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The Fetal Brain on Music (for Lennon James Picco, the son of our pediatrics nurse Ashley Picco)

On Tuesday of this week we went to our pediatrician’s office to pick up paperwork for Hannah’s labs, which we needed to get done before her appointment next week (I lagged on doing them and then lost the paperwork – typical me).  Instead of the calm doctor’s office, things were really somber, and they were passing out papers about a fundraiser to help the family of their nurse, Ashley, who had died.  I knew Ashley.  She was Hannah’s nurse for the 15 months we’ve been going there.  She was always incredibly sweet, as most pediatrics nurses are, and so patient when Hannah would scream after her shots, or when they took her temperature rectally (I’d scream too).

So we didn’t know much about what happened to Ashley other than that she had been 24 weeks pregnant, and her son was in the nicu, which was, incidentally, Hannah’s nicu when she was born with breathing problems and an infection.  I had thought that maybe she had a complication in her pregnancy, and the whole thing brought back so many memories for me because in addition to being the hospital where I delivered my gorgeous miracle baby Hannah, it’s also the hospital where I delivered my poor dear son who came too soon at 21 weeks (who, incidentally, had the same due date as Lennon, though 4 years earlier).  I imagined what it must have been like for her because I know what those rooms are like.  I spent my last pregnancy with Hannah in the high risk clinic right down the hall from labor and delivery.  I could picture exactly where she had been, and the walk from l&d to the nicu.  I could imagine Chris washing his hands for the 2 minutes that you needed to wash your hands with industrial strength soap at the two huge sinks, and the gown you needed to put on before you could go visit your baby.  I’ll never forget the smell of that soap.  I knew what the rooms looked like.  I could picture the whole thing.

It also scared me, and made me grateful I’m not going to be pregnant again.  My loss with Baby T, while pretty textbook, was the scariest thing I’d ever experienced, and I lost a lot of blood.  My labor with Hannah was hard, and after 6 hours of pushing they brought in the forceps because she was well and truly stuck.  If it had been 100 years ago, we both wouldn’t have made it through unscathed.  As much as I’m a fan of all things natural and homeopathic, there’s a time for western modern medicine, and I was incredibly grateful for being at Loma Linda, which is one of the best children’s and maternity hospitals in the world.

So I felt personally affected by it when I first found out.  And I joined the prayer circle for their baby, Lennon, and followed along as news of his health came through.  Then he passed, and it went beyond my comprehension of grief and loss.  I hugged Hannah a little tighter, and donated money to the memorial fund, and that was that.  Then The Video came out.  The Video that has had 3.5 million views so far in like 10 hours and seems to have made it to every local news station around.  The Video of Chris singing the Beatles song Blackbird to Lennon because Ashley would often feel him moving when Chris would play.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock today, here it is:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lNBcTkssWA]

There were particular songs that I sang to Hannah when I was pregnant with her, the most popular being “Living in the Moment” from Jason Mraz.  It calmed me when I would have a freakout (having lost two pregnancies and spent thousands of dollars on fertility treatments, I had a rough third pregnancy with a miscarriage scare of its own about 8 weeks in) and when Hannah was first born it would calm her, too.  I sang it to her in the nicu after one particularly harrowing blood draw, and she nestled into me, bruised and covered in bandaids.

So I got to thinking about the fetal brain on music.

First thing, brain development at 24 weeks.  At 24 weeks a baby is about 30cm long and weighs a pound and a half (Lennon was 2 pounds 4 ounces).  The brain is developing very quickly during this stage, with neurons forming and connecting like crazy, and the Washington Post has reported that babies could recognize music played to them in utero.  It’s hard to find unbiased information on brain activity so early in pregnancy because it feeds into the debates about abortion.  But in a famous letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1987 called “Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus” several doctors including P.R. Hickey write “Functional maturity of the cerebral cortex is suggested by fetal and a neonatal electroencephalographic patterns, studies of cerebral metabolism, and the behavioral development of neonates. First, intermittent electroencephalograpic bursts in both cerebral hemispheres are first seen at 20 weeks gestation; they become sustained at 22 weeks and bilaterally synchronous at 26 to 27 weeks.”

What I get from that sentence is that little Lennon was starting to become very much aware of how loved he was, and the sounds and events around him, even if he was unable to process the information.

Daniel J Levitin wrote a book called This is your Brain on Music where he discussed the neurology behind why certain music moves us the way it does.  He discusses the way the nerves go from our ears to our brain, and the many ways the neurons are mapped.  It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in this topic.  General takeaway: little Lennon could hear the Beatles, was familiar with it if it had been played already, and may have already had a nerve mapped from his ear to his brain from that particular song.

The Smithsonian has published several articles recently about music.  The one I am interested in involves playlists, where people repeatedly listen to the same songs over and over.  Highlighting research in a book called Your Playlist Can Change Your Life which I haven’t read yet, Galina Mindlin, director of the Brain Music Treatment Center, argues that listening to the same songs that stir up certain memories can actually change our perception of the present (take the man who had a disagreement with his wife, listened to their wedding song, and immediately became more affectionate towards her).

Takeaway: if little Lennon had heard Blackbird and other Beatle’s songs before, it’s possible that listening to it in the incubator would have given him the same feelings of peace and security that he had experienced in the womb.

Research has been done specifically about how the Beatles music impacts our brains, but it’s largely been in Finland, and I can’t read Finnish.  The point is that music with lyrics activates different parts of our brain than instrumental.  So Chris was engaging little Lennon’s brain as he heard and processed lyrics, along with the familiarity of his dad’s voice.

So, the final takeaway for me is that the video of Chris playing for little Lennon is more than just a beautiful and heartbreaking moment of love and loss, but also “Science” has shown that little Lennon was affected by the music, and by the voice of his father singing.  Facts and studies have shown that Lennon was most likely aware of the love he was being shown, and would have felt the music and singing peaceful and familiar.  Knowing that he was loved, aware of the love, and feeling peace during his short stay on earth makes it a little easier to say goodbye to him for now.  All he knew was love, and that’s all you need, really.