This is one of a series of articles written by upper year McMaster University Health Sciences students. This week’s blog is written by Rahul Kapur.
Time and again, it has been shown through research that music is able to connect people, creating and strengthening our social bonds. Of course, we can read about this subject, and how our brains react to music to allow us to grow closer with others, but I realized that it’s hard to truly understand this phenomenon until you experience it. This realization came about when I was helping out with a thesis study, through Room 217, on the effects of music versus poetry in alleviating palliative care symptoms. I didn’t know what to expect going into this, but coming out of it, I can attest from my own experience that music really does bring people closer together.
For this study, I was initially assigned to listen to poetry with a resident at a hospice. When I first met the resident, he seemed kind and honest, but it was a little harder to open up to each other at this point because we had spent so little time together, most of which was spent listening to poetry. Eventually, after three days of listening to the poetry, he had said that the intervention wasn’t really hitting the mark for him, and we decided that we would switch over to music. Part of the protocol was being flexible to the resident’s needs and desires – since music is known to have beneficial effects in palliative care, while poetry is more uncertain, the resident was given the option to switch from poetry to music if they desired. And after doing so, it was as if a switch had clicked, and our relationship dynamic began to flourish.
In our sessions together, we began bonding over listening to songs we both enjoyed, sharing our favourite Broadway musicals, showing each other songs from our different generations. Once the session itself had completed, we would linger and chat with each other, and slowly began connecting on other levels too – sharing about our families, our upbringings, our passions. By the last day, after having listened to music from the WWII era, the song selections stimulated a heart-to-heart about our values, our beliefs, the nature of humanity, and our hopes and grievances with the state of the world right now. Listening to music together for a mere 15 minutes allowed us to become more open and friendlier with each other. By the end of the week, as we shared drinks together over our final session, I was reluctant to even leave from this unexpected friendship. And to think it all started with music.
The bond that developed with the resident can be explained, to some extent, by the effect music has on our bodies. Musical activities, whether it be playing and creating music, or even simply passively listening to music as we were, have been shown to increase levels of a hormone called oxytocin in the body. Oxytocin is released by the posterior pituitary gland of the brain, into the blood, and has a role in mediating social connection and affiliation by regulating stress and anxiety, affect, and perception of social information. The hormone also causes indirect effects that promote the development of trust with another person, increasing the person’s willingness to share their emotions. From a biochemical perspective, this could have explained how and why the resident and I were willing to engage in emotional sharing, becoming more vulnerable and open with one another.
Regardless of whether oxytocin stimulated by the music or other factors were allowing for a social connection to be formed, a connection formed nonetheless. It was so interesting to see how a person I was a complete stranger to had become the highlight of my day for an entire week. I actively looked forward to going to spend time at the hospice, listen to music, share our stories, talk about our lives and our thoughts, and just have fun with each other. It was a very fulfilling and warming experience, and I’m thankful that music was able to help me form this unlikely friendship.