Sunday, January 29, 2012

Music and Movement and Brains, Oh My...Part 1

One of my "hats" is that of  a Kindermusik educator. Coming from a dance background, music is critical. Being a parent, or anyone who works with children for that matter, music is magical!
A few years ago I was asked to do some presentations about the importance of using music and movement in regards to infant and young child brain development. I got tell ya, this stuff fascinates me! This post is a bit long (okay...maybe more than a bit), but pretty easy to get through.

Musical activities stimulate development in every area of the brain.

As adults we have many experiences to pull from to tell us the impact that music has on our everyday lives. Certain styles of music can, in turns, calm us, energize or just simply entertain us. A certain song can take our mind on a detailed journey of the past, or create new memories of places and people.

For the developing brain’s of infants, among many important aspects, are five areas, or domains, that are foundations of learning. Here they are, with some examples.

  • Physical: large motor skills, balance, muscle development.

  • Emotional: Expressing fear or anger, joy.

  • Cognitive: Remembers faces. Learns cause and effect.

  • Language: Cooing, babbling, and crying to express a desire.

  • Social Development: Smiles back when smiled to.

We can add a sixth.

  • Musical: Enjoys hearing music, responds vocally and physically.

To understand better where and how these six domains develop, we can take a journey through the parts of the brain where a great deal of this learning is processed.

Starting with one of the most basic, but important action to occur: the synaptic connection. Mind you, this is a very basic overview.

Cells of the brain are neurons (nerve cells) and glia.


  • Neurons are connected. They pass electrochemical signals to each other. Information is integrated within the cell body, and then an “action potential” (electrochemical signal) is sent out.

            *Signals travel along the axon to the end of the axon, or dendrites, and a synapse occurs.

  • Synapses are like pathways or avenues that allow individual nerve cells to connect with each other.
  • Axons can be thought of as electrical wiring. Axons wrapped in myelin increase the speed of the electrochemical signals.
  • Myelin can be thought of as insulation for electrical wiring. Without it, signals  go astray, or short out.

When an electrochemical signal reaches a dendrite, several things may happen;

1.)    Neurotransmitter may “float up” and away.

2.)    Can break down from enzymes

3.)    Reuptake can occur. This is when a neuron takes back the neurotransmitter for a later action.

4.)    Information is communicated to the next axon, a synapse occurs.

Only number four is a successful transmission of an electrochemical signal.

Glias are “worker” cells. They clean up dead neurons. There are no chemical synapses between glia.

By the 17th week of pregnancy, a fetus has 1 billion brain cells (more than an adult brain). These brain cells are not in their right places. Only after they are formed will they travel (cell migration). Even though distinct areas of the brain are in place at birth, much of its “wiring” still needs to be done. The brain is the only organ incomplete at birth.

We’re going to come back to neurons and synapses in a bit.

Let’s take a look at some of these “distinct” areas of the brain. I've listed them in no particular order. They are all equally important.

The Cerebrum:

·        Largest part of the brain.

·        Surface is the cerebral cortex.

·        Functions; perception, thought, involuntary movement, language and reasoning.

The Frontal Lobe:

·        Brain’s “Top Executive”.

·        Most recently evolved in human evolution.

·        Last to develop in young adulthood.

·        Organizes responses to complex problems.

·        Searches memory for relevant experience.

·        Adapts strategies to accommodate new data.

·        Guides behavior with verbal skills.

Remember, sometimes a teenager actually can’t think their way out of a paper sack. Their frontal lobe just isn’t finished maturing yet.

The Corpus Callosum:

·        Connects the two hemispheres of the brain.

·        Thick band of nerve fibers.

The Thalamus:

·        “Grand Central Station”

·        Sensory and Motor integration. It directs all the input to its proper locations in the brain.

·        In both hemispheres of brain (thalami is plural).

The Hypothalamus:

·        Size of a pea

·        Functions; regulates body temperature, hunger, thirst, etc.

The Hippocampus:

·        Part of the Limbic System or “emotional brain

·        Where new memories are formed (Alzheimers affects the hippocampus before other parts of the brain, which helps to explain why the sufferers will be stuck in “old “memories).

·        Emotion

·        Learning

·        Spatial orientation

The Amygdala:

·        Part of the Limbic System

·        Perhaps the most mysterious part of the brain to scientists and researchers

·        Traps life events for emotional content (as input is received and directed by the thalamus, input is also being assessed by the amygdala).

·        If an experience or stimuli needs a “fear” marker for future reference, this is where it is going to come from.
As an aside, some new research is being devoted to exploring the connections between the amygdala and Autism.

*Note to anyone who teaches movement of any kind. It's important to point out that an individual, of pretty much any age, will experience a sort of "amygdala override" when feeling anxious or threatened, including intimidation and humiliation. It's something that I try to be constantly aware of as an instructor, regardless of what age group I am dealing with. Dance has a way of going directly to a persons soft and chewy center, making one feel vunerable. Its important to remind participants of any age that learning is a process, and what feels awkward or difficult today will get better over time with proper practice and patience.

The Cerebellum:

·        Often referred to as the “little brain”.

·        Located just above the brain stem, at the base of the skull.

·        Functions; movement/motor sensory, balance/ equilibrium, posture and muscle tone and fine motor coordination.

·        Once thought to be a motor control structure, modern research has shown that it plays an important role in cognitive function, such as the processing of language and music.


·        Connects cerebellum to the cerebral hemispheres (this pertains to right and left sides of the brain, bi-lateral, cross-lateral or “crossing the mid-line”).

Medulla Oblongata:

·        Controls breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

We’ve just scraped the surface of the areas and complexities of the human brain.

Let’s revisit those neurons!

“Wiring” is made up of millions of neurons connected by synapses. These trillions of synapses and the pathways they form make up the brain’s “wiring”.

After birth, brain development consists of wiring and rewiring these connections. As new synapses are formed, others are pruned away.

Synapses are formed more quickly in the brain of an infant from newborn to 8 months of age. By 8 months, an infant’s brain can have 1,000 trillion synapses. Remember, synapses are the connections. We want lots of them!

Throughout infancy and early childhood the brain is working hard to make as many synapses, or pathways, as possible. In the first 3 years of life, the brain is at its most flexible and prepared to learn. Vital connections are made permanent. Early experiences, both negative and positive, have a dramatic effect on the formation of synapses.

 Even though this process slows as we travel from childhood into adolescence, and then onto adulthood, the brain remains flexible for future learning. But the strongest pathways are laid down in our earliest months. The “wiring” and “pruning” process works on a “use it or lose it” system.

Enjoy the dance that is life!

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