The late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks had a big hit back in 2007 with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, addressing as it did from Sacks’ unquenchably brain- and music-curious perspective a connection almost all of us feel instinctively. We know we love music, and we know that love must have something to do with how our brains work, but for most of human history we haven’t had many credible explanations for what’s going on. But science has discovered more about the relationship between music and the brain, and we’ve posted about some of those fascinating discoveries as they come out. (Have a look at all the related posts below.)
But now, a study from MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research has revealed exactly which parts of our brains respond specifically to music. They’ve put out a brief video of this research, which you can watch above, explaining their process, which involved putting subjects into an MRI and playing them various sounds, then studying how their brains responded differently to music than to, say, the spoken word or a flushing toilet. Not looking to test any hypothesis in particular, the research team found “striking selectivity” in which regions of the brain lit up, in their specially designed analytical model, in response to music.
“Why do we have music?” asks the McGovern Institute’s Dr. Nancy Kanwisher in a New York Times article on the research by Natalie Angier. “Why do we enjoy it so much and want to dance when we hear it? How early in development can we see this sensitivity to music, and is it tunable with experience? These are the really cool first-order questions we can begin to address.” The piece also quotes Josef Rauschecker, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition at Georgetown University, citing “theories that music is older than speech or language,” and that “some even argue that speech evolved from music,” which “works as a group cohesive. Music-making with other people in your tribe is a very ancient, human thing to do.” Which all, of course, goes to support the bold hypothesis put forth by the late Tower Records: No Music, No Life.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.