'Alive Inside' is a new, award winning documentary that is challenging our theories about how we care for those with dementia and how we see consciousness
'Alive Inside' is a new, award winning documentary that is challenging our theories about how we care for those with dementia and how we see consciousness (Stock photo @GlowImages)

Where is consciousness? Where does it reside? Is it purely physical? Or, is it spiritual?

This question, forever argued by philosophers, scientists and spiritual thinkers, is now becoming more relevant to all of us as we grapple with how we see and treat those suffering from forms of dementia, as well as brain impairments.

At an upcoming event in Canada, titled Global Dementia Legacy, the focus will be on studies and experiences regarding dementia prevention, treatment and care. But the question, “what is consciousness?” should be front and centre of any debate. It should not be relegated to the periphery, while we only examine the effects. For, if we think that consciousness exists only in the brain, we will limit how we prevent and treat these problems.

Forecasts indicate that as the population ages, dementia will increase. The costs – financial and social – these will incur should impel us to seek new ways to view and experience consciousness. Many in the baby boomer age group are afraid they will lose their minds. But instead of accepting this as inevitable and only brain-related, recent studies and experiences in the field are inviting us to challenge those long-held theories.

One of those areas of study is the use of art and music as therapy for patients with dementia.

Movie director Michael Rossato-Bennett is one individual who has helped bring this discovery into a more public forum. His recent documentary, “Alive Inside,” won best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year, creating much discussion of these issues.

The project came about when, during a lull in his work, Rosatto-Bennet agreed to help a friend build a website for a facility that housed patients with dementia and memory loss. Tears of compassion came to his eyes as he witnessed the sad conditions of patients in the 600-bed facility he visited. Many of them sat motionless, disengaged, and seemingly comatose, as if waiting for death. He felt this was wrong, and that he had to do something about it. So, instead of building a website, he decided to create a documentary about the ways his friend was working to improve those conditions.

That friend is Dan Cohen, the founding Executive Director of Music & Memory Inc. Through research and persistence, Cohen has succeeded in bringing music to the ears of many individuals in these facilities, and the results are thought-provoking and revolutionary. The music of their youth seems to awaken them, taking them back to their memories and restoring their ability to remember and to communicate.

One of the individuals in the documentary is a 90-year old man named Henry. Stuck in a wheelchair and completely non-responsive for years, Henry was one day given an I-pod filled with favorite music from his past. The response was dramatic. He began to sing and hum. He talked about his life as a younger man. He laughed. And then in a moving moment he described what he felt: “I feel the band of Love – of dreams. The Lord made me holy. I am a holy man.”

The assumption that Henry was not conscious and in a vegetative state was proved incorrect. The music stirred and inspired something deep within him to the extent that he reconnected with being loved. Henry is not in his brain, but, like each of us, is and always has been connected to a source of spiritual Love that is bigger and more powerful than the human brain. The music simply reconnected him with that source.

This is not a new revelation. Many spiritual teachings have always maintained that consciousness is not contained within or confined to brain. Jesus took this understanding to a healing level. He taught and demonstrated that our connection to divine Love awakens us to a larger sense of consciousness as entirely spiritual, and that understanding this has a restorative effect.

This larger understanding of our spiritual connectedness to divine Love can never be forgotten because it is innate. Understanding it better could bring real answers and breakthroughs to the field of treating and healing mental disorders.