LUCID: music, medicine, and machine learning

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Generated: 6/27/2022
LUCID: music, medicine, and machine learning.

By Mike Ammar

“Music has changed the language of time." - Albert Einstein

"If you play music long enough, your body begins to dance." - Beethoven

Music and Medicine

By Jon M. Taylor

Music is a fascinating subject because of its universality. Every living creature can recognize and respond to its own species' vocalizations, and even more so, to those of others. As discussed in the previous section, music is a natural part of human life-long experiences, and one we are all born with--a part of our genetic instruction manual. Music can also be a healing art, and can be a therapy for physical, emotional, and intellectual maladies.

In this chapter, we provide two brief examples of the many ways music has been used over history to heal the human body. The first is the “ancient Greeks,” whose medical practices are a striking example to contrast to modern medical theory in many ways.

Ancient Greek physicians were considered the “best and most enlightened physicians” of the time (Thomsen, 2009:13). Greek scholars studied and developed the science of anatomy through observing the bodies of cadavers in order to understand the human system (Dobbin, 1995:1–7). They used medicine to understand more about the soul’s connection to the body, and what caused certain ailments and illnesses (Sommer, 2003). It is no secret, however, that Greek medicine suffered from many inconsistencies. For example, Greek physicians believed a person’s breath was influenced by the emotions and therefore needed to be controlled and measured by the lungs (Simons, 2005)–a belief long discarded with our understanding of respiratory physiology. The ancient Greeks also believed in the idea of a “four element theory” which was believed to explain bodily fluids and health. They believed water to be the life element and was associated with the heart (Simons, 2005). The ancient Greeks believed that the heart was the seat of the soul, so a person’s physical well-being depended upon how it was cared for. If the soul was happy and strong, then the person would be happy and strong (Simons). All disease was caused by a flaw of these four elements within the body (Simons ). For example, the four elements were believed to contribute to the body: earth (skeletons); water (fluids); air (breathing); fire/ether (life, imagination). Because of this theory, the ancient Greeks believed that diseases were the result of an imbalance of elements that needed balancing. These treatments were mostly physical and included acupuncture, a practice that is still used today (Simons, 2005).

In addition to the physical, emotional, and mental ailments that the Greeks saw, there were times when the Greeks saw their own bodies as “temples of the Gods,” and were therefore extremely careful with their bodies. For example, Greek women were extremely concerned about their bodies and the beauty that was inside, and took special care of their bodies. They wore special undergarments and were very cautious about the amount of hair they grew. They shaved when they were old, to remove excess hair and to expose more of their bodies for others to see (Coffey, 1997). For example, a Roman physician at the time wrote about the ancient Greeks, saying:

A woman of their [ancient] time was quite different in her appearance... because of the great care they take to keep clean and beautiful both her body and also her mind (Thomsen, 2009:14).

Not surprisingly, the doctors who viewed the ancient Greeks were impressed, and praised them on their medical practices (Thomsen, 2009:14–15). They believed that these doctors had the best of modern medical practices of the time, but because of the lack of knowledge we have today; the ancient Greeks could even be credited as "the grandfathers of medicine (Simons, 2005)." Greek doctors were so adept in their knowledge that they could often cure patients even with no knowledge of the medical theories that existed today.

Another interesting example of medical practices that are now considered outdated is the idea that a pregnant woman’s life was in danger in early pregnancy. The ancient Greeks believed that if a pregnant woman's bones were exposed to sunlight, they could die from it, and the cure was to cover the woman's stomach and legs with blankets (Altschul, 2008). They also treated those who were pregnant under the belief that the baby would be smaller when born because the mother had an “out of balance” body (Altschul).

Modern Science and the Body

Modern science has led doctors to practice more effectively in treating diseases by using medicines, instruments, and treatments that have become available in this modern era. In fact, this practice goes back more than 200 years. For example, in November of 1725, physicians in Northumberland, England, published a paper on a new treatment method that they had discovered (Bentley, 1970). In the article, they wrote:

For the first three days of the month, in the evening, a patient was placed in his chair, or in a bath with a bladder of cold water. The coldness was to the part of the body which was supposed to be diseased, and to the part which would be restored to health and strength.

They wrote that the treatment worked best if the patient drank cold water through a syringe, which then cooled the patient. This syringe, with a cold water bladder, was believed to treat illnesses by reducing or increasing the patient's body temperature (Woods et al., 2010). By examining medicine from 200 years ago, we can see a clear difference in modern medicine from the Greek ideas of medicine. Instead of treating with cold, medicine has been treated with drugs and techniques that have been introduced in the last 200 years. Most of these include bloodletting, giving a patient hot sponge baths, and injecting alcohol or other liquids into the body using a syringe. They believed that if these treatments were continued often enough, that the ailment that the patient was experiencing would eventually go away (Woods et al., 2010).

It is quite interesting to think about how medicine has grown. The ancient Greeks knew very little about anatomy and were able to only observe the outside of the body, whereas in the modern era, doctors can see more of the human body, including organs, inside of it. This is because the modern era has advanced medical technology, which has allowed these advancements in medicine. Medicine has also become more sophisticated, treating the body in different ways, sometimes using medicine that has become more effective than it had in the past (Woods et al., 2010).

In this chapter, we will focus on how modern neuroscience is trying to use technology to treat people that cannot speak, and communicate their symptoms. In the next section we discuss the use of brain scans on these patients to study the workings of their brain.

Brain Imaging

Over the past 50 years, imaging techniques have advanced. With the advanced technology of our times, brain imaging has become advanced to the point that doctors can scan the brains of patients with neurodegenerative diseases, to observe the brain's physical changes and find a cure. It allows physicians to see the body as a machine, and to see what processes are necessary to keep the machine functioning. Brain imaging allows us to "see" our brain, or in some cases, what parts of our brain are working while we have certain types of brain diseases. For example, if we were to see that a patient is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, then we could perform a brain scan that would show the parts that the disease has decimated and could potentially be able to provide a solution to fix the problem or slow down the progression of the illness.


Neuroplasticity is how we learn and adapt to our environment; it is something which is vital in the human mind and body. The ability of the brain to learn and adapt to its environment is what allows a musician to learn a complex piece of music, like how to play a difficult song (Brunier, 2019). Neuroplasticity is defined as the ability to adjust and change our brains, body, and environment to our needs and wants. When you become very good at something, you learn how to adapt your brain to it. It is a skill that is needed in the human mind and is vital to the human process of being able to adapt to a situation and to learn (Coyle, 2007). It is this ability in our environment that we must adapt and learn, because we are never in our homes, in our rooms, and never quite alone.

Neuroscience has come a very long way in understanding how the brain works and how people think. For example, it was once thought that the brain was fixed when a person was born, but now we know that the brain is constantly learning throughout our life and adapting to its surroundings. As technology grows, as is the case for brain imaging, it is becoming more able to study and understand our brains. Researchers have even gone as far as using MRI scans to see into the brain and understand how it affects our emotions (Coyle, 2007).

Neuroplasticity is another reason for brain imaging; scientists are using it to study how people adjust their brains to adapt to situations and to learn to do things they do not know how to otherwise. Neuroplasticity is especially important in children, and it is also vital to our long term well being. For example, when brain cells are lost in people with Alzheimer’s, the cells in the brain need time to adapt and make new cells to take their place, and this can take months.

Garett MacGowan

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