Our bodies are full of nerves all over the place, communicating, observing, and acting. We've got three types of nerves that keep us functioning and connected to our world.
Autonomic nerves are those that are connected to our autonomic nervous system, of course. These nerves control involuntary actions like heartrate and respiration, and also work with the body's fight, flight, or freeze response. We don't really have any control over the action of these nerves, but we can get information from them. In singing, we can observe the work of these nerves during instances of performance anxiety or when singers experience trauma responses. Because these nerve behaviors are automatic, we can't always prevent them from firing, but we can often learn what situations make them likely to occur and find ways to mitigate their effects. Working with the autonomic nervous system can be a complex and difficult process and for some singers can require some specialized work with therapists and others that understand how the autonomic system works in performers. I really like the work of Petra Borzynski at Singing Sense. Check out this post on how trauma makes singers sing small, for a great perspective from a therapist and a singer.
Motor nerves are nerves that mostly connect the brain to the body and tell the body how to move or react. These nerves are efferent, meaning the nerve signals exit the brain and go to the body. The electrical and chemical signals created in the brain travel down the nerve fibers, leaping from one nerve to the next, until the terminal node where the nerve connects to the muscle or tissue at the end. While there is still a lot to learn about brain and nerve function, it seems that some types of motor nerve signals are pretty specific, like "move this way and in this manner," but others are more general, like "hey, sing right now." Of course, in singing the vocal folds are innervated by the recurrent laryngeal nerve that branches from the Vagus nerve (cranial nerve X). The cricothyroid is so specialized in its function it gets its own nerve, the superior laryngeal nerve, also branching off the Vagus.
Sensory nerves give the brain information about what's happening in the body and in the environment. These nerves are afferent, meaning they begin in the body and travel to the brain. In singing, we use all kinds of sensory information to determine what's going on, from how the voice and body physically feel and how we feel emotionally, to how big the room is we're singing in, what sounds we hear around us, and how hot or cold the room is. Our brains are constantly monitoring everything that's happening around us, deciding what's important, and making decisions about how to react or not. The sensory part of our nervous system is incredibly powerful and is always on, as anyone who has been woken up from a dead sleep by a random sound in the house can attest to.
All three nerve types are interconnected, so much so that they often are acting in tandem. And because our nerves work so quickly, we rarely have to consciously think about how we need to move or sing or adjust to our environment. Nerves do tend to break down as we age (bummer), and of course some nerve diseases can affect function. Singers who experience nerve disorders may want to consult with an SLP or laryngologist to address any concerns.
Nerves are a fascinating part of our bodies, and learning about them has been a fun part of my own education. If you'd like to learn more about them, specifically how the different parts of the body, voice, and brain are connected, I'd love to talk with you about it! Booking a Vocal Ped Party is a great way to learn about how the voice works and how you can harness the power of nerves in your own voice studio. Click below to book!
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