Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The brain and classical music

Source: www.youtube.com.
Title: Classical Music and the Brain. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srv4uvTB0sI.
The video features Oliver Sachs as a subject for two experiments held at Columbia University.

In the first experiment Sachs is asked to listen to a familiar piece of music while an fMRI is performed. Then he is asked to imagine the same piece in his head; again, an fMRI is performed. The comparison of the two fMRIs shows changes in blood flow in the brain during the two sessions. In both sessions, many brain regions were active in the same way; however, from the scans it is clear that 1) the frontal lobe, which performs the higher functions, is more active in the second session, when Sachs is imagining the piece, and 2) we cannot say anything about what piece Sachs was listening to, or imagining. The final question posited in the video is: are all brains musical, or only those that are trained to be musical?

In the second experiment, Sachs undergoes another pair of fMRI scans, to see whether his brain loves Bach as much as he does. During the experiment, he has to listen to two pieces: one by J. S. Bach and one by L. van Beethoven. Verbally, Sachs confirms that piece by Bach blew him away, while Beethoven’s left him flat. The scans show that the brain activity confirms his emotional description, and that Bach’s piece activated Sachs’ amygdale (which is crucial for processing emotions), while Beethoven’s music did not.

In his verbal description about his reaction to the two performances, Sachs states that, at a certain point during the experiment, he was not able to distinguish between the music of Bach and that of Beethoven; however, the fMRI scan confirms that his brain was.

The second experiment highlights that, in certain situations, parts of the brain operate independently from our will and consciousness (in the specific case, when an emotional state is involved). This makes me wonder what results the same experiment could produce on not-musically trained, or knowledgeable, subjects, and/or on subjects who do not know the repertoire played during the experiment. For example, how would the brain process the emotional side of the “unknown”? Would this emotional side still be processed in the amygdale or in other areas? Also, would the relationship between emotional and organizational sides of this “unknown” experience interact to generate different neuronal paths and activate different areas? My guess is that the role of memory would be crucial in this sense. But how?

Also, according to the first experiment, we can understand what areas of the brain are activated by certain information, but we cannot say anything about the content of that information as processed by the brain. Where does the integration among the different elements of the experience happen? And what is its nature?

1 comment:

mrmusic said...

This was a fascinating experiment. It confirms for me that some music evokes an emotional response, while other music does not.
I remember back a number of years ago when I was watching "Amadeus." The tearing up that I felt during the singing of his Requiem as his lifeless body was thrown into the pit evoked an emotional response of sadness, a sense of finality. I must note that I did not have this emotional response with all music heard in the film.
I am wondering whether the amygdala engages in an emotional response even when I do not have a physical reaction; goosebumps, tears, etc. This Youtube presentation seems to suggest that it might!