The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

July 7, 2021 at 9:50 AM
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The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work

Haley Amering UA’20 and Jim Stellar

What do you want to do after graduation?

I want to do many things, and luckily they can all be tied into practices of social work. More specifically though, I would love to be in the field of clinical social work. Mental health has always been fascinating to me, along with being something that I strongly advocate for.

Obviously, this is a common and important question for many students, and the answer given above is succinct and sophisticated. That may be because HA just completed her course work in the fall 2020 semester and has the full experience of a college education behind that answer. So this is a perfect time to explore more deeply what influenced her, particularly experiences. First Question: When did you take the step from having a general interest to deciding this is what you want to?

Interestingly enough, my undergraduate experience began with studying drum set performance! After witnessing what was such an intimate passion of mine slowly die as a result of attempting to monetize it, I reflected on what I truly wanted to achieve. I didn’t want to just play music like my peers, I wanted to enact change and improve the lives of those who were in need of it most.

This is a very interesting transformation from music to clinical psychology.  When and how did you lock on to clinical psychology with that passion, that made you want to go to graduate school? 

I often get a lot of head tilts whenever I explain to somebody that I transitioned from music to psychology, but I think there are many similarities to be drawn between the two! I think ultimately, I have possessed this innate drive to pursue whatever feels right to me, while also keeping in mind how my actions can benefit others. For music, I knew that it was a universal language in which I could subconsciously be understood by the audience. They could feel what I was expressing in a given song. On the inverse, clinical psychology and social work are more about allowing others to express what they feel. So, in a way, the functions of both music and clinical social work complement each other.

Because we had course together you know my interest in unconscious emotional decision-making that accompanies conscious cognitive decision-making, especially as expressed by the quote on the lab website from Pascale “The heart has reasons of which reason does not know.” So, talk a bit more about how music speaks to “heart reasons” and why you think therapy must as well.

I love this comparison here! Music is a universal language, yet one does not need to have an understanding of the technicalities and rules of music in order to understand and feel moved – unlike spoken language. It’s this unawareness that reminds me of the concept of unconscious decision-making. I wanted to perform for people all around the world, because I knew I didn’t have to speak their spoken language in an effort to convey a thought or emotion. That brought me much comfort, and made me feel connected to the human race in a way that I had never experienced.

My “heart” reasons derive themselves from one root: connection. My heart reason first manifested in wanting to feel connection with others for myself. Now that I have been fortunate enough to know what that feels like, that same heart reason has not been changed, furthermore, it has evolved to something much greater than myself. It is instilling in others that they can conquer those obstacles, that they can find support within community, that they are never alone. It’s connection.

When it comes to clinical social work, these concepts can more or less be applied as well. See, my focus will be in psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy”, where clients who are seeking treatment will come to me with various concerns in their lives. It is my job as their therapist to not only listen, but convey that I am there, with them in that moment, whether they are feeling joy, pain, despair, or any possible emotion.

I really like the idea you said that one does not need a technical understanding of music to be moved by it. I am thinking that this is because a large emotional logic machine operating below your conscious awareness is operating on the music and conveying its conclusions to the listener by emotion. I see in your answer above the same deep emotional process working that is produced by you as a therapist, even when you are talking (clearly conscious) to a patient to move some “heart reasons” that could result in a therapeutic outcome. And that takes us right back to where we started with the title of this blog “The Music of Thought and Emotion: clinical interaction in social work.”

Absolutely! I think there is so much that we still haven’t learned about regarding the interaction between music and emotion – such as alternative treatments and perhaps a neural connection that has yet to be discovered. There are so many moving pieces to a concept like this, and I am no expert by any means, but I firmly believe that we are going to see significant changes within the mental health field as we approach what feels like the beginning of a mental health reform. I no longer wear the musician hat primarily, but I hold that experience near and dear to my heart. It is my hope that this experience will contribute in making me the best social worker that I can be for my future clients –  and who knows, maybe one day we will officially find that music is an irreplaceable form of treatment for mental obstacles.

Anterior cingulate cortex and cortical re-representation of limbic processes of emotional conflict

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