Thursday, January 06, 2011

This Is Your Brain On Music By Daniel Levitin

Before reading further, turn on some music. Anything will do. I read the last hundred or so pages of this book with a Porcupine Tree concert playing. It seemed incongruous to me to be reading about how the brain processes music - as well as how music makes the brain work better - without having some music playing. So, whether it's Mahler or Molly Hatchet or Merle Haggard, turn it on. I'll wait.

OK, ready? From page 191, we have the following general description of what happens in the human brain when it hears music.
Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47, that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions - the mesolimbic system - involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter. The rewarding and reinforcing aspects of listening to music seem, then, to be mediated by increasing dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, and by the cerebellum's cotribution to regulating emotion through its connections to the frontal lobe and the limbic system. Current neuropsychological theories associate positive mood and affect with increased dopamine levels, one the reasons that many of the newer antidepressants act on the dopaminergic system. Music is clearly a means for improving people's moods. Now we think we know why.
Daniel Levitin started out as a musician. He moved on to become a sound engineer, then a record producer. Late in life, he returned to college, and now studies the interconnections between music and the human brain, at McGill University in Montreal.

This work, a popular distillation of the latest (as of 2006) cognitive neuropsychology that deals specifically with music, can be considered as a musical composition. Each chapter becomes a movement within the larger suite that is the book. Within each movement is a stated theme, that is elaborated through discussions of the unfolding of the scientific evidence, punctuated by examples from music that work out that theme. Each chapter, up to this point Levitin has explicated a particular theme; in this chapter, he begins by relating his meeting with Francis Crick, the impact of Crick's personal story upon his own life, and how this meeting encouraged a new direction in Levitin's research. All this seems to be a new theme, yet again, but as the chapter unfolds we realize that, like the best composers, Levitin is bringing together all the previous themes, weaving and recasting them as part of a much larger, more grand theme that culminates in the climactic release of the paragraph quoted above.

The final chapters are far from being mere addenda, or to use musical terminology a coda. Rather, they describe certain practical considerations of how the picture drawn in this paragraph work themselves out, first in the lives of musicians (the issue of expertise and technical mastery) and the larger question of the evolutionary basis of the development of musical ability in the human species. These are variations on the now-revealed central theme, working through a whole series of questions that revolve around the the nature/nurture debate and the place of art in the life of the human species.

Levitin's books is nothing short of masterful. Whether one is a musician, a musical aficionado, or one interested in cognitive neuropsychology, the book has much to offer, with a minimum of technical vocabulary - either musical or scientific - to interfere with the flow of explication. As one reads through the paragraph quoted above, taking the time to work through it slowly, it is nothing short of remarkable what is occurring within our brains as we sit and listen to music. Even more amazing is the reality that we human beings have the ability to do all that, and do other things while listening to music. I do hope you are still listening to whatever music you put on. Your brain is doing all that stuff and I hope continuing to process the words on the computer screen in front of you. Perhaps other physical stimuli is being processed, too, whether it's the amount of light or darkness around you, the background sounds in the room or house. In short, what makes the book amazing is what it reveals about the ability of the human brain, engaged in what some consider such a trivial activity, sitting and listening to music. Everything from memory to the pleasure center to the emotive portions of the brain are not just firing but exchanging information, the neurological activity constantly moving among the various areas of the brain working as a piece of music plays.

Whether one likes hip-hop or hoedown, reggae or Rachmaninov, your brain is involved in a complex operation, a series of evolutionary adaptations related to other characteristics but resulting, as biologist Ernst Mayr describes them, in an emergent phenomenon that also is rooted in human evolution, in what Darwin referred to as sexual selection. Music is part and parcel of what it means to be human for no less a reason than musical ability is one of the forces in mate selection. Levitin offers the simple example of rock stars and the sheer volume of sexual conquests they have; I had a similar discussion at work with a colleague just a few days ago about Vince Neil, lead singer of the 80's hard rock band Motley Crue. While hardly begrudging rock musicians one of the perks of the trade, it is a bit frustrating that even Vince Neil manages to win this particular evolutionary battle. Reading Levitin, it makes sense why this is so.

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