Your Recipe for a Better Brain – Dr. Jen Willford [Podcast]

Strengthening the reward centers of your brain could be as simple as singing along to the radio on your morning commute.

Dr. Jennifer Willford, professor of psychology at Slippery Rock University and expert in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology, as she discusses the various ways in which music can actually strengthen the neural pathways in our brains, even in people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Plus, find out the 3 simple ingredients you need to improve and optimize your brain health.


Jim Donovan: So it kind of makes sense that people, as they age, even if they’re not the best singers in the world, to sing is something that they can be actively doing to help their brains stay healthier for longer. Is that accurate to say that?

Dr. Willford: Yeah. I mean, when we think about the health benefits of music, music reduces stress, stress is bad for our brain cells, so we want to protect our brain cells from stress. It increases our immune function, so we’re going to stay healthier. It eases our pain, that’s those endorphins that we were talking about earlier. There’s a whole area of research that focuses on how music enhances movement, and that influences exercise. And those emotional benefits like reducing anxiety and increasing our mood is healthy for our brains as well.

Jim Donovan: Hi, this is Jim Donovan, welcome to the show. Today we’ll be welcoming Dr. Jennifer Willford to the program. Jennifer is a professor of psychology at Slippery Rock University in the great state of Pennsylvania, and an expert in neuroscience, neuropsychology, and just about anything brain related. She’s here to talk to us today about what’s actually happening in the brain when we do things like listen to music, or sing, or even chant. We’ll also look at what’s going on in the minds of Alzheimer’s patients when they listen to music from their past. Thankfully, Jennifer has a deep understanding of why the brain does what it does, so we’re happy to have her on with us today. Please welcome, all the way from Western PA, Dr. Jennifer Willford. So glad to have you on the show, Jen. Let’s just get right into this. I’m wondering, when we listen to music, what’s actually happening in the brain?

Dr. Willford: Okay, so when we are talking about listening to music and the brain, we’re using a lot of different areas of the brain, so let’s just kind of take it step by step. So first of all, when we are listening to music, we’re using the language centers in the brain. And we use these language centers to appreciate music, and understand the words of the music in the context of the music itself.

Dr. Willford: Now the language areas in the brain actually span both sides of the brain, and what’s interesting is that words are processed on the left side in these regions, and the sounds of music are interpreted on the right side. So when we’re listening to a song we’re actually using both sides of the brain, and they’re really talking to each other, so that it requires a lot of coordination across the two sides of the brain. And then in terms of what music does to us when we actually listen to it, and we feel positive after listening to music. I am not a rock star by any definition, but when I get into my car and I’m alone, I’ll crank up the tunes, sing at the top of my lungs.

Jim Donovan: What’s your favorite thing to listen to?

Dr. Willford: I like a lot of different kinds of music actually.

Jim Donovan: But what do you play the loudest? That’s what I want to know.

Dr. Willford: Depends on my mood. I actually have a number of playlists on Spotify, and it really kind of depends on my mood. If I’m feeling fired up I’ll listen to more rock music, if I’m trying to calm down or feel mellow, I’ll listen to something a little bit more easygoing.

Jim Donovan: Nice.

Dr. Willford: I was in New York recently and having breakfast in a cafe, and they had a great playlist and I said, “What is that?” And it was a Pandora station for brunch. So sometimes I listen to Brunch Cafe on Pandora.

Jim Donovan: Perfect.

Dr. Willford: But we feel really good after listening to and playing music. So if we think about that as a part of listening to music and what’s going on in the brain, there’s a lot going on there as well. So when we’re getting into our music, we’re releasing a neurochemical called dopamine. When dopamine is released, it helps neurons talk to each other, and most importantly it does this in a circuit of the brain that allows us to feel rewarded, and that particular circuit in the brain also talks to our memory circuits. So these two, this reward circuit and this memory circuit are talking to each other, and so when we listen to music we feel good, and we want to do it more.

Jim Donovan: Why is it important that they talk to each other? Help me understand that.

