3 Questions that Parents and Therapists Ask About Rhythm for Optional Brain Growth

For 20 years I have studied how music shapes the brain from infancy, how we “feel the beat” inside, and how musical abilities are preserved even in Deafness, Blindness and Congenital Amusia… all because of the special powers of rhythm. But it was only when I had my son, who was diagnosed at age 3 with Sensory Processing Disorder, that I realized the extent to which the special powers of rhythm to heal can affect atypical childhood brain development—and why. (Want a hint? It’s much more than the sounds that we hear, and really depends on the beat that we FEEL).

So if you are a parent just learning about the Growing Brains approach to Optimal Brain Growth, or an educator or therapist who is looking for evidence that rhythm can support sensorimotor integration (including vestibular!) during child development, this article is for you. (While you’re here, look around the Growing Brains website and make sure you watch my FREE video series on music for your child’s brain, called Finding Rhythm, Building Connection: it’s all about concrete ways that music can support you and your child from pregnancy through the preschool years and beyond!)

Now, let’s talk about that beautiful 6-letter word: RHYTHM.

There are so many reasons that I have been inspired to dedicate my life’s work to understanding the role of rhythm in brain development, healing, and connection. Here, I want to focus on answering the following 3 questions that parents, educators and therapists may have, based as always on evidence from music neuroscience, and wisdom from the arts and healing: 1) How does the brain process rhythm in music? 2) How does rhythm support other, non-musical skills in my child? 3) How can rhythm help my child find a deeper level of connection with family and the larger community?

Let’s dive in!

1. How does the brain process rhythm in music? The brain processes rhythm by combining what we HEAR with what we FEEL. Imagine that your favorite dance song comes on—what do you do? You listen to the sounds, and you (probably) immediately start to move to the beat, right? That’s because rhythm connects sound and movement, which means integrating many regions of the brain — in particular, auditory, vestibular and motor regions. My research showed that when babies and adults “feel the beat” in music by moving in time, they rely on vestibular information from head & body movement to shape how they “hear” the rhythm. In other words, when we MOVE our bodies (and our babies’ bodies) to music, it helps us understand the rhythm structure. For these reasons, I call rhythm an auditory-vestibulomotor phenomenon—which means that it integrates the brain and body. This is crucial for optimal brain functioning. In fact, when there is a disruption of sensorimotor integration, it can result in a musical disorder like Beat Deafness (the inability to feel the beat and synchronize body movement in time to music).

So the main thing I want you to understand about how the brain processes music is that what we hear and what we feel are inextricably connected. Rhythm is a tool for “sensorimotor integration”: it helps the brain integrate the information that comes in through the senses with motor output—our movements. This is VERY important in child development, which is why effective pedagogies and therapeutic interventions for children recognize the need to incorporate movement and sensory refinement into learning. Here’s how I like to think about the role of movement through rhythm in terms of child development: movement is not just important for exercise—movement actually shapes the information that comes into the brain, and shapes what the child learns.

2. How does rhythm support other, non-musical skills in my child? By combining sensory information with motor information, rhythm promotes a good sense of TIMING. This sense of timing helps with motor planning and execution, meaning that we can control not only what body movements we make, but when we make them. Music and dance demand very high levels of precision in timing, so they strengthen perception and motor control. But the effects are not limited to music and dance—timing is important in many types of coordinated movement, including sports and other activities requiring motor control. Another, perhaps less well-known, role of timing information is that it underlies skills in language and reading. In fact, impaired timing related to sensorimotor integration can predict speech deficits and developmental dyslexia. So, rhythm is important not just because it makes us move, but because it makes us move with precise timing.

In addition to the benefits of good timing that are important for music and language, we can also think about what I call self-mastery: the ability of the child to have self-control in how they tune in to their senses (as in listening), move their body, and respond to their environment (including the people around them). The more a child develops their sense of timing, the more refined their perception is, and the more skillful their movements are. We see this when a child plays an instrument, sings in tune, dances in time, controls their volume of speech, chooses purposeful and appropriate movements, listens mindfully, and understands other people’s communication and movements. The key to self-mastery is that the child CHOOSES how they focus their attention, and how they act—they are in control. This is a source of empowerment for the child, and the child that is empowered through self-mastery is less likely to act out, and more likely to cooperate from a sense of autonomy and pride. (Doesn’t that all sound good?)

3. How can rhythm help my child find a deeper level of connection with family and the larger community? Rhythm is, above all, a tool for connection. When we move together in time — to the beat — we experience synchronization which is a form of “temporal connection”. That, in turn, facilitates in “affective connection” — meaning emotional synchrony, a shared state of emotion. Think back to that favorite song that gets you moving to the beat: what are your fondest memories of it? Chances are, you remember a time when moving, singing or dancing together made you feel connected—to the musicians, to the people you swayed with, to your family or your community if the song represented the place where you belong.

This is why the human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to process rhythm: because rhythm connects us. When we come together in time and in emotion, we break down barriers; we enter into a shared state of being. We can connect and identify despite differences, even without words. We experience a deeper well of empathy. And, we are more likely to cooperate and help others—remember those babies that felt the beat of the rhythm through their body movement? Subsequent research showed that toddlers who moved with a stranger while listening to a rhythm were more likely to help them if they had moved in sync with the stranger, as opposed to out-of-sync with them. When we move together in time, we share emotion, and we want to cooperate—even from infancy.

Now, how has all of this affected my understanding of my son? His condition, Sensory Processing Disorder, is known to affect how his brain takes in information from the senses, how he plans and executes movements, and how he regulates emotion. There are many potential reasons for this, but one of the most important that has been observed by therapists comes down to the very important role of the vestibular system in sensorimotor integration. (Imagine my excitement at learning this, as someone who was already fascinated by the role of the vestibular system in the musical brain!) And therapeutic strategies for the disorder are often focused on finding proper vestibular stimulation, in ways that will mediate their perception and behavior.

So, in addition to his regular occupational therapy, I have utilized rhythm as a tool to support brain growth in the ways that are optimal for HIM. This means: encouraging rhythmic music and movement to help him integrate brain and body; supporting his sense of self-mastery in the environments that feel safe for him; and observing his ability to feel connected to others, and to demonstrate his own skills in empathy and cooperation even in his preschool years.

So for parents, educators and therapists who are looking to support Optimal Brain Growth, you’re going to have a hard time finding a tool that works better than rhythm! Rhythm integrates the brain and body, underlies skills in language and literacy, promotes self-mastery AND empathy for others… all that, while letting us groove to the beat. What’s better than that?

***For more information on how you can support your child, or how your organization can support Optimal Brain Growth for children, book a free consultation with Dr. Jessica!

Book here your free session here: https://growingbrainswithdrjessica.as.me/

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