you say about pulling back from information?
We do not need to know all of the things that we think we need to know. Back in the ‘80s maybe, a question would come up and you go, “Do you remember such and such?” You’d sit around the dinner table and you talk about ever come to the answer and that would be okay. We’re straight to Siri, to Google and we want the answer like, “Who was the actor that played that such and such in that movie?” Go to Google. This information is doing us damage in itself. This information is not bad or a problem, but because of the volume of information that we have access to and so we’re constantly seeking it. We are causing so much extra work for our brain because our brain tends to work a bit like a filing cabinet with information.We do not need to know all of the things we think we need to know. Click To Tweet
It wants to make sense of it, analyze it, evaluate what it means, put it in context and then ideally store it somewhere. Our brain was not our brain throughout the whole of human history has not been doing that with information. Information is not something that our brain has ever had a lot of until the last couple of hundred years, especially in the last 10, 20 years since the internet or since we had phones with internet. We’ve always got it on us. With every single year, we are bringing greater access to information to our brain. We’re clogging it up with mindless jobs that use our bare energy that are not important to our life. They are not doing any good.
It’s important to say that it’s also a blessing to have a lot of information around and here we are sharing information with people. It’s about recognizing what information feels like mindless fluff and clogs it us up and isn’t relevant. What information sparks something in us and goes, “This is going to help me.” Recognizing the difference between those and trying to cut back from the stuff that’s random stuff we do not need and there is a lot of that in our lives. We do a lot of googling. We go and look up people on Instagram and check out then what their wives look like, what they’re wearing, who said what and what’s going on in the Royals. This stuff is not important.
I tell people if it’s one of your little special interests and you have fun with it, it’s great. For so much of what we find in the news and what we want to get into with people over that we have to Google the answer. Much of it is non-useful and stress-inducing. When I induced stress about things that I don’t have any control over, I’m doing the opposite of brain care. I’m doing brain abuse at that point.
There’s the added thing there that that leads to we believe what we think we know. We don’t need to believe any of the things that we know, all of the things that we reading about. Most of it is never ever going to impact us directly in our life. It’s not our reality. Even if the information says it’s there, we don’t need to be believing that stuff. When we start to take on external information and believe it to be true, it changes the way we see ourselves in the world. That’s problematic.
One of the things that I have told people is there’s a reason you can only see and hear from such a distance. That is because you only have limited capacity for effecting change or helping. I tell people, “Turn off the news. If you must, watch a little cycle in the morning and maybe one at night, but better to go days without it. If it’s important for you to know, someone will tell you.” If you knew everything that was going on in the town where you lived, all the good, all the bad, all the horrible, all the wonderful, you would be living in great joy and aliveness. If you found out that down the road, the neighbor’s house burned down, you could get in your car and go down and help them.
Take them a meal, take them some food and offer to watch the kids. You can contribute to the solution to the things that are difficult to deal with. When you’re watching the news, what you’re getting is the worst of the worst stuff from around the globe that you can’t do anything about. You load up with that. You have the usual, the vagus nerve response and the mirror neurons are going. You’re thinking, “That’s horrible.” You can’t do anything about it. We overload ourselves with things we have no control over. We build the stress, which builds the overwhelm, which builds the fatigue. It’s a vicious cycle. What about music?
We have an idea of what we think music is, but it’s been greatly conditioned into us. Let’s go back 400 years. Before then, everyone was making music together. There was no such thing as someone not being musical. The idea did not exist. Every community, every community in every culture in the entire world was making music together. They’re sharing and using music as a very important part of their traditional as their culture. In the Western world, I don’t know why this happened. Someone changed it and the rich privileged people became the musicians or the educated people became musicians. Everyone else became listeners and/or spectators. It started an, us and them. It created a divide. Music took on a whole new meaning.
It became about performance, affluence and accessibility, which is a very sad thing. I’m not saying there’s a lot of beautiful, wonderful things to have come out of the Western world of music. That’s all wonderful. It did lead to a divide in who was musical and who wasn’t or who was allowed to be in school and who wasn’t allowed. We still carry that now. We believe that if we have not had lessons and complain instrument or that if we can’t sing in tune, we’re not musical. We hear it all the time. That person’s musical but I’m not. We have been conditioned to think this way because of our history of music over the last few hundred years in the Western world.To be human is to be musical. Our brain is a musical organ. We need to reclaim our musicality because our brains depend on it. Click To Tweet
It is absolutely not true. To be human is to be musical. Our brain is a musical organ. When I trained with the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy, the first thing that I learned was that music is our mother tongue. I think of music to the brain as the way I think of breath to the lungs. There’s no separation of music and how the brain functions. When we experience music and experiencing music means thinking it, making it or listening to it, more of the brain becomes active simultaneously than when we experience any other thing that is being researched yet.
