The CIPD this month declares that “neuroscience is key to unlocking potential” and invites us to its Learning & Development Conference (14 May) to find out “how neuroscience can be applied in the workplace to develop individuals and high-performing teams.”

For some time trainers and facilitators have been aware that brain-friendly learning is the cutting edge of their craft, and in common with coaches, therapists and counsellors have been anxious to prove that learning and development, the quest for wholeness and the pursuit of all kinds of self-realisation is a science. It is as if only science lends credibility, as if we can isolate parts of the brain and discover the keys to all wisdom and knowledge.

Jung wrote of the psyche as an entity, a reality we could observe, and described his analytical psychology as a science. But it cannot be denied that there is still some scepticism in business and in organisations about the hard rational basis of some forms of self-development, calling as they sometimes do for high levels of trust or even faith, exploration of emotions, intuition, empathy and other invisible and apparently unknowable things. Unconscious processes seem equally out of reach and beyond our ken, dark and even mysterious theories of archetypes and sub-personalities litter the stage and the more peripheral therapies on the frontier of the new age and beyond seem to have lost credibility among those of us who occupy the middle ground and who are looking for results and the realisation of objectives, whether personal or professional.

But there is a place where science and magic meet, and of all the human arts and sciences perhaps only music marks out the bounds of this healing and transformational zone. Common to us all from conception and birth, the experience of rhythm and harmonious sound and silence are our earliest awareness of music. Kimberly Sena Moore, a US music therapist (posting in blog.brainq.com/2010/04/22) posits 12 brain-based reasons why music works as therapy, cognitively, emotionally, physically, socially, developmentally :

1 Music is a core function in the brain – our brains are primed early on to respond to and process music. Research has shown that day-old infants are able to detect differences in rhythmic patterns. Mothers across cultures and throughout time have used lullabyes and rhythmic rocking to calm crying babies. From an evolutionary standpoint, music precedes language. We don’t know why, but our brains are wired to respond to music.

2 Our bodies entrain to rhythm. Our motor systems entrain to – or match – a rhythmic beat. For example if you hum a tune while walking down the street, you will often find yourself walking in time to the beat. This is entrainment. While music enters the central nervous system via the auditory nerve it is registered by the brain, but it is also registered by the motor nerves in the spinal cord, which moves us the dance or tap the foot unconsciously.

3 We have physiologic responses to music – breathing may quicken, heart-rate may increase, a shiver may run down the spine.

4 Infants and children respond to music – see the youtube baby dancing to Beyonce. (Even educated parrots do it!)

5 Music taps into our emotions, making us smile or feel sad.

6 Music may help improve our attention skills – singing can silence a room of busy young children and focus their attention on you for a period of time.

7 Music uses the same neural circuits as speech, most notably when singing using lyrics. This knowledge has been used by music therapists to help stroke victims or those in a coma.

8 Music may enhance learning – many of us learned our ABC in a song! The inherent structure and emotional pull of music makes it an easy tool for learning concepts, ideas and information, and can aid recall.

9 Music taps into memories; it is second only to smell for its ability to stimulate our memory. In dementia patients it can help them remember and reminisce.

10 Music may be a social experience – ancestors passed on stories and knowledge through music and song and dance. We still have choirs, bands, and groups.

11 It is predictable, stuctured, and organised – our brains like it! With organised phrases, a steady beat, structured form, sound waves and chords which correspond with mathematical ratios – we can listen pleasurably to such music over and over again.

12 It may be non-invasive, safe and motivating – most people just enjoy various forms of music which is the icing on the cake!

Quite how certain sounds and rhythms affect the brain, our moods, our emotions, memories and bodies is still not clear to me. But there is no doubt that music really does have these powerful effects, and that many skilful therapists and facilitators are putting these principles to good use in their learning interventions.

I for one will be looking to learn more, and to use music creatively in my workshops and therapeutic practice!

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