NDJ:7 Kaja Weeks, BA, C-DIR

Paths to Dalaja:

Neuro-Affective-Musical Moments

She lies on the carpet, face turned from us. Motionless. Though her body is centimeters away, I can’t hear her breathing. I hear her mother’s appeal, “Dalaja, Dalaja, Dalaja.” But she is simply — missing.

Dalaja’s mother has brought her to me because she believes I have a greater reservoir of music to offer than she herself has to her increasingly shutdown child. She claims, “Music is the only thing that works now.” I can’t imagine what she means by “works” as I contemplate her limp rag doll on the floor. Frank fear pulsates my body. It’s not the child I’m afraid of – it’s the mother’s hopes, her child inside those hopes, placed into my hands.

As mother lifts child to her lap, she is cradling tousled hair and fallen face on one shoulder, and chanting with her soft Hindi lilt, “Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick. Mama called the doctor to come quick, quick, quick.” I see that we have already begun, and I must push through.

Here’s what I know. Neuroscientists have isolated neural correlates for rhythmic perceptions of music as well as those of speech rhythms, and they are not processed in the same brain regions. Much faster processing speed is required to comprehend speech than music, a critical feature in working with nonverbal children. Music has clearer, regularly occurring rhythmic (and other elemental) patterns that one can recognize, and an underlying pulse, akin to heartbeat, to anchor us. Some scientists view music as an ancestral mammalian link, suggesting that brain evolution, “prepared our minds for emotional vocalizations so that affective features can be encoded and symbolized in melodic variations, harmonic resonances, and rhythmic pulsations of sound” (Panksepp & Bernatzky, 2002). Human mothers and infants communicate and enliven each other into intimate relationships with such attuned prosody.

I have written about this “communicative musicality” for god’s sakes! Yet right now I am almost stilled under the massive shadow of Dalaja’s state-of-being. At the moment I can’t disentangle its roots — some fear circuit, or a depressive matrix to shut down distress? She seeks neither thing nor person. I know what I need to do – to rock ever so slightly to mother’s pulse, to synchronize and reinforce, to begin shaping her vocal tones and color to match the slightest indications from Dalaja – her eye flutters, her tiny shifts of neck, her breathing. My voice floats like a multi-tiered drone under and over mother’s, willing myself to remain just enough invisible.

For whatever I offer musically and affectively must arouse enough to get her attention, yet not cross some hairline divide that could drive her into a deeper freeze. No, at this moment I can’t remember the neurochemicals that flood one’s system during such a fearful freezing process. However, I do have one securely stored understanding. It’s research implicating the neuropeptide oxytocin as both calming and social bonding agent, and reports of its increase with music! I have tracked down every article I could find on this; I’ve mapped out my own detailed rationale, sent out queries to neuro-minded psychoanalysts, to experimentalists and theoretical neuroscientists. It has resided in scattered form in my cyber communications, on paper sketches, inside me like fruit overripe with juice and no place to flow. Now I am hoping music might elicit this effect in mother and Dalaja, but certainly diffuse sensations of calm, caring confidence have entered my body.

We are quite a threesome on the floor in the corner of the room – child folded into mother’s recitation and dandling, and myself, the outsider, seeking entry with my entrained body rhythms and sung vowels, matching but daring to elaborate. I watch with concealed thrill as Dalaja’s hand actively reaches for her mother’s head on the word “hat” and mother’s chanting emerges into pronounced melody. We are all emboldened. For the moment, we are all safe.

Later, I will relive this traumatic first meeting many times and try to separate skill through training from intuition, and both from theoretical knowledge. It is scant, but some neuroscience formulations have begun to settle into my cognitive structures, to ring true with my experiences and, in a way I don’t yet understand, avail themselves to me somatically and affectively. In this case, such nascent integration carried me through precarious moments to a space where expressive music and relational dynamics merged us — mother, child, and myself, opening genuine paths to Dalaja, who is present for the moment.


Panksepp, J. & Bernatzky, G. (2002). Emotional sounds and the brain: the neuro-affective foundations of musical appreciation. Behavioral Processes, 60, p.133 – 155.