Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Music and the Nature of the Mind

“Rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul.”
-- Plato (426-348 BCE) --
The poets, philosophers and seers of  the world's great wisdom traditions so often seem to have spoken directly to the truths in life which modern science is now confirming. Perhaps this indicates how the questions we have are universal and therefore frame the questions that science is most interested in answering; or, perhaps we have always sensed where the answers to our greatest questions lie, and science is just now getting around to investigate 'why' our answers 'are' what they are.

In a fascinating video account of how music affects us (embedded below), Dr. Annirudh Patel, of the Neurosciences Institute, looks at the intersection of the arts and science, in his investigation of where and how music and the brain interact "Interest in music and the mind," he notes, "is as ancient as philosophy itself."

Patel begins his account by referencing studies that show how music stimulates deep and evolutionarlily ancient structures in the brain, the same pain/pleasure structures associated with eating and sex. These structures, Patel notes, are triggered and release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine while an individual is listening to his or her favourite musical passages, the musical passages which give one a shiver or a tingle in their spine. "Somehow," Dr. Patel observes, "listening to instrumental music, a very abstract activity, is accessing the same brain structures as are behaviours important for our physical survival and reproduction."

Music, it turns out, not only stimulates both the ventral tagmental area and the nucleus accumbens, two ancient brain structures that are close to the amygdalla and the brain stem. But, Patel notes, music also activates a host of brain functions that are correlated to a host of other specialized regions throughout the brain, including regions related to emotion, memory, learning and plasticity, attention, motor control, pattern perception, imagery and many more. And the wide impact that music has on our brains may make it a portal into understanding the deeper questions of mind science.

Music, no less than language, is a defining trait of our species; universal to human beings, and unique to human minds; a controversial remark when one considers the song of the meadowlark or the nightingale. However, Patel notes, birds sing only at specific times and for specific reasons that are involved primarily with territoriality and reproduction, while humans in every culture make music in the widest of circumstances and for a myriad of reasons.

Displaying an image of a 35,000 year old flute made from the wing-bone of a swan in the late Pleistocene Age, Patel explores whether we have been shaped by other evolutionary strands to be musical, or whether other forces are at play. Just as language has a grammar and syntax, Patel notes, so does music, and these features of each may be related.

Just as there is a dysfunction resulting in the loss of language skills (i.e., aphaysia), there is also a lesser know dysfunction resulting in the loss of some portion of each individual's innate musical ability, amusia. And damage to any number of different brain regions can result in different forms of amusia, showing the complex and diverse physiology of our musical abilities.

In order to understand our linguistic and musical abilities, and their interrelatedness, Patel compares  linguistic and musical 'anomalies' - glaring grammatical errors and off-key musical errors. Language and musical grammars it appears overlap in terms of the brain regions each utilizes. Patel found that  professional musicians with highly sensitized musical regions who suffer aphaysia do not typically suffer amusia as well, while persons with normal musical abilities suffering aphaysia do suffer amusia, demonstrating that the "grammar functions" of language and music are closely related.

Interestingly, in comparing musical abilities across species, Patel notes that there are only a relatively few species that have achieved what he term "vocal learning' - that is, the ability to learn and produce complex vocal and/or musical patterns based on what is heard. These include humans, certain songbirds (including parrots), cetaceans (whales and dolphin), as well as some species of bats and seals. Notably, humans are the only primates to have developed vocal learning skills. Our closest relations amongst the world's varied species, the chimpanzees and binobos, appear to be devoid of this vocal learning ability.

Patel posits that by tapping into the innate ability of some species - particularly ours - to process and replicate music (or vocal sounds), neuroscience may be able to shed some light on the elusive question as to just how 'the mind' is related to 'the brain.' Music, he notes, engages many brain functions, is complex yet highly reducible, has its own grammar, and lends itself readily to studies of learning. Along with the ability to compare structure and functions of the brain across varied species, Patel holds out the hope that musical neuroscience can shed some light on the question of how the gray matter of the brain is somehow turned into that which each of us recognizes as 'mind.' And this, of course, is perhaps the question which haunts not only neurology, but key disciplines in biology, chemistry and physics.

Rhythm and harmony may, thus, indeed be the key into "the secret places" of our souls, as Plato so presciently observed millennia ago. And if so, it will help unravel a whole host of until now unanswerable questions, including why we appear to be the only species that seem capable of being not only conscious, but of being conscious of our consciousness; a question which, in and of itself, is a question worthy of Plato.

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