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Sanchita Sharma, Health Editor, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, January 05, 2013
Personal tragedies aside, news reports from Delhi and across India over past few weeks have left us all shaken and stirred. At times like this, when my thoughts jump all over the place, the only thing that can get some semblance of calm in my head is music.

It doesn't have to be CDs off the rack that offer you compilations to "nod off", "breathe deeply" or "meditate" by. Anything works, as long as you like it. For me, for example, only music that is loud and not "calming" has the desired numbing affect because it effectively blocks out nasty, disturbing thoughts.

That music is a better mood changer than expensive neighbourhood therapists is scientifically established. Music works on the reward centres of the brain that respond to pleasurable stimuli - such as food, sunlight, and sex - and trigger the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine, which purges emotional lows and makes you happy, reported the journal Nature Neuroscience last year.

Music also lowers anxiety and aggression, which partly explains why it suddenly becomes an important part of raucous teenagers' lives as they struggle to deal with emotional highs and lows induced by their jumping hormones.

Music therapy is even available as a smartphone and tablet app called Ubrain. This digital tonic claims to boost your energy, enhance your mind, help you focus better and change your mood within minutes by using two different beats in each ear to create a new perceived beat (called a binaural beat) to stimulate the brain and make it more alert. My usual playlist works just as well for me, but I'm sure the app will have its uses for people too lazy to draw up their own compilations.

Music therapy already used widely to treat people with depression. When used along with medication, it helps engage and draw out depressed people in ways that words and counselling cannot, reported the British Journal of Psychiatry by helping people express feelings they're unable to put into words.

While there are no polls for India, 'I Know It's Over' by The Smiths was voted as the best track to listen to when you are in the dumps by listeners of a BBC Radio 6 in the UK.

More than dozen of studies show that music helps people deal with chronic pain and illness, and also helps them recover faster from infections, disease and surgeries. Much like sleeping, music relieves stress and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Research from the University of Helsinki shows that stroke survivors recovered faster when music was used in addition to standard therapies.

Playing music for just two months following a stroke improved verbal memory by 60% in comparison to patients who underwent the same treatment without the addition of music. The music group also improved their ability to focus by 17% compared to those without music. Another study from Imperial College London found music helped regain vision in people who lost it after a stroke by stimulating the brain to work around the damage.

Music also has less visible physical benefits. New studies show that it improves endurance by lowering the perception of effort and increasing energy efficiency marginally, more so if the music matches the tempo of the task, be it your running stride or headbanging at a club, which still tops the workout charts of most young people allergic to gyms and outdoor sports.

Scientists are still out with new and newer scanning machines to track how exactly music turns the brain to malleable mush. But as long as the positive effect on the mind and body is obvious, don't bother to wait for them to figure it out. Just make the most its ability to embed in your mind and blow away the storm and reach the calm that's lately been evading many of us.