When we experience music, even by thinking about it in our head, even if we get a little jingle from an ad on TV on our head and we’re singing over and over, that activates our brain in a way that allows for much more to happen inside the brain more easily. Both hemispheres are talking to each other. Neural pathways are crossing the midlines. Our prefrontal cortex, which is this part of the brain, behind our eyebrows is switched on and accessible. Often, whenever we start to feel on edge, when we get a little bit concerned or we’re in survival mode or we’re experiencing any anxiety, our prefrontal cortex becomes the first part of our brain to become non-accessible. It switches off. You could think of it like that.
Our prefrontal cortex is where all of our executive functions are. When we are dysregulated or when we are in a heightened state of arousal or we’re anxious, it becomes impossible to do our executive functions. It becomes impossible to inhibit our behaviors, to analyze, evaluate, make good decisions and so much more. The transition between different environments and think flexibly, change our minds, be able to cope with all of those things that we do on a daily basis without even realizing. When we experience music, our prefrontal cortex lights up like a Christmas tree. We are musical beings. To be human is to be musical.
It’s got nothing to do with whether you’ve had music lesson, your parents could teach you the piano or anything like that. That’s got absolutely nothing to do with being musical. It’s very important that we reclaim our musicality because our brain is a musical organ. While we are suppressing it or believing that we are not musical, we are holding back one of the key parts of the things that make us who we are. I feel very passionately about reintroducing the idea of music into people’s lives as something that is a basic form of expression of who we are is our mother tongue and creating safe spaces and platforms for people to learn about how to express their musicality.
I also think it’s important to know that I think of music as an umbrella term. Music is traditionally what we think of as the performance or the thing we’re listening to on the radio. I think of music as an umbrella term. It’s a sum of all its parts. There were so many tiny little things that come together to make up what we think of as music. They are rhythm, melody, harmony, tempo or speed, dynamic volume, silence. It is impossible to have rhythm without silence. No one thinks of silence as part of music. Our narrative around music is so based on what’s happened over the last few hundred years in the Western culture.
It’s not based on the actuality of what music is. The physicality of music, physical movement is an aspect of music, frequency, vibration and overtone. There are so many more. There are so many tiny things that come together to create the big ball of what we call music. Our brain responds to all of those little elements in slightly different ways. That’s why when we experience music, we have such a huge response in our brain. I like to focus on the elements of music, understanding how we can use those and implementing those into our daily lives.
When I am giving brain care strategies that are music based, they’re unlikely to be about a big musical performance or anything that needs an instrument or anything that we traditionally think of as music. It’s more likely to be implementing some repetition or implementing some sense of melody or tempo within our lives. When we start to think of music as a sum of its parts and start to understand what those little parts are, it becomes so much easier for us to feel like, “I could do that. I could hum. I could march in a way that my feet are making a rhythm. I can skip with the skipping rope with my children.” We start to realize how easy music is to access.
I like how you’ve discussed chanting and making mantras that are positive into chants.
Chanting is my favorite personal tool. I do what I call melodic mantra and that is I come up with a mantra or whatever it is that I need to hear, believe or embody. We all know how powerful affirmations are, but when you sing them, it is so much more powerful. The brain releases dopamine because it loves singing. The brain is musical. It wants us to sing. When we experienced dopamine that is hugely involved with neuroplasticity. We are far more likely to be motivated to continue to sing it. We’re also more likely to have that little tune stuck in our head, so to speak, so that we were experiencing it over and over inside our head.
We are far more likely to fully embody the words that we are singing. In the Brain Hair Cafe, we have melodic mantras that focus on each pillar. Each month, we have a different melodic mantra. They’re always very simple, anyone can make them up. One that I’ve been singing and I’ll show you how simple it is, “I am not my parents, my sisters or my brothers. I can love and respect them and be me.” That’s it. That was my affirmation. That’s what I wanted to take on, to embody and to believe. It’s not believing in theory but believe it.
I put it to a simple tune and it can be any tune, the simpler the better. They’re pretty good at coming up with an affirmation or something that they want to tell themselves, but then they get stuck at the point where they’re like, “How do I put this to a tune? Can you come up with a tune for me for this?” Honestly, the simpler the better. Any melody will do. If you can’t think of one, you can use one from a nursery rhyme. I sing those over and over. They have been the most wonderful part of my personal practice. That is my favorite and my thing that I do every day. It’s like my version of journaling or exercising.
