Saturday, December 20, 2008

singin' in the brain*

"Mental concerts: Musical imagery and auditory cortex." Neuron 47 (2005): pp9-12.
a Minireview by Robert Zatorre & Andrea Halpern


The challenge of quantifying thoughts, feelings and images as they relate to the brain has always been the subjectivity of these inner processes. Cognitive scientists overcome the subjectivity problem by taking an overt measurement that provides evidence of a covert mental process. In other words, one can infer the existence of a certain process by observing the effect caused by that process.

Recent Advances in the Study of Musical Imagery
Imagery is not exclusively visual; most people "intuitively understand what it means to 'hear a tune in your head'". Studies are now being performed to discover what are the psychological and neural mechanisms associated with these processes. The studies seem to "converge on one principal finding: that neural activity in auditory cortex can occur in the absence of sound and that this activity likely mediates the phenomenological experience of imagining music." Of course, there are still substantive issues that need to be researched, including everything from the relative contributions of various parts of the brain to the role of musical training in musical imagery.

Methodological Problems and Solutions
Even with functional imaging techniques, there is still the problem of knowing which neurological process is being observed. One solution to this problem "involves behavioral indices, such that an overt response is measured that either depends on or correlates with the imagined event." Some of the 'cognitive overhead' involved with neuroimaging can be accounted for with appropriate control conditions. fMRI technology poses a unique problem in that it is noisy, which causes an auditory cortical response. This problem can be mitigated with noise abatement strategies.

What Role Does Auditory Cortex Play in Imagery?
Although most imagery studies show that the auditory cortex responds even in the absence of sound and that this "response tends to co-occur with subjective reports of imagining music", there have not been enough studies done to reliably conclude which auditory imagery tasks elicit primary activation. Many questions remain concerning the experience of imagery but studies seem to indicate that the auditory cortex interacts with the frontal cortical areas to initiate imagery.

Auditory versus Motor Imagery
Studies of musicians have examined motor imagery (or the imagining of the kinesthetics involved in a particular action) from the simplest of tapping sequences to complex musical routines and shown high probability of connection in the brain of auditory and motor imagery.

Cross-Modal Interactions
Studies seem to show that processing in one sensory modality can have an effect on processing in another, even if both actions are based on imaginary information.

As musical imagery is important to musicians an understanding of the neural process of imagery might be helpful in educating musicians about optimizing this skill. Musical imagery involves several modalities: visual, motor/kinesthetic and auditory. Although studies are still limited, it seems that mental practice improves performance.

This article provides a really interesting overview of some of the studies that are of particular interest to musicians in regards to mental imagery. It also brings home how much more work there is left to do in order to have the information and concrete numbers that may help musicians to use mental imagery more efficiently. Right now there is very little educational application to these studies. On the other hand, the results thus far seem to concur with and confirm general thoughts of the musicians I know concerning the value of mental imagery.

by Shannon Coates

*As IF I'm not using that for the title of my essay. AS IF.


Sharon Dutton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon Dutton said...

Hi Shannon - I seem to always have the "monkey chatter" going on in my brain, whether it's musical or not, it is a real challenge to engage in mindful meditation practice. I wonder, when all these thoughts are going on, if the "language centre" in the brain is activated when we think, much like the auditory cortex is activated when we "think" music... (you still didn't tell me how you get colours in your posts)