Philip Corlett, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and his research team working on a study that evaluates the impact of group song-making on hallucinations, recently reached one of the first milestones associated with the project: The first group of participants has released an EP of music created during its sessions.
Corlett received a $2.1 million grant in 2019 from The National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the influence of music on people with psychotic illnesses. Corlett and his team are one year into five years of research supported by the grant. His collaborators include Adam Christoferson, founder and CEO of Musical Intervention; Michael Rowe, PhD, co-director of the Yale Program for Recovery & Community Health; Sarah Fineberg, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry; Al Powers, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry; and Claire Bien, M.Ed., Research Associate at the Yale Program for Recovery & Community Health.
Corlett’s lab, the Belief, Learning and Memory Lab, studies the brain mechanisms of hallucinations and delusions through computer game tasks, like choosing which partners to collaborate with or detecting sounds in a noisy background.
For the NIH study, participants play the games when they first begin the project and continue with one intervention a week for four weeks, with a final test at the end. The team also partners with the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (PRCH) to conduct qualitative interviews that assess how participants feel about themselves, the voices they hear, and their experiences with music, and how those attitudes have changed as a function of group experience.
“It’s a strange amalgam of qualitative research and intervention that really isn’t manualized, but it does keep it as consistent as possible in impressive way,” Corlett explained.
The other component is to bring together groups of individuals with auditory hallucinations to meet with Christoferson, who brings his background in recreation therapy to his work running New Haven-based Musical Intervention, an organization that uses music to empower people of all backgrounds to be creative and express themselves by providing a platform to write, record, perform and release original music.
Across four separate sessions, Christoferson brings a band track – music that has already been composed – and the participants develop the melody and write lyrics together as a group. The group then records each song together, with each participant assigned their own part. Christoferson handles the final mix and production.
The most recent group of musiciansChristoferson said the experience has sparked a resurgence in many participants’ desires to be expressive and creative and to rediscover their art.
“My favorite thing is being able to just provide a platform for people to express themselves in a nonjudgmental way,” Christoferson explained. “Whether they’re voice-hearers or … whatever the case is, the platform is basically like, here, let’s write a song together. The idea is to encourage that nonjudgmental space, take everything that comes out of their mouth seriously and see how it vibes with the song.”
“For a lot of people, it kind of is a life saver, in a way. It gives them a purpose and a reason to live,” he said. “I’ve heard these things said to me on many occasions, but that’s just me providing that platform and encouragement be creative. And that’s what a producer does. That’s the beauty of this study: it’s not doctor to patient, it’s producer to artist. There’s so much joy and then this desire to do more of it and want to be in [that environment] more.”
Many participants have shared that the experience has introduced them to other voice-hearers for the first time and has made them feel less like outsiders, Corlett and Christoferson said. Participants have also reported that the “good voices come to the fore when being creative and the bad ones become quieter. The good voices were this helpful force,” Corlett explained.
“Giving someone a break from the bad voices and bringing positivity to the forefront is just wonderful,” Corlett said. “As a basic neuroscientist I thought I’d do that by understanding receptors but it’s more about psychology.”
Corlett said despite it still being early days for the study, he’s highly encouraged by the data collected and feedback received thus far. Still, both recruitment continues to be a struggle, in part due to the challenges presented by conducting this type of research amid a global pandemic.
“If this has any hope of being as exciting as it feels we’ve got to get more people through the door,” Corlett said.
Christoferson also cited a lack of infrastructure that would allow continued work with participants after their four weeks are up; Musical Intervention’s Temple Street headquarters can only support one or two sessions a day due to COVID-related restrictions, which limits the number of people coming to the studio. Christoferson said there are plans in place to approach the city of New Haven for help obtaining more resources.
“We’re really looking forward to getting more participants screened. It’s great that so many participants want to take part in our program, which is a great opportunity for them to continue the work they’ve started, but we really don’t have the infrastructure to handle the demand,” Christoferson said.