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Reflections of a Medical Student: Using Music as Medicine

As a medical student who excels in science and is embarrassingly average in visual arts, I have always considered the two very much separate entities. Science was always taught as a very mechanical, methodical process of discovery, while art was mostly a means of individualised expression and release. It wasn’t until I had the pleasure of working with Geordan Shannon that I realised this is definitely not the case.

One incredible example of the way in which science and arts overlap is in medicine, particularly the use of music therapy for premature babies. The stress on a premature baby is immense. Transitioning from the comforting womb to an incubator full of wires and tubes in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is not ideal. Typically, auditory development is aided by sounds heard in the womb. 18 weeks gestation usually shows an increase in heart rate in response to loud noises, suggesting differentiation between normal and irregular noises. At 29 weeks gestation, there is consistent responses to certain auditory stimuli. From 30 weeks, foetuses hear and respond to maternal sounds, and start to discriminate between speech sounds, such as pitch and rhythm. However, this is disrupted if the baby is born prematurely, with the unavoidable ambient noise, consisting of irregular frequencies and unnatural patterns, being highly stressful and tiring. In addition to decreased development in the womb, limited parent/newborn interactions and stressful post-birth procedures can also interrupt neurological development and maturation. Therefore, to minimise the negative impact of starting life in an incubator, carefully-chosen music, with preferred frequencies and harmonics, is used to increase pleasant and soothing feelings.

The ultimate outcome of music therapy for premature babies is a decrease in stress. Initially, it increases regular breathing patterns and oxygenation, which consequently improves both breathing and heart rate. This leads to more comfort in feeding and sleeping, which overall minimises internal stress. If the results of music therapy are maintained, the amount of time spent in the NICU is drastically reduced. Playing recorded, carefully selected lullabies not only calms infants and reduces stress, but also increases language stimulation. Language information combined with rhythmic stimuli encourages the auditory connections that would be made in the womb, allowing for minimal complications with auditory processing development and future communication disorders. In addition, recorded music can be used as a reinforcement tool to encourage sucking and improve feeding ability. The pacifier-activated lullaby system uses the pressure of a baby sucking on a soothing device to automatically play a pre-recorded lullaby. The resulting decrease in stress from the lullaby then encourages the baby to continue sucking on the soother, promoting the development of feeding. In addition to lullabies, live music, such as singing or playing guitar, is also greatly beneficial. Because babies can adapt to the environment, live music can be more personalised. Parents can choose songs specific to their culture, such as a Hebrew prayer, for continuity when the baby goes home. Additionally, singing lullabies can maintain homeostasis to enhance neurological development, which promotes tolerance for stimulation and touch.

This is just one of the many examples in which art and science are closely linked. As the connection between the two becomes more evident, “out of the box” thinking in both scientific and medical areas is becoming increasingly valued, suggesting that the future of scientific development will be heavily influenced by creativity.

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