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Music and the brain: how listening to music can get you out of a slump

Music and the brain - girl listening to music

Music is the universal language. It’s a therapist, a healer, an old friend, a memory, a warm blanket, a trip to a faraway land, and a fire under our ass. It can inspire and motivate us, it can send us crashing to the ground in a pool of sorrow, it can bring us back to a single day of our childhood, sitting on our grandma’s lap with a popsicle in our hand, breathing in the smell of the cottonwoods and listening to the wind chimes.

When we listen to music, we are not only tuning in with our ears, but our hearts and minds and souls.

Music and the mind: music is the soundtrack to our lives and the blood in our veins.

I’ve written about mindfulness here before, but really, being mindful all boils down to staying rooted in the present moment. There are several ways to approach mindfulness, the most obvious ones are usually focusing on the breath, doing yoga, meditation, hiking, etc., but music is sort of the unsung hero of mindfulness.

Music has the power to completely change our lives if we truly tune in and we allow it to activate the parts of our brains that only music can.

When I was 16 years old, I left a toxic home environment and was living alone in a one-bedroom apartment with no furniture, a twin-sized mattress, and a CD player on the floor. I had no dishes, no couch, no shower curtain, and no table to eat off of. But I was finally free and I had my big-ass book of punk CDs and those CDs were my lifeblood. I would sit alone in that empty apartment for hours and hours and hours on end and listen to songs filled with words that I needed to hear but no one else was saying to me; words that told me that I wasn’t a victim of my circumstance, but a warrior and a rebel and a fighter and a trailblazer.

Songs that reminded me that I owe nothing to anyone but myself, to never look down and to keep my focus on my own lane and my own goals and my own dreams, not on the negativity and drama that was swirling around me trying to derail me. The ritualistic act of placing a CD in an empty disc slot, opening the liner notes, putting on my headphones, and fully immersing myself in the sound and the words on the page and the deeper meaning of it all was the epitome of staying rooted in the present moment.

Music and the brain - guy listening to music

When we go to a concert, we are fully present. We aren’t thinking about our appointments and that assignment that’s due or that guy who cut us off in traffic, because none of it matters. All that ever matters is the here and now.

I didn’t know what “mindfulness” was at the time, but in those moments, with all of those positive messages seeping in to my soul, I was tuning out the world of negativity I had escaped from and was focusing only on the present moment. Looking back now, I can say with absolute certainty that the band Face to Face literally saved me from a life that could have very easily been filled with regrettable decisions. That would have been the easy way out, but music came to my rescue at a time in my life when no one else was around to be that life raft for me and it forced me to believe in myself when no one else did.

Thankfully, it steered me down a path of bettering myself and giving a big middle finger to anyone who tried to stop me.

This is your brain on music: it activates nearly every part of the brain:

…the cerebellum, both auditory cortices, the memory centers, hippocampus, language centers, and the lowest parts of the frontal lobe.

When our brains are firing on all cylinders, it sparks our flow and gets our heart pumping, acting as a source of strength and creative energy that literally transports us to another dimension. When we find a piece of music we relate to, it reminds us that our pain is not unique only to ourselves, but that we all suffer, we all dream, we all love, we all rage, we all experience sorrow and loss. So not only are we bringing awareness to our own state of being, but also to the connection we all share in this wild ride called life. Recognizing ourselves in another is the true definition of compassion. Compassion breeds love, and love is really all there is. Buddhists call this metta, or the act of loving-kindness, benevolence, and goodwill toward others.

Music makes us more compassionate!

Can you imagine doing a high-intensity cardio workout without music? Or dining at a fancy Italian restaurant without music? Without music, what would we dance to?  Next time you go to turn something on, pause for a minute and ask yourself “what mood will this put me in? How do I want to feel? What do I hope to get out of this song or band or experience?”

Pay attention to how you are affected by the lyrics, the tone, and the message. There is one “artist” in particular whom, when I hear their music, it makes me absolutely cringe and want to pour acid in my ears, but right now, I’m hanging out with Miles Davis.

What gets your juices flowing?

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No fluff or "pie in the sky inspiration." Just real stories.

Written by Sarah Mickulesku

Sarah is the founder and curator of AmongtheRoots.com. She received her BA in Journalism from Metro State University and is the author of the children's book, "The Woodchuck That Could Chuck". Sarah is a minimalist, rule-breaker, adventure-seeker and non-conformist. She currently lives in Denver where she spends most of her time immersed in the woods with her two children and her dog.

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