Dr. Willford: Okay, so this kind of really goes way back. We have this reward system in our brain really to help us do things like make sure we eat. So if we’re hungry, and we see a turkey sandwich, and we’re ready to eat this sandwich, and then we eat it and we feel better, we feel rewarded for that. And then we also remember that that turkey sandwich helped us feel better, so in the future when we’re hungry we’re more likely to go find that turkey sandwich. And so this is how reward and memory kind of work with each other: we have an experience, it makes us feel good, we remember it, and then that helps us think, “Okay, I want to go back and do that again.”

Jim Donovan: So the good feeling helps to reinforce the memory.

Dr. Willford: Yeah, exactly. And so these are actually the same pathways in the brain that are, the reward pathway and memory systems included, are the same pathways that drugs of abuse hijack. So when we become dependent on substances or addicted to them, these are the circuits that are being affected initially in that process. When we listen to music, we’re strengthening that reward pathway, that feel-good pathway, in a healthy way. So it’s a healthy strengthening of that circuit that helps us increase our positive mood in a good way.

Dr. Willford: So we can use music, we can use it as a coping strategy when we’re feeling bad or stressed. I used to, when I was a kid, if I was feeling bad I would often sit down at the piano, or practice my flute, and a half an hour would pass, and I’d feel better. And part of the reason for that is because when we’re practicing music, we’re being rewarded for it, it increases our mood ,and we strengthen those pathways over time so that they become more of the default pathway versus the negative pathway. Does that make sense?

Jim Donovan: Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’m just thinking about how, now I didn’t have a piano or anything like that, but I had a pair of drumsticks, and from about age 14, actually probably age 13 to 17 I would put on ACDC and just play in the air with my sticks. And it would be silent in my room for hours and my mother would sort of peek in every so often just to make sure I was alive in there, and she’d see me doing my thing, playing as loud as I can in the air, and she figured everything’s okay.

Dr. Willford: Well it’s interesting that you say that, because we can get these benefits from playing music and listening to music, but we also know from some imaging studies that if you’re even just thinking about it, you can gain some of these benefits.

Jim Donovan: That makes good sense.

Dr. Willford: You don’t even have to actually be doing it to get the benefits.

Jim Donovan: The mental rehearsal is its own solid practice.

Dr. Willford: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jim Donovan: Yeah, that makes sense.

Dr. Willford: I want to get back to, there’s a lot more going on in the brain. Can I keep going?

Jim Donovan: Yeah, let’s go.

Dr. Willford: In addition to this reward pathway, I think it’s also important to mention there’s more going on here that helps us feel good when we listen to music. I think this is such a big, important part of why music is so important, and why everyone likes to listen to music or engage with music in some way. In addition to that dopamine neurochemical being released, we also released endorphins when we listen to music. And that’s the same neurochemical that we talk about when we talk about the runners high. So when people say, “I get a runner’s high after going for a jog,” it’s the same neurochemical, and we can get that from listening to music.

Jim Donovan: Is that also a pain relief chemical?

Dr. Willford: Yeah. So sometimes we hear about music therapy, for example, music therapy is an important field. And partly what’s going on with music therapy is that when we release these endorphins it helps relieve pain. So music therapy is very important. There’s one other neurochemical that I want to mention here, because I think it’s so cool, it’s my favorite neurochemical, if you can have one of those. When we listen to music we release oxytocin, and oxytocin is what we would consider the bonding hormone. So when we listen to music, it’s especially nice to do this with other people because it helps us, we release oxytocin, and music can actually serve as a way to help us build relationships. So being with other people when we listen to music or play music is actually really important.

Jim Donovan: That’s why I liked the guys in my band so much I guess then, it’s just chemicals, they’re not actually that nice maybe.

Dr. Willford: Well I think they are nice, but yeah. So another big region of the brain that’s active when we’re listening to music is the areas in the frontal lobe. So the areas in the frontal lobe of the brain are what we consider the air traffic control center in the brain, it’s our higher level cognitive abilities like planning, decision-making. For example, let’s say I’m listening to a band, and they make an error, they miss a note or something, our frontal lobes are going to pick that up, and they’ll be able to detect when something doesn’t quite match up right. And so people who listen to music often or play music are going to build these kinds of executive functions in the frontal lobe.

