Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

Alive inside: the Story of Music and Memory is about the therapeutic effect music can have on patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and/or dementia and bipolar. The documentary hinges around Dan Cohen, a social worker who tours different houses and nursing homes for the aged with dementia, takes iPods to them, plays their respective favorite songs, and examines the effects it has on them. Dan Cohen performed these activities after witnessing what music did to a 94-year-old dementia patient named Henry.

The main people featured and their roles are Dan Cohen, a social worker who witnessed what music can do to people with dementia. Henry is a dementia patient while Norman Hardie and his wife Nell are dementia patients who are coping without institutionalization and medication. Bobby McFerrin is a musician, Michael Rossato- Bennet is the movie director, and Yvonne Russell is a recreation therapist at Cobble Hill who cares attends to Alzheimer’s patients. Doug Thompson and his wife Mary Lou live with dementia, Bill Thompson is a gerontologist at Eden Alternative, and Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who occasionally gives expert insights on the effects of music on the brain. Allen Power is a medical doctor who is the Eden mentor at St. John’s Home, Samite Mulondo is a volunteer musician, Denise is a bipolar patient, and Bill is a dementia patient.

The main message of the movie is music and caring for loved ones can replace therapeutic strategies for dementia, and obviate the institutionalization of the patients. As a non-chemotherapeutic intervention, music can arouse memory in patients who grapple with memory loss, and who were initially unresponsive to medical interventions. Their favorite songs conjure up good memories from their past, hence, bringing them back to life.

Dan Cohen’s statement means that age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia. When people age, they do not forget everything about life such as the identities of the close people and events of their lives. However, when aging people develop dementia, they become out of touch with themselves. Alzheimer’s disease interferes with our mental faculties concerned with thought, memory, and language (Centers for Disease and Prevention, 2015). When human beings age, they tend to remember the hallmarks of their lives, and in their sunset years, they are full of knowledge based on experience. As humans do not become shells of their former selves, it reveals that Alzheimer’s disease is thus not an integral part of the human aging process.

The movie is replete with hypotheses on the merits of music to dementia patients including, music is like magic, the back door to their brain. Music can stimulate most parts of the body because it connects to the patients’ brains, hearts, and souls, unlike any other therapy. Music and emotion are inseparable elements of music is not just a physiological process, but it also activates the whole self. During childhood, music records itself in motions and emotions, which form the last parts of our brain as Alzheimer’s disease destroys. Music gives meaning to them for it correlates with memory and feelings. Music awakens and stimulates different pathways that make a person who was previously withdrawn become reachable. Music heals trauma and pain from victims’ pasts.

The patients exemplifying the benefits of music are Henry, who remembers his childhood hobbies such as bike riding, singing, and dancing, Moreover, Bill exemplifies how music relaxes despite being agitated earlier on due to forced regimens and lack of freedom in the institutions that host him.

In the movie, Dan Cohen states that approximately 5 million Americans are living with dementia and about 10 million more to care for them. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are about 5.4 million Alzheimer’s sufferers in The United States, with 5.2 million aged over 65 years (Alzheimer’s Association. 2016). These are the current figures, and so Cohen’s approximation was right, as per 2014, bearing in mind the escalating cases of dementia.

Oliver Sacks is an accomplished physician and neurology professor currently based at the New York University School of Medicine (Sacks, 2016). He has won numerous accolades including, the American Psychology Association Oskar Pfister Award, Alpha Omega Alpha Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Book of the year award for ‘The Observer’ Awakenings, American Neurological Association Special Presidential Award amongst others.

Cohen avers that music is inseparable from emotions because it has the capability to permeate more parts of our brain than any other stimulus. In this view, music is especially beneficial to dementia patients because it is the only thing that aroused their deepest emotions. Music holds meaning to dementia patients for it coordinates memory and feelings. From the movie, it is evident that memory regain makes dementia patients be emotional for they cried, dance, and laughed.

According to the movie, humans are innately musical because, at six months, the cerebral cortex can record speech. Evidently, a study indicates that babies’ cries reflect a pattern of their mothers’ speech (Provasi, Anderson, & Barbu-Roth, 2014). In their study on rhythm perception and synchronization, Provasi, Anderson, and Barbu-Roth (2014) aver that human fetuses can respond to music that their mothers listen to. A plausible explanation for this is the fact the baby and the mother share hormones. When music arouses the mother, the hormones she releases also reach the baby and exert a similar effect.

In the movie, Dr. Stacks asserts that visual parts, emotional parts, and lower-level Cerebellum basic parts play a central role in coordination. Empirical evidence from the study of brain activity underlying working memory for music holds that musical repetitions activate the cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum (Burunat, Alluri, Toiviainen, Numminen, & Brattico, 2014). Music causes the coordination of cognitive and motor and limbic systems with the additional enlistment of the Hippocampus.

Sarkamo, Tervaniemi, and Laitinen (2014) postulate that listening to music by dementia patients enhances memory and improves mood. On a small scale, listening to music increases attentiveness and overall cognition, while singing improves working memory. Therefore, Sarkamo, Tervaniemi, and Laitinen (2014) conclude that continual usage of music has a positive effect on the cognitive, physical, and social well-being of moderate dementia sufferers. In this view, the authors recommended music to be a mainstay in dementia care.