It’s long been known that if you can put it to a tune, you can memorize a list or parts that’s been woven into television shows as part of the culture. We know that in some higher learning facilities, they use those pneumonic aids of pairing it with a song, make a song out of it. There’s something about how so many different parts of the brain are working in concert like an orchestra to help me pull it together when I use music. It’s so much more vibrant than try to remember a list of items or words.
There’s no way that the two-year-olds around the world would be able to know 26 random pieces of information in the correct order if it wasn’t for the alphabet song. By rights, we should be using music in all our education. Another thing that happens in the limbic system is long-term memory. Melody, emotion and long-term memory are like three best friends that do everything together. Which is why when we tell stories and we use emotion in what we’re teaching, people remember the message. It is why I share my information by storytelling a lot. I know that emotion and long-term memory go together as does melody. We will remember songs and I’ve done a lot of work in dementia care with people who can’t speak anymore. Yet they can sing songs from the wartime word for word, but they can’t say their own name. It’s the brain. Melody and the long-term memory, they connected.
What haven’t we asked you about that you want to make sure we get in on this discussion for our audience?
I want to encourage people to express, to firstly know that they are musical. The idea that they aren’t is one that’s come from what they’ve told themselves or what their parents or teachers might’ve told them. When I was a kid in the ‘80s, they were people who were being told to mime in the choir. That thing was common. Some people will hold their word musical. They stopped their piano lessons because you’re not musical. This is all a myth. We are all musical. It is very important that we reclaim our musicality because our brain depends on it.
We are living in a modern fast-paced expectation dance, sensory dance, Western modern culture that our brain, our body and nervous system was not designed to be living in. We need to do everything we can to support our brain to function at its best. We need to care for our brain. Expressing our musicality is one of the best ways of doing that because our brain is a musical being. This does not mean you have to go and learn an instrument. This does not mean you have to go and join a choir or work out how to sing in tune. This means that we need to open our voice, our mouth and hum, whistle, move our body or sway in time to the music that we hear or drum.
Find a way to go sit in on a drum circle where you don’t have to be the master of rhythm to participate and/or gain the benefits. The idea that if you think you’re not musical and you don’t have any rhythm, then you’re forgetting your heart. Many of those original cultures used the heart rhythm as the fundamental drumbeat.
If you’re going to start looking at implementing music strategically in your lifestyles, do it as part of your lifestyle, not just, “I’m feeling anxious. I should listen to some music.” What you said, Tim was a great example of the heartbeat is the pulse. Our body and brain fall in sync with what we listened to very quickly. One of the most dominant relationships, neural pathways in the brain is between auditory information that, which we hear. The motor cortex, which is a part of the brain that tells our body how to move. That relationship is very strong, which is why when we listen to faster music while we’re driving, we drive too fast. When we go to a hip-hop concert, we jump. We don’t sway and float.
Our brain tells our body to move in sync with what we hear. If we listen to music, but he’s roughly around 60 to 80 beats per minute or that of the resting heart rate, we are able to allow our body to stay in irregulated state. Our heart and our spiritual rate falls in sync with the pulse or the beat of the music that which we are listening to. We do not need to make it ourselves. Experiencing music involves hearing it or even thinking about it. If we think about that beat in our head, we are implementing music in our day and a beautiful thing about music is it can be a very passive activity. We might be playing music in our home. We might be singing or humming or whistling at home, and our children or those that are with us are experiencing music by having us make it in the environment. Whether or not they are actively listening to it does not matter because if I am whistling in the environment, anyone else in that environment that my whistling will come to their ear as sensory information and go to their brain to be integrated and the brain will hear it.
That’s good for them. They’re using their voice. They’re exercising one of the twelve pillars of good brain care. Have you heard about Alex Doman and advanced brain technologies or The Listening Program? Alex Doman wrote a book, Healing at the Speed of Sound. He wrote it with a gentleman who was one of the ones who tapped into the Mozart effect of music. They’re taking this an automated, integrated, all the kinds of things you’re talking about. They’re doing lots of science to develop this. In the listening program, buy a quality set of stereo headphones and then you buy a subscription for their service and then you listen twice a day to about a fifteen-minute pattern of music. It does all of this moving from one side to the other and fading when you think you know where the melody is going and then it fades off and your brain fills it in. It’s taking full advantage of all of the things you were saying about how active all the parts of the brain become in listening to or in creating music.