Dr. Willford: And one of the really important ones that’s kind of cool is that music will activate anticipation. It helps us, we don’t think about this when it’s happening, but what it does is it helps us think about, “Okay, what has happened?”, and kind of figure that out, and then use that to predict what’s coming. Music does this for us, and we don’t even realize it. So when we listen to music and play music the brain networks are kind of creating expectations about how the music should sound, and then that kind of transfers into other types of thinking abilities that we have when we’re not listening to music, and just strengthen those pathways in the brain.

Jim Donovan: That totally makes sense. What it makes me wonder is, so when I’m writing a song sometimes I’ll purposely put in a bridge that is unexpected to kind of foil that expectancy, like I think it’s going to go here, but then it takes a turn. Is there anything about the surprise in music that sort of changes what’s happening in the brain?

Dr. Willford: Yeah, I mean we have, part of that frontal circuitry will kind of get activated when there’s novelty or when something is new, and the brain will pick up on that. And I think that that feeds into the building of these expectation pathways and noticing when things in our environment change. I mean that’s a very … we don’t think about that, but it’s important to be able to notice when things in our environment changes.

Jim Donovan: Sure.

Dr. Willford: And we also need to be able to predict what’s happening in our environment. So music is kind of helping us strengthen those kinds of pathways, both when things are expected and then also kind of figuring out what to do when things are unexpected, or at least being able to notice when things are unexpected.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. So what I’m understanding is that just the act of listening to music is good for the brain. Just being passive, listening to the music passively is already good for the brain.

Dr. Willford: Yes.

Jim Donovan: Now to go another step into this, you’ve been to some of my events and you know one of my passions is sharing how to reclaim the power of your voice, and use it to help your health. And what I’m wondering is, when I’m using my voice for something like singing, or if I’m chanting a mantra, or doing vocal toning, what’s happening in the brain? Is it different when I’m actively participating with my voice than it is if I’m just listening to somebody else’s voice?

Dr. Willford: Yeah. So it is, it is different. Because, mainly we know this from studies that use neuroimaging, like FMRI studies, but when we put someone in the scanner and we have them sing, really large areas of the brain light up. So why that’s kind of important to understand is that any other thing that we put someone in the scanner and ask them to do, we may see very discrete areas of the brain that kind of light up, and we know what those kind of important areas are, but when we’re singing, large areas light up. And what’s going on is that we have areas of the brain that are important for processing sound, that are important for listening, the language areas light up, the memory areas light up, the movement areas light up, emotion areas light up, and those frontal lobes light up. All of these things are being activated when we sing. It’s an amazing amount of complexity. It’s really cool.

Dr. Willford: Kind of the take-home of all of that is that when we’re singing, basically what’s happening in the brain is we’re activating a lot of areas that have to work together, and this is really, really good for our brain. Singing offers what we would consider neuroprotective benefits, because of this kind of integration and activation of many circuits. And it’s a natural emotional expression, so again, it brings us back to those feel-good neuro chemicals that we talked about earlier. So this is really, really great stuff. And again, like I said before, when we are singing we’re activating all of these areas, but if we are thinking about singing, we’re also going to activate some of these areas.

Jim Donovan: Right. I heard you say the word neuroprotective, and for someone who doesn’t know that word, how would you describe that?

Dr. Willford: I just think neuroprotective kind of speaks to the idea that we want to be doing things, we want to be engaging in behaviors and activities that are healthy for our brain. And we know some of them, we know exercise is good for the brain,

we know moving our bodies every day is very good for the brain, our nutrition is important for the brain, but music is good for the brain as well.

Jim Donovan: So it kind of makes sense that the people, as they age, even if they’re not the best singers in the world, to sing is something that they can be actively doing to help their brains stay healthier for longer. Is that accurate to say that?

Dr. Willford: Yeah. I mean, when we think about the health benefits of music, music reduces stress, stress is bad for our brain cells, so we want to protect our brain cells from stress; it increases our immune function, so we’re going to stay healthier; it eases our pain, that’s those endorphins that we were talking about earlier; there’s a whole area of research that focuses on how music enhances movement, and that influences exercise; and those emotional benefits like reducing anxiety and increasing our mood is healthy for our brains as well. So it kind of spans lots of different areas in terms of how music leads to brain health benefits.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. And then the thing you were talking about earlier, where if I’m listening to music with people, that there’s a social bond that happens. So does it follow that if I’m singing with a group of people, or even one other person, that I’m also activating that that social part of the brain and the oxytocin?

