Brain in sync during therapy

02 August 2019

BRAIN-ABSTRACT-ART

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How the brain activity of a therapist and a patient "syncs up" during a music therapy session has been revealed for the first time...

Published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the new study used a method called hyperscanning and involved both the therapist and patient wearing EEG (electroencephalogram) caps. These caps "record the electrical activity from several locations of the head," says study author Clemens Maidhof from Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge.

This activity corresponds to the firing of clusters of nerve cells in the brain below. Maidhof and his colleagues monitored the activity in the left and right parts of the frontal lobes, where thoughts and emotions originate, and where responses are planned.

"We use music therapy to interact with the person,” says Jorg Fachner, lead author of the study. The therapist and patient listened to a programme of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Berloiz, and discussed the mental imagery that each piece of music provoked in them.

Music therapists look for “moments of interest” where they “feel a change in the patient,” says Fachner. These changes are often based on changes in facial expressions or posture. For example, “crossing your arms,” adds Fachner.

In this particular session, the patient was seeking to reduce their anxiety and wanted to feel hope. During the session, the emotions were mostly observed to “be negative,” Fachner explained. This was until the patient experienced a “moment of change” during a choral section of the Shepherd’s Farewell by Berlioz, where the electrical signals indicated more positive thoughts.

Critically, the electrical signals recorded from the therapist's brain also changed at this same moment, in sync with the patient.

This is the first dataset to show this alignment of EEG responses between a therapist and a patient using hyperscanning. The method shows promise for helping to understand emotional changes in people who find verbal communication challenging.

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