Every now and again we get news stories about how someone in a coma “woke up” when their loved ones played or sang their favorite song. It sounds like sentimental exaggeration. According to at least a couple of studies, music really might help.
Musicians from James Blunt to Green Day to Adele have been credited with music that woke people from comas. One musician, Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees, was the person in the coma, and revived as his family played and sang a succession of his favorite songs. It’s always a feel-good story, but did the music actually cause the recovery? Isn’t it more likely that the person recovered naturally, and then woke up due to the loud music being played in their room as they slept. That demotes musicians from miracle workers to clock radio fodder.
While it’s impossible to confirm individual cases, research done in the past few years indicates that music does help, even when the person in the coma doesn’t seem to hear it. Researchers have known for some time that people in minimally conscious states mentally respond to hearing their own name. In 2012, by running EEGs on both comatose and healthy patients, one researcher was able to show that hearing familiar music before hearing their name enhanced the patients’ response to their names. In 2014, researchers announced that playing familiar music to people in minimally conscious states, versus playing continuous sound to people in minimally conscious states, enhanced the patients’ recovery. They believe that not only music, but many other familiar audio cues might enhance a brain-injured person’s cerebral plasticity and help them recover. And in 2015, a group of researchers announced that giving patients a lot of “personally relevant stimuli”—like their name, familiar songs, and familiar stories—could help people “with a disorder of consciousness” recover consciousness.
It’s worth noting that just regaining consciousness, or opening one’s eyes, doesn’t mean that a person who was in a coma has just bounced back to normal. While there are some stories in which people go from an unresponsive state to talking and walking around in a few days, most coma patients face a long recover even after they “wake up.” Still, it looks like music can really help people in comas heal their minds and revive themselves. That’s kind of beautiful.