Dr. Willford: Yes, definitely.

Jim Donovan: I don’t know if you’ve seen this book called The Brain That Changed Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge, and it’s a book about neuroplasticity. Have you seen that book?

Dr. Willford: I have not, but I’m going to put it on my list now.

Jim Donovan: I tell you what, it is just a really great combination of great stories and really interesting research. And he talks about how, in the early days of neuroplasticity, how those early scientists really had to fight against the established view of, that the brain doesn’t ever change. That you’re born one way, and that it pretty much stays the same for the rest of your life. I’m kind of oversimplifying here, but in the book he talks about this idea that he calls brain maps, where the way I understand is that a brain map is a way of describing how to learn a sequence of patterns for any given situation, like maybe here’s the pattern that I do in a restaurant, or here’s the pattern I do to cook soup. And that map kind of tells us what to do and what not to do, so that we can repeat it over and over again. Is brain map, is that the accurate way to speak of this idea?

Dr. Willford: I like this idea of a brain map. It’s kind of an interesting way to think about neuroplasticity. So the idea here is that when you began learning to, let’s say play an instrument, and maybe you also want to sing along with, you want to play music and you want to sing, that’s hard to do, and you need to build the pathways for both, and then you need to have those pathways talking to each

other. So that’s going to take some time to build. And I think that that idea applies very well to this idea of brain map.

Dr. Willford: So, if you’re thinking about, let’s say you want to learn an instrument. So you’re going to have to practice the instrument, and the instrument, the playing the music on the instrument creates a pathway that becomes very well worn and efficient. And then you’re going to also have to learn to sing the song, so you’re going to learn to sing the song and you’re going to strengthen that pathway. And then you’re going to try to do that together, right? So when, when you first start trying to do that together, my guess is you have to go pretty slow.

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Dr. Willford: Would you think that that is accurate?

Jim Donovan: It’s definitely accurate for me.

Dr. Willford: Yeah. So as you practice your instrument and then your voice, as you’re putting them together you’re going to have to go really slow. And that’s like building, what you’re doing is building the pathway, the musical pathways.

Jim Donovan: Yeah. If I’m learning a really complicated song I have to not only slow it down, but I have to take it in really small chunks, maybe even two measures at a time, and get those really, really solid, and then keep going.

Dr. Willford: Right. But then as you practice it becomes easier and easier and easier to do, right?

Jim Donovan: Oh, exactly. Yeah. And then it becomes automatic.

Dr. Willford: Right. So then it becomes automatic. So I actually want to segue here and talk a little bit about that, because this idea that it becomes automatic is important. When we build motor sequences, I mean basically when you’re playing an instrument and then you’re using your voice, you’re building kind of a sequence of events. And the little chunks that you talk about, I like to think of this as kind of like a recipe. If you think about the little pieces you need to learn, those are kind of like the ingredients. And then if you think about the order that you have to put them, that’s kind of like the instructions for the recipe. And this is kind of how the brain builds these brain maps, it figures out what it needs and then it starts to put them together.

Dr. Willford: And these kinds of memories for these types of motor programs and this kind of very well-practiced type of memories that becomes automated like this relies very heavily on a part of the brain called the cerebellum. Which is, if you look at a picture of the brain, it looks like a little brain that sits below the big brain, if that makes sense. And it turns out that the memories that we store kind of in the cerebellum are very hard to forget. So the types of memories that we would

store there might be things like learning to tie your shoe, or learning to ride a bike. It’s the kind of memories that, you feel like once you learn them you’re never going to forget them.

Dr. Willford: And music can get stored in this way as well. And that’s why, after we practice a lot, it starts to feel very automatic to us. And this is really cool because it kind of ties into an area of research in therapy with patients who have neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. So someone with Alzheimer’s disease, who maybe has forgotten the name of one of their family members, may still be able to sit down and play the piano. And the reason for that is that those memories are stored in very different places in the brain. And we know that patients who have these types of disorders benefit greatly from music and music therapy, but if they actually listened to music when they were younger, or played music, those memories may be stored in a different way in their brain.

