This is your brain on music 

UCF instructors explore the intersection of music and neuroscience

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As anyone with compulsive-listening habits already knows, music is a drug. It can draw you in, sometimes inexplicably, compelling you to put a particular song on repeat or demanding that you listen to the same album over and over again.

That’s because, in processing music, our brains act like a pesky radio DJ infecting us with earworms – continually rotating the music in our minds, reacting to it and releasing dopamine that rewards us for the experience. It nourishes the nervous system and stimulates portions of the brain that moderate how we perceive and emote, and the physical way we function. Even a casual listener has a more complex relationship with music than you might think.

This is probably why Billboard charts exist, and it explains why so many of us can’t stop spinning the new Phoenix album.

And naturally, neuroscience is fascinated by our relationship to music. In the past eight years, especially, science has been increasingly obsessed with how music affects the brain. Neurological investigations into song have already begotten concrete conclusions. Sometimes the findings are somewhat trivial, such as the fact that music literally prompts the brain to send a signal to our feet, urging: “Tap your toes, fool.” But they’ve also turned up astounding findings connected to brain disease and musical therapy for patients with a range of conditions. For instance, in May, doctors had a Parkinson’s patient play guitar throughout the duration of a brain surgery to aid the process. During this experimental first, the musician’s performance activated his brain in a way that helped doctors locate the region on which they needed to operate. In this way, scientists have found, music can literally improve the quality of life for people who suffer from brain damage.

And that evidence has not been overlooked by two instructors at the University of Central Florida, where for the past seven years, the pair has actively studied the connection between music and the human brain with students. In 2006, a year before Dr. Oliver Sacks published his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and popularized this exact discussion, UCF began offering a course through the Burnett Honors College called “How Music Affects the Brain.” Offered only during the spring semester, the class has been wildly popular. Students gravitate to the peculiar conversational concoction of music, psychology and neuroscience. Since the class only admits 20 students, it’s in high demand, filling up well before the school’s typical enrollment period even starts, necessitating a waiting list. In fact, the spring 2014 course is already full.

The course was pioneered by Dr. Kiminobu Sugaya, a UCF professor of neuroscience, and Juilliard-trained violinist and UCF professor Ayako Yonetani, neither of whom can recall the impetus for creating it, besides a stray notion it might be popular. The pair blended their backgrounds to create a course with an interdisciplinary approach to exploring brain functions tied to mood, emotion, pain, cognition and memory.

“We used to think just of music as soothing. Like a painkiller, a calm-down pill. That’s the only purpose of music being used about 10 years ago,” Sugaya says. “Nobody was thinking about music to be used for stimulation. … When we started this class, like seven or eight years ago, nobody was talking about the music and the brain. Now if you search for websites or something, you see it’s going to show a long list. But when we started, none. None exists. Only our class. ... So this kind of study is very new.”

Their work on the topic attracted the interest of the Central Florida Society for Neuroscience, a nonprofit organization that was formed by one of Sugaya's undergraduate students, Mario Pita. This nonprofit earned a grant from the Society for Neuroscience, which they immediately invested to launch an event series they hope will serve two purposes: to stimulate general interest in neuroscience developments in the Orlando area and to help generate an active local neuroscience community. The first event in the series was titled “Music and the Brain,” a lecture and concert that was held at the UCF College of Medicine Lewis Auditorium on May 11. It featured Sugaya as the speaker and Yonetani supporting him on violin. Thanks to radio promotion from our local NPR affiliate, WMFE (90.7 FM), the event drew a crowd of enthusiastic music and science aficionados who were eager to ask questions: Why does relaxing music disrupt my sleep patterns? Is modern music more complex than classical compositions? Are we less affected by dissonance than our ancestors? This last question intrigued Yonetani, who was willing to entertain a Darwinist filter on humanity’s engagement with music.

“At the conference the other day, somebody said, ‘We have more tolerance for dissonance than we did in the 18th century,’” Yonetani says. “So in a way, it might be that we’re so used to some dissonance, and they’re using it in music more, so it’s not shocking. In that way, I think there’s evolution.”

While science has learned that music can motivate people physically, Sugaya and Yonetani wondered: Could it motivate people in Orlando to voluntarily attend public lectures about science? They hoped so. They intend to host their series quarterly, relying on popular topics like music to charm people into appreciating neuroscience and, to varying degrees, its life-altering advancements. Future events could hinge on subjects like visual arts and stem-cell research, which is the principal field Sugaya investigates – although even in this different arena, it seems he always comes back to the music.

