+ How Music Affects the Brain

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The new book by Daniel Levitin called This is Your Brain on Music  was reviewed generously (and with many neural images of the brain) by Clive Thompson  in the NY Times on New Years Day.

Levitin was a record producer for many years before becoming a scientist and has nine gold and platinum albums to show for it.  But his major work these days is the effect of music on the brain.

How is it that the reviewer, Thompson, could listen to a half-second clip of music and identify Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’; or hear one single note and be able to say “Elton John’s live version of ‘Benny and the Jets’! ”

The answer, says Levitin, is that “by the age of five we are all musical experts [unless the brain is damaged in some way], so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us”.

The book is a layperson’s guide to the emerging neuroscience of music.  Thompson reports that Levitin is “an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia.  We learn that babies begin life with synaesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors.”

We learn that the part of the brain that helps govern movement is also wired to the ears and produces some of your emotional responses to music.

Doing research with 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an MRI machine, scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity.  First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune.  Then other parts of the brain activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward. 

In addition the cerebellum, an area of the brain associated with physical movement, reacted too; Levitin suspects the brain was predicting where the song was going to go.  As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo.)

“We’ve always known that music is good for improving your mood,” says Levitin.  “But this showed precisely how it happens.”

Dr Levitin is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal.  The dean of science at McGill, Martin Grant, compares Levitin with Brian Greene, the pioneering string-theory scientist who also writes mass-market books.  “Some people are good popularizers, and some are good scientists, but not usually both at once.  Dan’s actually cutting edge in his field.”

Some of Levitin’s theories have not been easily accepted, however.  For example, he argues that music is an evolutionary adaptation; something that humans developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness.  But Dr Steven Pinker, at Harvard,  has publicly disparaged this idea.

Scientists say that ultimately Levitin’s work offers a new way to unlock the mysteries of the brain: how memory works and how people with autism think.   He is now working on a study of people with autism, a project he hopes will help shed light on why autistic brains develop so differently.

Check out this book; and while you’re at it, look for Dr Pinker’s great books on language, as well!  (source: NYT article by Clive Thompson “Music of the Hemispheres” 1/1/07)

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