Jim Donovan: Yeah, it seems like, and maybe I’m just behind the curve here, but it seems like in the last couple of years the world is really waking up to how music can help people with things like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Why do you think that is? I mean I hear that it lights a different part of the brain up and those memories are stored differently, but what else do you think goes into that?

Dr. Willford: So it’s interesting because we’ve kind of come full circle on this a little bit, in that initially we studied music through case studies of patients who did have some sort of brain deficit or injury. And then, basically with the invention of modern imaging techniques, we were then able to use those types of methods to study music in the brain of these types of patients. And so we’ve always kind of studied them, but it’s just a change in how we’ve done it, if that makes sense?

Jim Donovan: Yeah.

Dr. Willford: So what we know is that music therapy has a lot of important implications for patients with these types of disorders. And it kind of ties into what we’ve been talking about already in that, in an Alzheimer’s patient for example, music is going to be important for improving mood, helping them regulate emotions and relieving stress, so it’s very similar to what we’ve already been talking about. And people who have these disorders and listen to music generally respond very positively to it, and they react to it, you’ll see their eyes light up, and they may start moving and singing. And these effects last for several minutes, even after the music is turned off we can still see the changes in the brain with MRI. And basically we think that this works because it’s creating an environment where neuroplasticity can happen. So this idea of neuroplasticity, that we can make new connections, is important here.

Jim Donovan: So you think we can even make those new connections even if someone’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

Dr. Willford: In the functioning neurons that remain, yes. The sick neurons, no. It’s not going to be a cure per se, but it can help maintain function for as long as possible, and it can also improve quality of life significantly. What’s interesting is, in this kind of area of research, we know that patients who have these disorders, when they listen to music, they respond better when they listen to music that they grew up with. And the reason for that is that we think that it’s really important, the important piece to that is that it’s not just the music, but it’s the link between the music and the emotional experience, and the emotional memories.

Jim Donovan: All those things play together and reinforce the powerful connection, that makes sense. Just one more thing. So one of the things we do on the podcast is we always want to leave the listener with one thing that they can do to make their life better. And so what I’m wondering is, of all the things that you teach, what’s one thing that we can leave our listeners with that they can do right away to optimize their brain health?

Dr. Willford: Okay. Well this is a perfect segue from your last question actually, because what I think people should do is, and it’s Friday, so this is possible, I think people should grab a friend, go to a concert, and dance. And the reason for this is that in doing so, your brain is going to benefit from social connection, it’s going to benefit from the music, and it’s going to benefit from the movement. And all of these are activities that build our brain health and resilience. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun, and I like to have fun.

Jim Donovan: I couldn’t agree more. And even if you don’t have a concert venue near your house, just put on your jams, turn out the lights and go.

Dr. Willford: Yep, exactly.

Jim Donovan: Get the cat and the dog there, if you’re by yourself in the house, and just have a party. But move your body, I’m hearing you say, move it to music. Even if you stink at dancing it still works.

Dr. Willford: It’s absolutely so important to move our bodies. And I’m not talking about go out and run five miles, I mean get up in your living room and dance and move your body. Movement is probably … I think very soon we’re going to see doctors prescribing movement.

Jim Donovan: I’m anxiously waiting for that day.

Dr. Willford: It helps protect our brains in general, but it especially helps protect our brains as we age. So it is really, really important. I think the singing, the friends, and the dancing are all the three ingredients that you need.

Jim Donovan: Perfect. Well that is so helpful. Hey Jen, I just want to thank you for your time. And if our listeners, if you have a question for Dr. Jennifer Wilford, you can reach her at Jennifer.Willford, that’s W-I-L-L-F-O-R-D,

([email protected]). And that’ll be in the show notes as well, so if you want to check it out there, you could do that. And remember you can always reach me here with all of your comments and feedback, and the email for that is [email protected]. Well that’s it for this episode everybody. Jen, thank you so much, and we’ll see everyone next time.

Dr. Willford: Thanks Jim.


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