Ockham’s Razor: The Neuroscience of Singing · Creativity Australia
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Ockham’s Razor: The Neuroscience of Singing

Our Founder and Chair Tania de Jong AM recently appeared on Ockham’s Razor (Radio National), speaking on The Neuroscience of Singing.

Listen here, or read the transcript below.

Robyn Williams: Music, language, go way back in human evolution. You know there’s a suggestion that talking came from humming and less obvious ways of communicating with each other, back then in the cave. And its effects on the brain are telling. Susan Greenfield also tells of a story of musicians whose practice measurably changes their brains. And, get this, sometimes all they have to do is think they are playing, rehearsing or singing to get the same cerebral result. Tania de Jong lives in Melbourne where she sings, records and mounts international conferences on innovation and creativity. And she starts with a song.

Tania de Jong: There was a time when everyone used to sing. We sat around campfires, at church and at school. We sang our stories and our dreams. We sang alone and we sang together. Nowadays not many of us sing. We think we can’t because someone at some time told us not to sing, or we think we’re not good enough. We worry that people will think we are strange or that we will be judged and not as good as the celebrities we idolise. So I have a question: Who has been told by their parents, teachers, kids or partners or anyone else that they should not sing? There will be at least 85% of you putting up your hands! That is the average of people who have been told not to sing.

When I was fourteen I desperately wanted to have singing lessons and my best friend started sessions. One night after school I went to her place and asked her to teach me one of the songs she had learnt. After a while of learning the tune, I sang it to her as she accompanied me on piano. She told me that I should never bother having singing lessons as I was not good enough! I believed her (just like many of us believed it when we were told we couldn’t sing), but finally in Year 11 I got up the courage to audition for the Chorus of the school musical, Oklahoma. I received the lead role and my friend did not make the Chorus! Singing has been the greatest joy, passion and sustenance to me ever since.

Our voices have been silenced, and it’s not doing us any good. Most people believe that they can’t sing. There is a taboo about singing or even speaking in public…and yet we were all given voices to express ourselves and tune in with one another. We have such a fear of failure and it makes us vulnerable to being judged. And, of course, we can all sing. Voice is the language of our heart, it is how we express ourselves or don’t. Singing has so many great benefits for our brains, our psychological function, our thinking and learning skills and our social functions. One of the many great advantages of singing is that it connects us to our right brain and then to all of our brain which benefits our thinking.

The right hemisphere of our brain is in charge of our imagination, intuition and all of our creative functions. Our right brain enables possibilities and connects us to everything that is. The brain is like a battery – the right side charges it and the left side uses the energy and empties it. Our goal is to always keep our mental battery charged. But what really happens is we’re overloaded with too much information…too much analysis, so we spend 85% of the time using our left brain. We’re literally draining our batteries. We talk more to boxes and screens than one another. I have a theory of ‘boxes’ I’d like to share with you. We are born and put in a bassinet-like box in a box-shaped hospital. We are brought home into a house we would draw as a box with a triangle on it. Then at school we are often educated to think in a box. And we go to the local supermarket and come out with boxes and tins. We go to work and have our mobile phone ‘box’ in our pocket and our computer ‘box’ in front of us. And we have to tick lots of boxes on lots of forms. And finally when we go out of this life, we go out in a box!  We are building boxes, bricks and mortar and walls between us – the rates of depression, anxiety and other mental illness are constantly rising.

Yet I believe it is on the bridges between the boxes where life happens, through loving relationships, in nature and by unleashing our creativity. And when we regularly engage in music-making, singing and other creative pursuits our attention and cognition improve and we are connecting with others and building bridges, not boxes. It is fundamentally important to nurture the attributes of humans that set us apart from machines, love, compassion, creativity, courage, caring and so on. Otherwise, we will become redundant. The best way to change the balance and recharge our mental battery is to use the right brain more. And the most awesome activity for doing that is singing.

