Written by Myron Norman
In short, out of necessity and necessity often pushes us harder than mere curiosity. To more fully explain, I need to give you a snapshot of my journey.
I was born choking on my mother’s umbilical cord. An emergency delivery is what I am told saved my life, and the nurses dubbed me a “miracle baby” placing a green ribbon on a single lock of my hair. Little did I know that green ribbon would be a further foretelling of the gift I would be able to give the world (green is the color for traumatic brain injuries).
It turned out, brain trauma was a regular part of my surroundings growing up. Members of my immediate household experienced different mental health and neurological impairments - including my mother, aunt and oldest brother. I will share only limited details about their conditions.
My aunt (my mother’s only sister) passed away when I was a child. I was never given a reason for her passing, though I do remember several telling details about her condition.
The fact that my aunt would blankly stare at me unable to recall who I was seemed normal as a child. Looking back upon my aunt’s cognitive abilities and behaviors along with my research confirmed that her condition was brain related. I believe my aunt may have passed in her early 60’s.
By the time I reached my 20’s, I had become aware of my mother’s symptoms (which were similar to my aunts). My mother’s symptoms were not apparent in my younger years. Though her symptoms became more aggressive in her early 40’s. She is still alive, now in her 60’s.
I was never told exactly what my mother was diagnosed with. As a child into my adult years, I witnessed specific things related to her behavior that were very difficult to watch. My parents didn't come to me saying anything was wrong. I just knew it. The hardest part was trying to look the other way as a teenager and pretend nothing was wrong, especially since the memories of my aunt’s passing still lingered.
My brother’s condition was by far the most evident. While I have many disturbing memories of my brother’s health, it must have been especially tough on my parents. The things I saw growing up—no parent should have to see their child endure.
What is interesting is that my brother loved classical music and was very sought after for his ability to compose and conduct it. Unfortunately, my brother was not able to maintain a certain level of mental stability to place primary focus on music as a career.
There is an enormous amount of research circulating about the benefits of classical music and the brain. The doctors who treated my brother either didn’t know about such research or weren’t invested in that type of research.
One might ask if music (mainly classical) has such positive effects on the brain, why my brother didn’t experience those effects. To that I would say, my brother wasn’t likely exposed to classical music the moment he was born. Therefore, I cannot determine whether or not classical music was a part of my brother’s regular listening during the most critical years of his brain life. These important years are known as “critical-period plasticity.”
I often describe the critical-period plasticity by comparing it to a sink filled with dirty dishes. When I am preparing to wash dishes at home, I prefer the water to be hot. When I say hot, I mean very hot. However, there are times when I get distracted and leave the water sitting too long. This causes the temperature of the water to cool. When dish water cools, grease, grime, germs, and dirt become harder to wash away.
When it comes to washing dishes, I know that I have a small window of time to get the dishes in hot water before the water cools. After that window shuts, the water loses its potency toward fighting germs. Our brain is similar to a sink of cooling hot water. There are specific windows of time in our brain life when we must feed the brain with strategic activities and nutrition. Over time the brain “cools” and becomes harder to rewire itself.
Critical-period plasticity is one of the most famous biological discoveries since intensive brain research began. Scientists defined critical-period plasticity as the period during the brain life when brain development is provoked by external stimuli (i.e., sound, vibrations, light, knowledge, music, food, exercise, thoughts, etc.). Research revealing the significance of critical-period plasticity considerably advanced by the work of David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. They both received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
In my brother’s case, I don’t believe he had been exposed to classical music during his critical-period plasticity years. But more importantly, my brother engaged classical music as a hobby which allowed his brain to develop a neurological resistance toward the potential benefits of classical music. Allow me to explain.
The brain is designed to fire neurons in the most familiar directions. If a person is afraid of starting their own business, the brain will begin to wire itself into accepting the idea that starting a business is not a good idea. The brain is mostly wiring itself to keep the 'thinker' safe. Simply put, in this example, the brain determines the start of a business to be a threat. Therefore, the brain will begin to shut down possible areas of thought that might aspire the thinker to move forward with their plans to start a business.
One of the world’s most sought after motivational speakers, Award-Winning CNN Commentator and Best-Selling Author, Mel Robbins, wrote an excellent book on the brain’s dynamic of comfort and digression titled The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage.
Continuing with my brother—I witnessed him engaging classical music as a hobby several hours every day (sometimes 10 to 15 hours a day). While I believe the mental health of my brother played a part in his extended listening of classical music, his brain remained biased towards protecting him. That form of protection was his brain developing a neurological immunity toward classical music. Allow me to further explain.
Over time the brain gets bored. Just because we engage a healthy activity (such as listening to classical music) doesn’t mean we’ll reap the total benefits of that activity. It’s like walking into your favorite restaurant and ordering the same items off the menu. Eventually, your favorite food items won’t be so appealing if you eat those same foods several times every week. You’ll get bored.
In my brother’s case, his brain was bored with classical music without any other menu options. When my brother’s condition reached the aggressive stages, the classical music was not a weapon worthy enough to defeat the disease that was taking over his brain.
I firmly believe that classical music can be beneficial in staving off brain atrophy or degenerative diseases. However, in my brother’s case, engaging an entirely different genre of music (other than classical music) would have proven to be a worthier opponent against my brother’s neurological impairments.
When I mention “engaging music” I don’t mean just listening to the music. The musical engagement I refer to deals with a level of auditory research called “The Laws of Tomatis.” These auditory laws were greatly amplified by an internationally known otolaryngologist and inventor, Alfred Tomatis.
Dr. Alfred Tomatis developed the “Electronic Ear”—an auditory program, also known as the “Tomatis Method” which causes the ear to “listen” with intelligence rather than merely hearing passively. He observed a “distinct listening posture” that occurs when people hear classical music. Among his discoveries was the realization that the ear was more than a docile organ. He compared the ear “to a lens that could be zoomed and refocused” for strategic listening.
Based on personal observations, my brother’s interest in classical music was from a more passive vantage point. He had not been engaging the music from a “listening” vantage point. Let's zoom into some examples of passive listening.
As a child, my teachers would often say to me “Myron—you’re hearing me, but you’re not listening.” This would be considered passive listening. Similarly, my brother had been passively hearing his music but not “listening.”
A further example of the 'zooming' aspect of auditory engagement could be a person talking on the phone and watching television simultaneously. While the conversation on the phone may be of great interest, the TV may be showing captivating scenes from that person’s favorite movie. That person may choose to zoom in to listen closer to the movie scenes while zooming away (passive) from the person on the phone.
A familiarity with Dr. Tomatis’ work would have—and still can greatly benefit my brother’s brain. Piecing together these neurological happenings was a driving factor behind my interest to better understand the brain.
Understanding the behaviors of my family has been a bittersweet experience. While members of my family had already passed from brain-related impairments, many other families could help their loved ones. They merely need to access the information in clear ways.
The focus of this book may be brain and food focused, yet there are many ways the brain can heal itself as mentioned above. I simply want to do my part in helping bridge the gap between everyday people and scholarly research.