Music and the mind-what's the purpose?

i-12f755cc6cd5679e47224c414bfc8901-2-12-07 music mind.gif Ever listen to a piece of music and get that "shiver-down-the-spine" feeling? Scientists in Canada are trying to understand this and other phenomena that connect music and the brain.

The researchers, based at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research (BRAMS) in Montreal, have set out to understand how and why the human brain allows us to create and respond to music.

The relationship between music and language is one area the research team, headed by Dr. Isabelle Peretz, a neuropsychologist at the University of Montreal, and Dr. Robert Zatorre, an experimental psychologist at McGill University, has been tackling for years.

Despite skeptics, who argued against the usefulness of this kind of research, the BRAMS researchers hypothesized that the neural circuits that produce and respond to music are different form those involved in language.

To date they have been proven correct, after showing that many patients suffering from congenital or acquired amusia, a form of tone deafness characterized by the inability to recognize or reproduce musical tones or rhythms, still retain normal language skills.

BRAMS researchers believe their studies are important because "music can serve as a probe into just about every mental function, including perception, motor performance, memory, attention, and emotion." Furthermore, such research can be applied to the rehabilitation of stroke victims or other brain injury patients.

Music still remains a mystery for most people. The role of music in human evolution is poorly understood. For example, is there a biological purpose for music in human evolution? Does music play a function in human social development? Is musical ability a genetically acquired trait? Can these ideas even be tested in the lab?

Many questions remain and it will be interesting to see what future developments come from BRAMS.

By the way, about that "shiver-down-the-spine" feeling, they have shown that it comes from the same parts of the brain associated with food and sex (amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex).

The original article is published in the February 9 issue of the journal Science.

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Wonderful research. I've always been a music Lover, and it does not at all surprise me that the same areas of the brain deal with music and sex. I'd love for science to find out what MAKES some music more sensual, e.g., Rachmaninov.

Go back in time a million years and think what purpose the neural processing that handles music had served back then.

(Hint: Ask a woodland hunter what he can tell from animal calls, birdsong, and the buzzing of bees. If it's not obvious, then try again after you've fasted a couple of days first.)

As far as the survival value of singing, those who can mimic bird sounds will catch a lot more birds than those who can't. Note that we can also whistle easily, and the first whistling ever done by humans was probably driven by the muse called Empty Belly, which if you think about it is a powerful inspiration.

By Roy (again) (not verified) on 12 Feb 2007 #permalink

This is very anecdotal, but I've heard from more than one source that stroke victims and other people with brain damage can sometimes remember music when they can remember little else. And my boss told me about a friend of his (I told you this was anecdotal!) who, when he was having trouble speaking, would sing what he was trying to say. And I know that I can much easier remember words if they're lyrics set to music than words that are just spoken or written. It doesn't seem surprising at all that music is deeply ingrained in our brains and our memory.

I look forward to seeing more research on this. In particular, I look forward to seeing what the evolutionary biologists have to say about why music is so important. (I like the theories about birdsong and animal calls...)