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Cerebral Melodies: Improving emergency response through music

Human brains are powerful instruments. The Department of Homeland Security wants to help emergency responders manage their demanding jobs better using the music created by them. Every brain has a soundtrack. Its tempo and tone will vary, depending on mood, frame of mind, and other features of the brain itself. When recorded and played back to an emergency responder, say a firefighter, it may sharpen their reflexes during a crisis, and calm their nerves afterward.

Over the past decade, the influence of music on cognitive development, learning, and emotional well-being has emerged as a hot field of scientific study. To explore music’s potential relevance to emergency response, the Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) has begun a study into a form of neurotraining called “Brain Music” that uses music created in advance from listeners’ own brain waves to help them deal with common ailments like insomnia, fatigue, and headaches stemming from stressful environments.

“Because of the strains that come with an emergency response job, we are interested in finding ways to help these workers remain at the top of their game when working and get quality rest when they go off a shift,” said Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Program Manager Robert Burns. “Our goal is to find new ways to help first responders perform at the highest level possible, without increasing tasks, training, or stress levels.”

If the brain “composes” the music, the first job of scientists is to take down the notes. Each recording is converted into two unique musical compositions designed to trigger the body’s natural responses, for example, by improving productivity while at work, or helping adjust to constantly changing work hours. The compositions are clinically shown to promote one of two mental states in each individual: relaxation – for reduced stress and improved sleep; and alertness – for improved concentration and decision-making.

Each 2–6 minute track is a composition performed on a single instrument, usually a piano. The relaxation track may sound like a “melodic, subdued Chopin sonata,” while the alertness track may have “more of a Mozart sound,” according to Burns. (It seems there’s a classical genius—or maybe two genii—in all of us.) Listen to an example of an instrumental alert track.

After their brain waves are set to music, each person is given a specific listening schedule, such as once an hour for four hours each day, personalized to their work environment and needs. After an extended length of time, people may be able to listen to the music more sporadically. If used properly, the music can boost productivity and energy levels, or trigger a body’s natural responses to stress. A selected group of firefighters will be the first emergency responders taking part in the project.

The music is created by Human Bionics LLC, with the project conducted through the TechSolutions Program, in conjunction with the Human Factors Behavior Sciences Division. It is being tested as part of the Readiness Optimization Program (ROP), a wellness program that combines nutrition education and neurotraining to evaluate a cross population of first responders, including federal agents, police, and firefighters.

Since the ROP is supposed to help them sleep more soundly and eat healthier, the benefits should extend beyond the work environment and ultimately improve one’s entire life.

The nutrition component of the ROP has grown out of numerous clinical studies on nutrition and brain development, sleep, and aging, as well as from the fields of military and sports medicine. The Brain Music component is derived from patented technology developed at Moscow University to use brain waves as a feedback mechanism to correct physiological conditions.

The concept of Brain Music is to use the frequency, amplitude, and duration of musical sounds to move the brain from an anxious state to a more relaxed state. In British philosopher John Locke’s terms, Brain Music brings new meaning to his famous phrase: “A sound mind in a sound body, is a short, but full description of a happy state in this World.”

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 01/03/2023
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