Sing Yourself Human

Did you know you can use singing to switch off bits of your brain and given them a rest….?  As odd as it sounds, it’s really true……

It turns out your brain can either ‘think about stuff’ or it can ‘feel sensations’ but it can’t do both those things at the same time… who knew..?!

You can either notice the heat of the sun on your skin, or you can think about the steps you are climbing.  But your conscious brain focus has to switch from one to the other….

And this apparent flaw is actually a huge advantage, especially in today’s world.

We live in a world of overload – so much information assaults our brain – from manic, highly populated urban environments, connectedness to every part of the globe through many different channels of communication, work, managing home life (thank you Asda for late night opening – 11pm emergency grocery shopping is often all that stands between my kids and starvation, apparently), and trying to identify the sliver of the day when you can fit in a quick wee – we do a HUGE amount of thinking in parallel.

In fact we do way more ‘thinking’ about stuff than our brains evolved to handle.  As clever as they are, our brains did not develop in a world where we can drive through rush hour, dodging every muppet who ever secured a driving licence, talk to a friend in Australia through her divorce, while the latest heart-breaking news from Syria is reported and simultaneously negotiate an outbreak of war in the back seat over who looked at who funny.  It is little wonder that more and more people are struggling with stress-related mental health issues.  The constant cycle of thoughts we have going can quickly get out of control – barely ever switching off and giving us the mental peace we need to keep stress at bay.  I liken it to being on a Merry-Go-Round that goes rogue: normal speed allows you to look around, see people in the crowd, may be wave and acknowledge them, enjoy the view.  As it speeds up you end up holding on tighter, it’s harder to focus on the view and see any one thing and if it gets way too fast, you end up only able to concentrate on hanging on – there is little enjoyment, no appreciation of the wider things.  All your energy is focused on keeping hold.

But this is where our brains come the rescue……..  When we are focused on feeling a sensation – a sound, a touch, a taste, a smell, our heads switch off the focus on thoughts.  That whizzing Merry-Go-Round of thoughts about everything gets no air time.  Our thinking brain gets a rest, the Merry-Go-Round of thoughts slows down.  It needs our conscious brain to keep going.

So how can we switch on the ‘sensations’ bit of the brain and switch off the thinking bit?   There are all sorts of little things – like taking 5 minutes to hold a hot cup of coffee, close your eyes, feel the heat in your hands, sense the steam rising onto your face, smell the aroma, sense the warmth on your lips and savour the taste.  That 5 minutes is like a powernap for the mind.  If you find your attention wandering back to what to have for tea and the need to buy a present for which ever class mate is having a party this weekend, that’s ok – note the thought and redirect your focus back to the sensations of your coffee.  You get better with practise – it’s like riding a bike but with less wobbly bits in lycra.

But 5 minutes of mindfulness is nice – for the mother of all brain rests, singing is truly marvellous – especially group singing.   When you immerse in the music, and focus on the sound you are making, the words you are shaping, the position of your mouth and throat to get the best sound, and the sheer delight of all the sounds of a choir coming together – the thinking Merry-Go-Round is completely forgotten. It slows right down and your stress and anxiety levels drop.  Research even shows the heartbeats of choir members synchronise… the power of music on our health is truly remarkable.  And being in a choir is very freeing.  You don’t have to be brilliant – you don’t have to know all the words – it’s a team effort – the point is coming together and each person doing their best.

Having sung in Kari’s lovely community choir for over a year I have so many stories to tell of arriving in high dudgeon, furious with life, and high on cortisol, smiling on the outside and making out like all is ‘Fine, Absolutely FINE’ whilst the maelstrom of thoughts in my head crashes about fighting for attention.  And there is an equal number of stories of floating out of the door at the end of a rehearsal feeling human – feeling ‘me’.  

One week I was required to complete a detailed application form for my own job – I’d had a fortnight and predictably left it til the final day.  There was a lot else on, and the form needed rather more effort that I’d left time for.  I dashed through all the tricky questions, pinged it off for my boss to OK and dashed about doing all the other stuff that needed doing that day.  The Boss approved it, I submitted it with a full 15 minutes to go before the deadline.  So far, so good – go me!

The choir rehearsal was a blessed relief. I think we were into the 4th song when my ‘thinking brain’ had slowed down enough for my subconscious to finally get a word in edge ways.  The Merry-Go-Round dropped to a speed where I could see beyond it – see things in the world around.  Mid song, I was feeling calm and lovely.  And then I saw it.  The thing I had not seen as I had been head down, hanging on focused on so many other things at once.   The thought suddenly occurred to me that I had been in such a rush to write erudite and articulate answers to the tricky questions that I had not in fact completed the name and contact details section……. 

 My equally busy boss had not noticed either.  Because he is not in a choir, he didn’t have the same ‘oh shit’ moment until I called him with the news the next day.  

Fortunately, because I realised that night, I was able to rectify the situation quickly.  I swear that thought would not have got any air time if I hadn’t gone to choir that night. 

Annoyingly, despite my best efforts, I did get the job.  But its ok – I sing in the choir so I have a fortnightly stress valve that helps reset my head and gives me some brain time off – and a growing repertoire of songs I can pick from to belt out for a little mind nap in between.