One of the scenes in the latest season of Stranger Things seems to have been inspired by real developments in psychology and neuroscience. Without giving away too much of the main story of the show, there is an element of music therapy in this season that isn’t as far from reality as you might think.
In the fourth episode of Stranger Things Season 4, Robin and Nancy pose as psychology students on a visit to Pennhurst Mental Hospital. During their visit they get a brief tour of the facilities and walk through a space where some of the patients are listening to music. The head of the hospital who shows them around says, “The right song, particularly one which holds some personal meaning, can prove a salient stimulus.” And while most of the narrative of Stranger Things is based firmly in fiction, this particular line clearly has some roots in music therapy and neuroscience.
Music therapy is the practice of using music to treat mental or physical condition. It has been around in some form since at least the 18th century, but became much more established in the 20th century, when hospitals in the United States began working with musicians to support veterans returning from World Wars I and II with PTSD symptoms. Besides helping manage PTSD, music therapy is now also regularly used to help people with depression, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological conditions..
The effect of music on Parkinson’s Disease is particularly striking because it changes physical behavior. When people with Parkinson’s Disease dance to music, they’re temporarily better in control of their movements. The really fascinating thing about this is that this renewed control of balance and gait doesn’t end when the music stops. It can last for several days after the dance session and in the longer term regular dance therapy seems to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms.
Researchers around the world have been studying the effect of music on Parkinson’s for years. It’s even referenced in the 1990 film Awakenings, based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 book of the same name and on his and others’ discoveries made in the 1960s.
For Parkinson’s dance therapy, it’s all about rhythm. The beat of the music needs to be clearly heard, danceable, and within range of natural movements. Music therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease works in a different way, and here the personal connection to the music is particularly important.
In fact, what Pennhurst’s Warden Hatch describes in Stranger Things very closely resembles how music is used in Alzheimer’s therapy. Last year, scientists confirmed that when people with early stage Alzheimer’s listened to songs that have close personal meaning to them, they used areas of the brain that were linked to cognition. Other researchers have also studied why listening to favorite songs seems to help people with Alzheimer’s, and found for example that it helps alleviate stress and anxiety associated with the condition.
In the 1980s, during the time Stranger Things is set, the science behind music therapy wasn’t as well understood as it is now. Even though a link between music and Parkinson’s was known since at least the 1960s, it took until 1989 for the first scientific paper to formally describe the effect of music therapy for Parkinson’s Disease.
But music therapy was at the verge of becoming an established field. In 1983, the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) began formalizing the credentials of music therapists to ensure that the people who ran music therapy programs had not only musical training but also knew how to handle a therapy setting. And in 1985, the same year that Kate Bush released “Running Up That Hill”, the World Federation of Music Therapy brought together international practitioners.
It was also around the mid-eighties that researchers first started to realize and further explore how listening to music could affect people’s brains and mental health. So it seems that the fictional Pennhurst Mental Hospital was more cutting edge than it looks, at least in the music therapy department.