His most recent neurological investigation, for instance, is inspired by songbirds. He noted that birds learn songs in the spring but forget them by the time fall comes. (This sounds an awful lot like how we digest music in recent times, learning a band’s new album thoroughly at its release but forgetting it almost entirely a few months later.) When he looked at the brains of those birds, he discovered that when they relearn the same songs the following spring, they re-create neurons to do so. This led him to hypothesize that music itself was stimulating the regeneration of cells. Imagine the implications of these findings if applied to stem-cell developments in other species, and it’s easy to become enchanted by the physical impact of music on our systems and the different way this art form, typically regarded as purely for entertainment, or famously dismissed by popular scientist Steven Pinker as “auditory cheesecake,” can actually nourish us.

In Sugaya and Yonetani’s UCF course, the brain is examined purely in relation to instrumental, primarily classical, music. Because lyrics have a meaning of their own, which the brain must interpret separately from the melody, they focus the course on instrumental works used for military purposes and in movies and advertising. Students work in groups intentionally comprised of individuals with differing backgrounds in music, psychology or biology, and the study is supplemented by music recordings that help them experience firsthand the effects they’re discussing in class.

“I often demonstrate and discuss things by actually playing the violin, which is sometimes more powerful than words,” Yonetani says.

Perhaps it’s because music speaks in ways a straight lecture cannot. For the majority of people, music is processed in the part of the brain where language is processed, including the primary motor cortex and the auditory cortices, which are known to be activated not only when we hear music, but also when we think of it, as neuroscientist Robert Zatorre observed in the ’90s. When students in the UCF program require an example of brain stimulation, they are treated to a performance by Yonetani.

“It is easier for her to express herself in music than in the words,” Sugaya says. “This may be true for many musicians, since music … uses the same part of the brain used for language.”

The UCF course has expanded since it was first conceived, and the discussion these days frequently broadens to include subjects that intrigue the current crop of students. (For instance, one class included a presentation that investigated the recreational use of music to produce a specific “high,” called iDosing.)

In the last two years, cognitive neuroscientists around the world have expanded their research into music to include not just instrumental music, but also a wider range of genres, including rock and rap. One study in October 2012 by scientists connected to the National Institutes of Health, called “Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation,” demonstrated that freestyle rapping activated entirely different parts of the brain than rehearsed raps over the same beats. What’s more, the act of freestyling required the brain to shut down certain parts to allow the rapper to form the loose associations that make for biting lyrics. If only we could get brain scans on Eminem or – perhaps better – go back in time for a look at Big L’s perisylvian cortex.

In September 2012, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart let scientists broadcast his brain scans in front of a live audience at the annual meeting of the American Association of Retired Persons in New Orleans. This was not just a publicity stunt. Hart started working with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley to study how rhythm can help Alzheimer’s patients after he noticed his grandmother’s communication abilities were improved by the sound of his drumming. In this way, music is more than just a recreational drug people are bingeing on – it’s also a medical tool with curative properties that scientists are discovering and substantiating in studies happening every day.

But unlike a drug whose impact is largely known, music has an intriguingly (and frustratingly) vague mixture of effects on the brain that depends completely upon the individual. A musician experiences a wholly different listening experience than a small child first exposed to melodies. No two guitarists replicate the same brain activity after hearing the same song. So no matter what science discovers, your relationship with music will always be unique. That’s pretty punk.

“For a novice, we’re using only the side of the brain called the temporal lobe,” Sugaya says. “And that’s the part for language, speaking and listening. The same idea of the language center we use when listening to music, but on top of that, musicians, they use the occipital lobe, that’s the visual, meaning when they are listening to music, they are seeing this kind of score.”

This ability to conjure musical imagery is distinctly tied to how we use our brains, meaning some people really are better-suited toward musicality than others, so if you struggled through piano lessons or squawk the lyrics of your favorite song, be comforted by the knowledge that your brain simply works in other ways. In Musicophilia, Sacks details many cases of individuals whose musical talents were triggered by brain damage, lending credence to this theory. But that doesn’t mean all musicians are brain-damaged.

“We, musicians, need to imagine what notes we want to produce seconds before the actual sound comes out. We are all trained to imagine music,” Yonetani says. “We ‘sing’ music in our mind seconds before we actually play.”

Whether you’re a musician, a music enthusiast or just someone occasionally bombarded by indie rock bands during commercials (have you seen Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s ad for Delta Faucets yet?), the music you encounter indisputably activates your brain to influence the emotional, perceptual and physical quality of your life. In regard to health, there are unusual cases where music is as much tied to maladies (such as music-listening-induced seizures) as it is to cures and therapies. But given the rapid advancements of research in the cognitive neuroscience of music, sparing time to listen could become as regularly doctor-recommended as your daily vitamins in the very near future.

“[There’s] a big, big difference,” Sugaya says, between the benefits to a musician versus a listener. “But listening to music is better than nothing.”

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