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A victim of a brutal mass-shooting in January, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords has had a long and improbable road to recovery. After being shot in the left lobe of her brain, she faced almost complete lack of function on her right side. Even worse, she was stricken with aphasia, an inability to speak because of the damage to the language centers in her brain. Yet, less than a year later, she has made amazing strides. This is due largely to music therapy, and those who have supported the practice for years are pleased but not surprised.
Music offers another pathway back to language. By associating relearned words with rhythm and melody, the victim of a serious brain injury can become conversant again. This process involves strengthening pathways used less frequently during the brain’s normal function. Yet with the major pathways of language and speech damaged, these smaller pathways must become “super-highways”, in the words of doctors in the field. Music therapy has become the most effective way to do this. Speech is primarily a left brain function, while music incorporates both sides of the brain, and involves visual, motor and other functions such as memory and emotion.
Americans for the Arts and other organizations have been involved in studying the effectiveness of the arts in health and recovery for years. The Society for the Arts in Healthcare (THESAH) puts out a ‘State of the Field’ report, in which music in healthcare is a major focus. The most recent study in 2009 brought together more than 40 experts in medicine, the arts, social services and media. Since the 1990s, healthcare professionals have been made increasingly aware of the benefits of the arts and how they can aid in the healing process. Yet the relation between music and speech recovery has been known for much longer. As Dr. Oliver Sacks relayed to ABC: “It has been known literally for centuries that speechless people, people who have lost speech, may sing… Nothing activates the brain so much as music.”