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Friday, January 18, 2008

Your Brain on Music

Ever wonder why a particular song can automatically put you in a great mood, while another can move you to tears? Why certain songs get stuck in our heads? And how these reactions are created by the composer?
Some explanations can be found in "This Is Your Brain On Music--The Science Of A Human Obsession." It's by Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D. a former record producer, sound engineer, and A&R agent for Columbia Records. He now runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal. Levitin says through studies of music and the brain, we've learned to map out specific areas involved in emotion, timing and perception -- and production of sequences. "They've told us how the brain deals with patterns and how it completes them when there's misinformation," says Levitin."What we're learning about the part in the frontal lobe called BA47 is the most exciting. Music suggests that it's a region that helps us predict what comes next in a sequence."Levitin says we've learned a lot about music perception from people with brain disorders or injuries."We've learned that musical ability is actually not one ability but a set of abilities, a dozen or more. Through brain damage, you can lose one component and not necessarily lose the others. You can lose rhythm and retain pitch, for example, that kind of thing. We see equivalents in the visual domain: People lose color perception or shape perception."Levitin says he thinks of the brain as a computational device. "It has a bunch of little components that perform calculations on some small aspect of the problem, and another part of the brain has to stitch it all together, like a tapestry or a quilt."Levitin has also looked at this from an evolutionary perspective, to answer the question: Why did humans develop music in the first place? "There are a number of different theories. One theory is that music is an evolutionary accident, piggybacking on language: We exploited language to create music just for our own pleasure. A competing view, one that Darwin held, is that music was selected by evolution because it signals certain kinds of intellectual, physical and sexual fitness to a potential mate."So how does that play out in rock 'n' roll?"(Research has shown that) if women could choose who they'd like to be impregnated by, they'd choose a rock star. There's something about the rock star's genes that is signaling creativity, flexibility of thinking, flexibility of mind and body, an ability to express and process emotions -- not to mention that (musical talent) signals that if you can waste your time on something that has no immediate impact on food-gathering and shelter, you've got your food-gathering and shelter taken care of."What are we learning about the link between music and emotion in the brain? "Music activates the same parts of the brain and causes the same neurochemical cocktail as a lot of other pleasurable activities like orgasms or eating chocolate -- or if you're a gambler winning a bet or using drugs if you're a drug user. Serotonin and dopamine are both involved," says Levitin.Could music be an antidepressant? "It is already -- most people in Western society use music to regulate moods, whether it's playing something peppy in the morning or something soothing at the end of a hard day, or something that will motivate them to exercise. Joni Mitchell told me that someone once said before there was Prozac, there was her."

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