Professor Sarah Wilson, one of the leading researchers on the neuroscientific benefits of music said that “Music is to mental health what sport is to physical health.” I would agree that participation in music and singing is critical to mental health and also important for physical health. Sarah Wilson’s research shows that music makes connections at multiple levels including the level of the brain, the level of the mind, at a personal level and at a social level. These connections have been shown to translate to academic benefits, including improved literacy, numeracy, spatial abilities, executive functioning and intelligence as well as greater school attendance and participation. They also extend to psychological benefits for self-confidence and self-discipline, and social benefits for teamwork and social skills. This has been especially notable through the work and research of the first charity which I founded, The Song Room, which has now reached over 300,000 Australian children with creative arts programs which have achieved outstanding learning and social outcomes.

Neuroscience proves that singing connects the neural pathways differently and fires up the right temporal lobe of the brain releasing endorphins, making people healthier, happier, smarter and more creative. Music-making and singing activate multiple brain networks. Not surprisingly, music has been dubbed the ‘food of neuroscience’ and provides a powerful model of how the brain can change in response to the environment. And what I love about this research is that it’s way more powerful when we sing together. And it’s important to note that group singing is on the rise. According to Chorus America, 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. There are similar increases in Australia. This is a very good thing. Go out and sing!

Singing has been shown to activate our pleasure networks and improve our mood by lowering cortisol and other stress hormones. In one study, people’s levels of oxytocin, the hormone associated with pleasure, love and bonding, were measured before and after singing sessions. The levels increased significantly. Other research has shown that participation in music and singing improves our ability to learn by creating brain meta-plasticity which provides an enriched learning environment as our whole brain becomes ready to change and engage in learning. Increasing research illustrates the benefits of singing for enhancing all kinds of learning, language and other skills. Music and singing is also proven to be neuro-protective, warding off age-related decline and continuously ‘exercising’ our brains. It also enhances our physical health and autoimmune function by improving our posture, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Further international research and studies have shown how singing together heals those with strokes, speech abnormalities and depression.

Doctors are increasingly interested in the ability of music — particularly singing — to allay depression. Stephen Clift, director of the Sidney De Haan Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, United Kingdom, says that “Singing together helps people with mental health issues feel happier, better connected with others and more supported.” Literally singing can retrain the brain! And the good news continues: singing promotes social bonding, cohesion and is part of our social identity. When we sit around a campfire or anywhere else singing together, we feel part of a bigger, connected universe. This takes us out of our small, isolated and separated selves. When we sing together we share a mental and spiritual state and this gives people the ability to empathise and step into the shoes of someone else. It also enables us to transcend the mundanity of our ordinary lives and experience the magic of connection to something vast and infinite. And when we sing with others there is something really magical as we crescendo and sing in harmony together – it gives me goosebumps! Not only do we breathe together but studies show that our hearts start to beat together. How good is that?! Singing together is a super-dooper drug that integrates the mind and body and helps to heal our brains and enhance our learning abilities! And it’s free and we all have access to it because we all have a voice.

Music is considered to be of adaptive and evolutionary significance in terms of its multiple benefits for human learning and development. Furthermore there are theories that speculate that our brains developed along with singing and music as a survival mechanism. Before there were governments or nations, tribes and groups used songs and dance to build loyalty to the group, transmit vital information, and ward off enemies. Those who sang well survived because the world was a scary place. Well, not only do we think we can’t sing, but most people say they are not creative either. Creativity is not a unique talent.  Yet futurists Watts and Wacker recently said:
“Creativity has become the most universally endangered species in the twenty first century.” I believe that creativity is the strategic tool of the 21st century.

A recent IBM CEO Global Study of 1,500 global CEOs ranked creativity as the number one leadership attribute in an increasingly complex and uncertain global environment.  Steve Jobs said that “creativity is just connecting things”. Those “things” are all your experiences in life up until that moment when you want or need to be creative. So rather than desperately trying to be creative, the challenge is to make sure that you collect enough brave and broad experiences to fill up your toolkit for when you get creative. And I believe one of the most effective devices to build your toolkit is the concept of “positive human collisions”. Literally engaging and connecting with people who are very different to you on a regular basis. We surround ourselves with people who make us feel safe, who think, feel and dress like we do and who agree with us and endorse us. Yet our biggest gains as humans come from “creative abrasion”, where we rub up against people we do not agree with and who make us feel a bit uncomfortable or even very uncomfortable…who challenge our notions of ourselves and the world we live in. And it sparks creativity and innovation.

