The former head of Nokia Marco Ahtisaari is on a journey to fight opioid dependency, with the natural high triggered by music. Evidence has been growing around imaging studies that show what happens to the brain when exposed to music. What happens is essentially similar to when we take psycho-stimulants, in other words, when we take drugs.
On this notion, music could at least in principle, replace pharmaceuticals in some conditions. A study undertaken showed that patients with Parkinson’s disease greatly improved in gait when listening to music with the right beat patterns.
A clinical study, conducted back in 2005, studied the ways that music could be used in pain relief for hernia patients. As well as the usual post-surgery care, they were exposed to an hour of listening to music and could self-administer morphine. The outcome was one group only used 1/3 of the amount of morphine when listening to music, compared with the non-music control group.
Marko Ahtisaari, of MIT Media Lab, commenting on the 2005 study, said:
“Given the opioid epidemic that we have, and particularly how some of it starts after surgery, it seems to me that everyone should be listening to music after an operation.”
The Sync Project
In 2015, Ahtisaari, along with Ketki Karanam (a biologist studying the way music affects the brain) teamed up with Yadid Ayzenberg, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, and started the Sync Project. Ahtisaari, Karanam with Ayzenberg met with leading scientists and musicians to look at how they could take this idea of music therapy forward. They partnered with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and musicians like Peter Gabriel and St.Vincent. It was decided that the study should be completed day-to-day and not in lab conditions.
The Sync Project is currently analysing more than 10 million playlists on Spotify. Each list is tagged with a health-related keyword (e.g. ‘relaxation’). The team map the characteristics of music – tempo, beats etc in the playlist. Every morning a slack bot that they have put together delivers a personalised playlist to more than 400 teams around the world. At this point the users then interact with the music that is sent to them, which they rate and react to. The classification based on this feedback is then fed back into the system.
In some cases, Sync is also collecting biometric sensor data, such as heart rate, from its users, to understand how their physiology correlates to the music. Ahtisaari says:
“Ultimately, we will be applying machine learning to curate personalised music therapeutic interventions for a particular health outcome…In twenty years time, we will consider it absurd and primitive that we did not use music and sound as an essential part of our health regime, both for everyday wellness but also to complement pharmaceutical treatment.”
The Sync Project have launched a collaboration with British electronic ambient music band Marconi Union, who in 2011 released the single “Weightless”, a viral success that became widely known as the most relaxing tune ever. The aim is to create AI music in tune with your heart rate. From your biometric data, the AI will generate a personalised soundtrack to lull you off to sleep.
“This new experience with Marconi Union is a new kind of music,” Ahtisaari says. “Basically, it’s an AI music that’s tuned to your heart rate. With that data as input, Unwind will then generate a personalised soundtrack to help you relax before sleep.”
Anyone interested in relaxation and better sleep with the help of music can participate for free using their smartphone at unwind.syncproject.co.