How many times have you read a description of two people who meet on the street and “fall into step?”
Have you noticed sometimes you and your walking partner have synchronized your steps, without thinking about it?
This unconscious synchronization is called entrainment. Here’s how the Cambridge dictionary defines the verb “to entrain:”
the process of making something have the same pattern or rhythm as something else:
Brainwave entrainment is any practice that aims to cause brainwave frequencies to fall into step with a periodic stimulus.
Entrainment means synchronization of the beats of music with natural body function, or processes.
In my medical practice, I am interested in entrainment as a technique for people with neurological disorders, to help them walk or speak.
But before we talk about the health implications, it’s noteworthy that, while it has been observed across the natural world in a variety of disciplines—from geography, to meteorology to fluid dynamics—why entrainment occurs can be difficult to explain.
One particularly confounding example from the world of physics was noted by the extraordinary scientist Christiaan Huygens.
Shortly after Huygens invented the pendulum clock in 1665, he noticed that two nearby clocks were showing an ‘odd sympathy’. The devices were oscillating together, but in opposite directions. Neither Huygens—whose discoveries many rank as more fundamental than those of even Isaac Newton— nor any of his contemporaries were able to explain why—for centuries! Even today the phenomenon is still not fully understood.
Meanwhile, in human society, we find entrainment all around us: audiences often clap together, and people fall into chorus when the birthday cake is presented.
So how can we use this natural, albeit peculiar, anomaly of spontaneous synchronization to our medical advantage?
In rehabilitation, entrainment techniques are used for a range of conditions. Speech therapists use entrainment to help a person learn to speak again after stroke or traumatic brain injury, requiring a person to mimic the speech of an audiovisual model in real time. Often the individual, who cannot speak spontaneously, can copy someone else’s speech. But does that benefit them in generating their own speech? In one study by an Icelandic speech language pathologist, most people with non-fluent aphasia improved markedly in the accuracy of their spoken language. And many also were able to speak faster or to say more words at a time.
Many people with Parkinson’s disease (although not all) find that gait becomes smoother and more regular if they can listen to specific music or follow a visual cue.
Pamela Quinn, a professional dancer who has lived with Parkinson’s for decades, wrote about how she has employed entrainment on her blog. Her observations and advice are especially useful, as no particular training or equipment is needed. Just look and listen. Entrainment allows the person to pick up nearby cues and put them to work.
Entrainment can also address other symptoms. In my personal practice, one patient has a severe tremor that does not respond well to medication. But the tremor is reduced when she listens to music. “But only classical music,” she observes. “And Mozart is the best.”
So whether it’s John Philip Sousa or Wolfgang himself, let rhythms seep into your brain and guide your actions.
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