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If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.
The Grateful Dead. (Photo: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

The Grateful Dead. (Photo: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

Up until a few years ago, when I returned home from two tours as an Infantryman in Iraq, if I referenced the Grateful Dead, the ultimate baby boomer counterculture band, it was usually as the punch line to a joke about their cult-like army of followers or the hours-long jam sessions their live shows consisted of. I never saw myself as the type of person who would listen to them.

I would have stayed the course, listening to more conventionally “cool” music, were it not for the periodic bouts of anxiety that I had brought back with me from Iraq. There was sleeplessness, hyperawareness, diffuse and undefined anxiety, and depression—the typical mélange of symptoms usually attributed to post-traumatic stress. On nights that I couldn’t sleep—and on days that I couldn’t function—I’d spend hours with music. I began with the songs that I was already familiar with—classic and independent rock mostly. But being able to sing along to tunes I knew from childhood and high school became a tedious comfort, and so, with the help of Spotify and YouTube, I began searching for more options.

Listening to pleasurable music boosts levels of an antibody associated with immunity, immunoglobin A, along with other cells that fight infections.

I don’t remember exactly when I decided on the Grateful Dead; there wasn’t a Eureka moment. I just slowly realized that they were frequently coming up in my playlists. A majority of the time that I was listening to music at all, in fact, I was listening to the Dead. They made me feel blissful, to put it simply. That may be hard to take seriously in a post-modern milieu that demands every thinking person be a cynic, but for me, healing from the experience of war, the nourishment that I received completely overshadowed any knee-jerk embarrassment.

I’M NOT THE FIRST to make a connection between the music of the Grateful Dead and psychological healing. The much-loved neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote about just such a connection in his New York Review of Books essay “The Last Hippie.” In it, Sacks tells the story of Greg, a young man growing up in New York City amid the heady, mind-expanding countercultural apex of the late ’60s. Greg goes about checking all of the boxes of the youth movement experience: He moves to the Village, does a copious amount of LSD, attends live performances of the poet Allen Ginsberg, and obsesses over the music of the Dead. Following a familiar trajectory, he eventually trades in his bohemianism for the New Age and joins the Hare Krishnas; as his devotion deepens, Greg’s contact with his family all but ceases. They had no way of knowing he was suffering from health issues.

When his family was finally able to visit him years later in New Orleans, Greg was completely blind and suffering from severe cognitive impairments. A benign tumor had been left to grow in his brain, wreaking havoc on his frontal lobes. His memories of the ’60s were vivid, fresh, and accessible—but he was completely unable to make new ones. Even simple musical melodies that Sacks would play for Greg were quickly forgotten. Sacks suspected that it might be good to expose Greg to music that he remembered from the past, only in a new setting, and so he took him to a 1991 Grateful Dead concert at Madison Square Garden, where, Sacks writes, Greg came alive. The frontal lobes, parts of the brain that play a role in higher functions like memory and personality, had been damaged by the tumor, leaving Greg in something of a stupor. But at the concert, Greg was thrilled, exuberant ... blissful.

THE STORY OF MY own relationship with the music of the Grateful Dead isn’t nearly as dramatic as Greg’s, but my epiphany felt just as real. The chill that I get from a transcendent Jerry Garcia solo isn’t mine alone; it has been proven by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro that music can cause obvious and measurable physiological effects..

For a study conducted at the school in 2010, and written about in Social Psychological and Personality Science, participants occasionally exhibited physical responses to music, including “goose bumps and shivers on the neck, scalp, and spine….” It stands to reason that if music can lead to shivers and goose bumps, it might be tied to even more complex changes in the human body, and specifically the brain. When I’m listening to a particularly moving Grateful Dead song, the upbeat psychedelic blues of “The Eleven” from their 1968 Lake Tahoe performance, for instance, am I just getting chills, or is something more profound happening?

The benefits of music are as profound as they are complex, according to an analysis of nearly 400 clinical studies on the subject. The analysis, conducted by researchers at McGill University in Montreal, took a meta view of hundreds of test scenarios that posed very specific questions: Does music affect cortisol levels? Is there a relationship between listening to music and the immune system?

The McGill researchers grouped otherwise very narrow findings together in order to answer a larger question: Can music be used, like a chemical drug, to heal? In short, yes. How exactly that happens on a biochemical level is still being explored, but analysis of the data strongly suggests that listening to pleasurable music boosts levels of an antibody associated with immunity, immunoglobin A, along with other cells that fight infections.

Music also fights stress. In one of the studies analyzed, participants about to go under surgery were given either anti-anxiety drugs or made to listen to relaxing music. Those who had listened to music rated their stress levels lower than those who had taken drugs. The levels of cortisol, a steroid hormone associated with stress, were also lower in the subjects that had listened to music. They were objectively less stressed than the people who had taken anti-anxiety medication. “The promise here is that music is less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and doesn’t have side effects,” Daniel Levitin, one of the authors of the meta-analysis, told CNN.

MUSIC HAS BEEN USED informally as therapy for all of recorded human history—either in ceremonial settings, as essential elements of shamanic practices, or cathartic private moments—but we’re beginning to see inroads in musical therapy being formally embraced by modern health care institutions. One of the most promising programs is called Guitars for Vets, a non-profit based out of Milwaukee that gives veterans suffering from PTSD and physical war injuries a guitar and 10 free lessons. Results are still being compiled, but testimonials are encouraging. “I came in here with some real serious anger issues,” Dan Mathes, a combat veteran who participated in the program, told a Virginia ABC affiliate. “This takes my mind off everything.” The non-profit has partnered with the Veterans Administration to be offered in 38 locations, and has served over 2,000 veterans. We can’t say with certainty how music is healing combat veterans, but thanks to the McGill analysis, we at least know that their anxiety levels are probably decreasing and their immune systems are getting a boost.

"The Grateful Dead made people smile, and we had rhythm, melody, and harmony. It was medicine to many people."

It’s difficult for me to describe how a choice selection of Grateful Dead music makes me feel without slipping into the cliché or maudlin. As one of the Grateful Dead’s drummers, Mickey Hart, put it, “The Grateful Dead made people smile, and we had rhythm, melody, and harmony. It was medicine to many people.” Hart has been at the forefront of exploring these medicinal uses of music. It was Hart, in fact, that gave Oliver Sacks and Greg tickets to that Madison Square Garden show. Hart is a regular attendee of the University of California-San Francisco’s “Music Day” celebration at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, using his decades of experience to lead drum circles and guide explorations of group music-making. The entire point of Music Day is to explore the ways in which music can be used to fight anxiety and depression, and, quite literally, alter consciousness. Michael Towne, the manager of Child Life Services at Benioff, explained that, “[m]usic is fundamental to who we are as people. So music education and music therapy provide an amazing outlet for children here. It helps them deal with their hospitalization. It helps them cope.”

Greg’s story has a melancholy ending. Sacks returns Greg to the hospital still riding a euphoric high from the Grateful Dead show. But when Sacks visits the next day, Greg doesn’t remember a thing. Any kind of medicine, any method of therapy, can only do so much, and one concert wasn’t enough to repair the damage done to Greg’s frontal lobes. The story of musical therapy moving into the mainstream, however, is only really beginning.

My own anecdotal experience of healing with the Dead is just that, anecdotal. But it is one coordinate on a larger map of evidence that’s coming to illustrate a profound and relatively unexplored method of healing the brain.