There’s a lot of amazing stuff going on. We’ve learned a lot about the brain in the last 15, 20 years. When I did my Master’s in Music Therapy, I was taught that the brain stopped developing at 25 or that anyone who didn’t hear language before they were eight would never be able to talk. These are the things that were science back then. That wasn’t that long ago. It’s no wonder that we are in a time in history right now where people are still entrenched in old paradigms. It’s quite difficult to get this information out and to help people shift their behaviors and shift into new frameworks of understanding. We are the first generation of people in this time to have that information about the brain and then be able to gently and slowly be shifting into new sematic ways and using our body, music, voice and understanding all of that. It’s brilliant that this information is available. I hope that in the future, that information would be the mainstream.
I hope the same. You were talking about Jill Bolte Taylor, do you know her and her Stroke of Genius? She’s a neuroscientist who had her stroke. She said, “The science was telling us that if you don’t recover this faculty or that faculty from your stroke within six months or a year, it’s gone. You’re not going to get it back.” Personally, she’s watched brain functioning return 7 and 8 years after the fact. She knows that what they were teaching as hard science and the fact is wrong. There’s far more ability for the brain to recover or take over functions from a part that’s been damaged than anybody ever knew. That’s why I’m saying there’s far more capacity within every, even close to normal brain for healing, for soothing, for self-regulating, for integrating. Your idea of taking the mantra and adding it to music is a wonderful way to start integrating that. I love your twelve pillars. I’m so grateful that you were willing to share with our audience. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
It’s been an honor. I look forward to following your work. I’ve subscribed to your newsletter. I look forward to our next chance to talk. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much. Thanks, everyone.
Allison Davies is a multi-award-winning registered music therapist using music to support brain function and reduce anxiety. Allison teaches how you can be your child’s own therapist by ditching behavior management and switching to brain care. Allison is one of Australia’s leading parenting and child behavioral experts. Allison works with schools and parenting groups worldwide to help deliver lightbulb moments about how your children’s brains work and how we can support their brain development to help them and us thrive.
Her extensive training, experience and incredibly engaging and entertaining style of delivery, connect with her audience and create raving fans whose lives are forever transformed for the better. Allison received a Bachelor of Music. She’s a Bachelor of Teaching from the University of New England and a Master of Music Therapy from the University of Queensland before training with the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy in 2016. She is registered with the Australian Music Therapy Association and has been in private practice in Tasmania, Australia since 2007 working predominantly across the areas of early childhood intervention, mental health, neural rehabilitation and aged care.
- Brains = Behaviours
- Brain Care Cafe
- Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy
- The Listening Program
- Healing at the Speed of Sound
- https://www.AllisonDavies.com.au/brain-care-ebook/ – Free eBook: 12 Pillars of Brain Care
About Allison Davies
Allison Davies is one of Australia’s leading parenting and child behavioural experts.
Allison works with schools and parenting groups worldwide to help deliver light bulb moments about how our children’s brains work, and how we can support their brain development to help them (and us!) thrive.
Her extensive training, personal experience and incredibly engaging and entertaining style of delivery connect with her audience and create raving fans whose lives are forever transformed for the better.
Neurologic Music Therapist // Brain Care Specialist // 2016 AMP Tomorrow Maker // Mother
Allison Davies RMT NMT, received a Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Teaching from the University of New England (2003) and a Master of Music Therapy from the University of Queensland (2005) before training with the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy in 2016.
She is registered with the Australian Music Therapy Association and has been in private practice in Tasmania, Aus, since 2007, working predominantly across the areas of early childhood intervention, mental health, neural-rehabilitation and aged care.
Allison has enjoyed presenting and guest speaking for more than 15 years and is renowned for her ability to entertain a room in her unique ‘storytelling mixed with science’ approach to educating, as well as sharing enlightening excerpts of her lived experience of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder.
In 2016 Allison created a music therapy program focused on a palliative approach to dementia care and presented her findings at the International Dementia Conference and the World Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies.
She was named a 2016 National AMP Tomorrow Maker for her contribution to creating a better tomorrow for Australian families through her 2 day workshop, Brains = Behaviours, which was first offered as an eCourse in 2018, and has now reached 500 students worldwide. Her online Brain Care Café helps adults care for their own brains in our fast-paced world.
Allison lives in regional Tasmania, with her husband and 2 children, where she enjoys the beach, the bush and baths.
Brains = Behaviours: https://www.allisondavies.com.au/behaviours/
The Brain Care Café: https://www.allisondavies.com.au/braincare/
Free Ebook, 12 Pillars of Brain Care: https://www.allisondavies.com.au/brain-care-ebook/
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