Well, in light of all this I thought it would be awesome to develop an innovative social enterprise movement that used the science of singing and fostered positive human collisions to build wellbeing and creativity, to change the world! So rather than bringing together  a choir of just young or older people, or migrants from one nation, or homeless ‘hard knocks’ people, or a choir of jobseekers, we deliberately bring together the most diverse people possible, a global village. Every week Creativity Australia’s With One Voice program brings together migrants, job seekers, people with depression and disabilities and CEOs, doctors, lawyers, retirees and students aged from 9 to 90 of all faiths and backgrounds in choirs of social inclusion. We break down barriers and siloes and we help improve wellbeing, self-esteem, hope, mentoring, skills and jobs in the most joyful way imaginable. We started with one program and now there are fifteen in 3 states and the demand is growing.

Since my TEDTalk a couple of months ago we have received enquiries from as far afield as Phoenix, Arizona! Many people come saying and thinking they cannot sing. We help them find their voice. Not just their singing voice but their voice in life, their meaning and purpose. Every week at the programs we share not just song, but supper, and our hopes and challenges. One of the most innovative features of the program is the Wish List. Individuals are encouraged to express what they are thankful for, ask for what they need in life and grant wishes for others. They put their wish into a little wish bag at choir and it is read out to the group. ‘I wish for a job or help with my resume’, ‘I wish for someone to walk home with’ and so on. Wishes granted include employment, help with CV-writing and interview practice, music lessons, learning English and so much more.  We’ve even had a marriage! (Yet we are not a dating agency.) There is a real sense of a haven, a hub, a home. Because of impact of singing together on the neuroplasticity of the brain everyone is in a different headspace, and people feel safe to express themselves and ask for what they need in life.

Through the program hundreds of people have gained new skills, jobs and work experience and been connected to services they need – dentists, counsellors and others. Everyone has experienced more hope, joy and inspiration… eg. I asked a couple of our board members to come along at the start to ensure we had a balance of executives and less fortunate people. They said they’d come for a few weeks to help out. Now in their fifth year of attending they talk about the program as the highlight of their week and how the power of giving to and helping others has changed their lives. When we become more connected we feel greater gratitude and then we want to help others. Our Creativity Australia annual participant survey shows that over 90% of participants experience improved weekly wellbeing, understanding of diversity, reduced anxiety and depression and new skills. With One Voice has helped Nathalie, an asylum seeker from Cameroon, with employment and self esteem.

And then there’s Beth. Beth has cerebral palsy. She joined Melbourne With One Voice when she was 21 years old and she’s now 26. She came with her mum or her carer and after a few weeks at choir she said to them “I’m gonna do this as my independent activity. Ever since then she’s been coming in the Maxi Taxi. We feed her and she sings with us. And though she doesn’t sing in tune, or in time, she knows the words of every song. And every week I hope that Beth is there. Beth is such a joy. Every week when she’s there, she says to me “this is the highlight of my life”. And after a while people stopped looking at her chair and they started to see Beth as a real individual. Beth made two wishes last year. The first of those was that she should find her first job and through the wish list one of the executives in the choir helped her find her very first job at the Royal Show. Beth was absolutely thrilled and even more so when her hours were extended. She laughed so gleefully at choir about this. And then the second wish was that she stand in public for the very first time. So, a couple of weeks before Christmas she stood in this special contraption that had been made for her. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Beth reminds us that all of us are interchangeable. I could be Beth and she could be me. It’s just the luck of the draw. When many diverse voices come together as ‘one voice’ on a regular basis the outcomes are transformational. Regular music and singing participation at any age do enhance neuroplasticity and can change the brain! It is said that most of us go through our lives with our music unplayed. Imagine if we can just unlock a little bit more of our brain’s creative potential. We were all born with a voice so let’s not sit in silence any longer. We invite you to join hundreds of diverse people across our programs now in 15 locations, 3 states. And if you’d like to set up a With One Voice program in your community please contact Creativity Australia.

As Mark Twain said:  “Sing like no one’s listening, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like no one’s watching and live like it’s heaven on earth.”

 Robyn Williams: And Mark Twain had plenty of fun, didn’t he? So does Tania de Jong, founder of Creative Universe, Creativity Australia and much else. Next week we bring you the two Great Wars.

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