Music, Speech and Mirror Neurons

This week as I worked with my client, who was a victim of a brain injury, I was struck by the intensity of her watchfulness as we sang a children’s tune together, pronouncing letter sounds. When I see this client start to fade the specific mouth movements in singing words, I employ this song.

Firstly, it is a children’s tune, an early embedded memory. The tune is well-known, predictable, and an old memory (embedded early on). It is also very repetitive,predictable. and gives several chances to see, hear, and pronounce the letter sounds. My client is motivated by its familiarity, pulled by its constant rhythm, and has several chances to not only hear, participate, and practice, but also to succeed. Additionally, I printed a book of the letters to see. I instigate her success as she flips each page when there is a pause in the singing as I list the letters up to that point for her to fill in. Essentially, as a verbal pause occurs, I facilitate the verbal memory by keeping the embedded alphabet fresh. As I was struck by the intensity of her watchfulness, the term that literally popped into my head was” mirror neurons.” As I thought of this term, I had to read some more on mirror neurons. The information found in this blog was taken from two articles: “Being together in Time: Musical Experience And The Mirror Neuron System,” by Katie Overy and Ivan Molnar-Szakacs, and a review  “From Music Making to Speaking: Engaging the Mirror Neuron System in Autism,” by Catherine Y. Wan, Krystal Demaine, Lauryn Zipse, Andrea Norton, and Gottfried Schlaug.

Mirror neurons, it is believed, fire when an action is executed and the same action is observed or heard. In other words, mirror neurons engage perception and comprehension of motor actions. It captivates higher order cognitive processes, such as imitation.

To begin, we have well-established joint attention between the client and myself. Joint-attention is something which language development needs an established affiliation with to establish. Also needed is a  level of synchronization in motor representation between listener and speaker

Secondly,clear speech perception and pronunciation in my client  involves watching my lips and mouth movements. In this experience, embedded are mouth movements, visual perceptions, and auditory perceptions, essentially a  multi-sensory systems aiding to strengthen the partnership between the symbols (letters) and their sounds. This of course requires the presence of another and cannot be done with just recorded music. Besides this, the actual music-making information is used to imitate, predict, synchronize, and perform an expressive act.

The best part of this, for my client, is that it reduces, or possibly even dismisses, the distraction, over-stimulation, and intricacies of everything else going on int he world around her. She is focused, participatory (at many levels), successful, and enjoys herself building confidence for the inevitable next challenge.

She is a person, functioning differently than she had previously. Her brain, at an unconscious level, is understanding actions (letter-sound production) of another. Her brain is not a stand-alone stimulus response machine. Brain function is closely linked with the body. It is so much easier, relate-able, and motivating to synchronize with another human than a recording. And how much more inviting , rewarding and motivating for her!

Antoinette Morrison, MT-BC

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