In their study, Osman, Tischler, and Schneider (2014) discovered that singing to dementia patients and their caregivers improves memory, mood, associations, and social inclusiveness. Additionally, by attending the singing sessions, the dementia patients reported acceptance of and better management of dementia.

Pauline et al. (2014) opine that music and culinary interventions reduce caregivers’ stress and dementia patients’ behavioral anomalies. However, the study did not determine any cognitive benefits among the patients. Nevertheless, the study found significant effects of music on the well-being of dementia patients.

The institutionalization of dementia patients has numerous demerits. Some of the demerits are patients lose their independence, dignity, and loved ones, have little control of regimens they ingest and have limited mobility, which makes them deteriorate into a vegetated state. Moreover, patients become confined to the small world within the nursing facility, possess low spirits, remain deprived of socialization, and do not enjoy music.

Dr. Power in the movie means that when dementia patients enter care institutions, they lose their freedom. Their caregivers determine their next activities and stay. Cavanaugh and Blanchard (2014) agree that nursing homes limit the patients’ freedom of expression. Institutionalization leads to distress, which ultimately results in suicidal thoughts among the old (Nosraty, Jylha, Raittila, & Lumme-Sandt, 2015). In the movie, Bill is distressed and agitated by being forced to take regimens and having little freedom of movement. Distress is a way of communication, and when institutional caregivers shut it down, it makes a person withdraws. Music creates the freedom to go literally into the world, which one identifies with and created under own terms.

According to the movie, before the advent of technology, nursing homes were in a home setup with loved ones caring for the old. However, industrialization has led to the establishment of nursing homes in the model of hospitals. The nursing homes emerged when industrialization destroyed the basic social structure, the family. People no longer sought security from their homes or villages but urbanization. Cavanaugh and Blanchard (2014) claim that modern societies have neglected the older generation. When people advance in age or develop cognitive disabilities, society relegates them to old or nursing homes. In their assessment, Cavanaugh and Blanchard assert that the relegation happens because aging has become baggage to the ‘busy’ society. The Medicaid Act (1965) has led to a boom in the establishment of nursing homes in the United States. The old are in nursing homes to receive medical care, and thus, caregivers perceive them as patients rather than healthy humans.

Without memory, people are empty inside since they are devoid of the ability to connect with others or themselves. People lack the ability to be emotional, which is an aspect that makes them human. Without memory, people are non-existent since they cannot relate to love, passions, hobbies, or predilections from our past. Johnnie, who cannot even initiate a conversation until pictures of his youth juggle his memory, attested this emptiness in the movie.

In today’s world, the current generation despises counsel and many things the old has to offer. Society has transformed from being communal to individualistic dominance. Consequently, people exist and socialize in small cocoons, unlike in the past when the family was a tight social unit. Industrialization is to blame for the destruction of the family structure. Employment has ensured that people are too busy to spend quality time with family members. The elderly, in an industrialized world, have experienced their families neglecting and perceiving them to be a burden, and thus, taken to elderly homes to be cared for by strangers. It is more dreadful if they suffer from cognitive disabilities like dementia. Due to the treatment the old receive, people loathe aging. Modern society is oblivious to the fact that there is still life beyond adulthood.

The symbol connection between touch and music is meaning. Music provides meaning and is connected with memory and feelings. In dementia patients, music unlocks their brains and for the first time since arriving at their respective institutes, their lives have meaning. Meaning here manifests in their newfound ‘aliveness’ that makes caregivers see their human side suppressed by the disease.


Alzheimer Association (2016). Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Web.

Burunat, I., Alluri, V., Toiviainen, P., Numminen, J., & Brattico, E. (2014). Dynamics of brain activity underlying working memory for music in a naturalistic condition. Cortex, 57(1), 254-269.

Cavanaugh, J., & Blanchard, F. (2014). Adult Development and Aging. New York: Cengage Learning.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2015). Alzheimer’s disease. Web.

Nosraty, L., Jylha, M., Raittila, T., & Lumme-Sandt, K. (2015). Perceptions by the oldest old of successful aging, vitality 90 + study. Journal of Ageing Studies, 32(1), 50-58.

Osman, S., Tischler, V., & Schneider, J. (2014). Singing for the ‘brain’: A qualitative study exploring the health and well-being benefits of singing for people with dementia and their careers. Dementia, 1(1), 1-14.

Pauline, N., Sylvain, C., Nathalie, E., Loris, S., Sylvie, V., Bruno, C.,… Severine, S. (2014). Efficacy of musical interventions in dementia: Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 38(2), 359-369.

Provasi, J., Anderson, D., & Barbu-Roth, M. (2014). Rhythm perception, production, and synchronization during the perinatal period. Developmental Psychology, 5(1048), 1-16.

Sarkamo, T., Tervaniemi, M., & Laitinen, S. (2014). Cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of regular musical activities in early dementia: Randomized controlled study. Gerontologist, 54(4), 634-650.

Stacks, O. (2015). About Oliver Sacks. Web.

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