Monday, October 10, 2011

A Mind for Music

Nova Short: Inside Oliver Sacks' Brain (PBS)
This is a 4:23YouTube taken from a longer 45 minute DVD: Nova's Musical Minds, June 30, 2009
PBS #WG43209
Neuroscientist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks explores why some brains cannot decode music while other brains are sensitive to the slightest musical nuance in a 45 minute 2009 PBS documentary called Musical Minds: Can the power of music make the brain come alive?  In this 4 minute YouTube excerpt, Dr. Sacks is seeking to understand how the brain reacts to music. So he offers himself as a subject to study this very question. Sacks undergoes an fMRI to see how his brain will react to the music he loves. Sacks confesses he has had a distinct preference and love for J.S. Bach’s music since the age of seven.
Columbia University neuroscience researchers Hal Henkel and Joy Hirsch design a test to reveal if Sacks’ brain loves Bach as much as he does. With a device to rate his emotions in hand, a scanner will record Sacks’ brain activity as he enters the imaging machine. He hears two pieces of music, one by Bach and one by Beethoven. The researchers have selected musical samples that share certain qualities. For example, both pieces are choral works, similar in tempo and mood. When asked to respond to the music, Sacks replies that the Bach piece “blew me away” while the Beethoven “left me flat”. In fact, the scan confirmed those feelings. The brain scan of Sacks’ responses to Bach showed that many areas of the brain became activated while listening, and particularly the right amygdale, vital to processing emotion. The brain scan of Sacks’ responses to Beethoven scarcely lit up.
During the scan, there was a section where Sacks admittedly could not distinguish Bach from Beethoven and he had no feeling for what he was hearing.  Even when Sacks could not tell the two pieces of music apart the brain recognized the difference.  The brain favored Bach. During that time of confusion in the scan, Sacks' brain lit up in the same areas as when he was moved by the Bach piece just moments before.
Henkel , Hirsch and Sacks conclude that the brain is able to recognize and prefer music even if we don't.


The fMRI scans declare with vivid illumination Dr. Sacks’ preference for Bach. The contrasted scans between Bach and Beethoven are truly impressive.  I wouldn’t have predicted Sacks to be moved so little by Beethoven.
It was the point of Sacks' confusion during the scan that fascinated me most. While musical styles were not the same, the works were comparable and Sacks himself lost track of whether he was listening to Bach or Beethoven. How did the brain know to prefer Bach when emotional rating cues were not being given? Could it be the neural circuitry was more lit up for Bach because the brain defaults to preferential circuitry when confused? Or could age make musical preference more acute? Or did the brain recognize stylistic features of Bach on its own and default to some kind of auditory memory?
This test makes me wonder about  people that have eclectic preferences, where the love of musical style is not so poignant as Sacks' love affair with Bach. Will the brain be activated as pervasively through a number of preferential genres?
This test shows that the brain can respond independently of the affective response. My sense is that Sacks' brain has been acculturated to the stylistic nuances and emotional response neural circuitry of J. S. Bach. This brain has listened and responded to Bach for seventy years. It simply continued to do so.

1 comment:

carlk4574 said...

Does anyone know the name of the Bach piece that was played during this experiment/segment of the show?