Communal singing was once a regular part of life, and still is in some parts of the world. These days, however, we largely leave the singing to the stars, reality singing TV shows, and drunken karaoke nights. And it’s too bad — science shows singing is enormously beneficial to the brain.
Even though language is more of a left-brain task, singing activates the right temporal lobe of the brain, thanks to the rhythmic melodies that require the right brain’s involvement. In fact, some people who lose the ability to speak due to left brain damage are still able to sing.
Researchers have long been working with singing as a way to help rehabilitate speech. The areas of the right brain involved with singing are eventually able to compensate for the damaged left brain so that the person learns to speak again.
Singing also benefits people not suffering from brain injury. One study looked at the brains of singers versus non-singers and found singers had greater connections between different areas of the brain, especially on the left side. Researchers say this is because the left side of the brain is involved in language and articulation while the right side is involved in pitch and melody.
In our digital age of information overload, the left brain is beleaguered with non-stop evaluation, processing, and analyzing all the information thrown at us. Singing nurtures the right side of the brain, which governs intuition, imagination, and creativity, and can not only help improve overall brain health, but also simply make us feel better.
Studies show many benefits to singing, including:
- Releases serotonin, the brain chemical that keeps depression at bay
- Releases oxytocin, the love and bonding hormone
- Releases endorphins, our internal feel-good chemicals
- Lowers the stress hormone cortisol
- Communal singing even synchronizes people’s heartbeats, fostering connection and community. Singing is believed to have evolved in humans to enhance survival by fostering cooperation between people, building trust and loyalty, transmit information, and ward off enemies. Churches, choirs, and kirtans are examples where you can sing together with others.
Taken together these effects lower inflammation, elevate mood, calm anxiety and stress, strengthen bonds and trust between people, and reduce loneliness and depression.
Singing could be good for your gut
Singing has another potential benefit, especially if you do it really loudly in the shower or in your car — it can strengthen the vagus nerve, the “information highway” between the brain and the gut.
The vagus nerve is a large nerve that runs between the brain and the digestive organs. Information travels back and forth between the brain and the gut via the vagus. It explains why brain issues can cause gut issues and vice versa. For example, a poor diet or unhealthy gut bacteria can cause depression while a brain injury can suddenly cause irresolvable gut issues.
If brain health is poor or if the brain has suffered damage, the vagus nerve can under function, compromising communication between the gut and the brain. Exercises to strengthen the vagus nerve can be profoundly effective in improving this connection and overall function of both the brain and the gut.
Vagus nerve exercises include gargling vigorously several times a day, pressing on the back of your tongue with a tongue depressor, and, you guessed it, singing loudly. Take advantage of having the house or the car to yourself to really belt out some tunes so your vagus nerve is robustly activated.
The most important thing to know about singing is you don’t have to be good at it. Everyone’s voice has meaning and purpose, including yours.
Ask my office how singing and other forms of neurological rehabilitation and optimization can help improve your brain function.