Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds
By Mitzi Baker Stanford University, CaliforniaAugust 1, 2007
Report By: Shauna Garelick
This study examines what occurs in the brain during transitions between movements in music of the late 18th century. The purpose of this study is to determine how the brain sorts out aural matter that exists around it deciding what is meaningful and how the brain is able to sort out events. Studies showed that during concerts, the attention of a person wanders until there is a transitional moment between movements where the attention stops and is focused. “The research team showed that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating the event in memory.” (Vinod Menon). The study also showed that music from 200 years ago helps the brain to organize information. The study used music to help analyze the brain activity through a process called event segmentation. This process is defined as the “brain’s attempt to make sense of the continual flow of information that the real world generates.” (Baker, Mitzi). The brain chunks information into beginning, middle, end and transitional data. Dr. Jonathan Berger, PhD suggests that music could be a way of helping the brain to anticipate events and sustain information. Ten men and eight women entered the MRI scanner with noise-reducing headphones, with instructions to simply listen passively to the music. “Having a mismatch between what listeners expect to hear vs. what they actually hear—for example, if an unrelated chord follows an ongoing harmony—triggers similar ventral regions of the brain. Once activated, that region partitions the deviant chord as a different segment with distinct boundaries.” (Baker, Mitzi)
This study is interesting in its attempt to better comprehend not just how the brain reacts to music, but how it listens to music. The research that is discussed about the significance in how the brain reacts to silence is particularly interesting. However, there is little discussion of hypotheses as to why this might be the case. Another possible hole in the experiment exists in the specificity of the fact that the researchers only paid attention to late Baroque music. They did not state why this music was chosen only why the particular composer and piece within that era of music was chosen. (unrecognizable but formulaic nature). If there is something specific in music of that era that was being studied, it should be addressed. The language used to give instructions to the participants of the study seem like they are vague and difficult to track. The article addressed problem that exists with the loud MRI machine and provided the participants with noise-blocking headphones. However, the instructions asked them to “simply listen passively to the music.” (Baker, Mitzi). How is passive listening defined? Is it possible to control and judge whether or not a person is engaged in active or passive listening? It is difficult to imagine that if the only thing there is to do is listen to the music that passive listening is going on.
I became interested in this study through my research that I am doing on music and Autism. I am particularly interested in sensory perception. Individuals with autism struggle with the ability to identify meaningful sounds among other everyday noises. However, their ability to predict sounds and their pitch perception is far superior to individuals without autism. The future goals that were articulated in the study is to better understand how people are able to pick out meaningful conversation at a party or in a noisy environment. Perhaps if they are successful in determining how the brain achieves this, there will be better insight as to what part of the brain affects the sensory perception in individuals with autism and discover why they are unable to achieve this function. I believe that this study is still very narrow in its attempt to use music. Will silence that occurs within piece of music have the same effect? It will be interesting to track this study and learn what they will do next to follow-up what they have learned. It seems that there are a variety of paths that this may take given the unexpected information that they have gathered from this study.