Where Is Music in the Mind?
You may never have heard of Charles Limb. He’s a otolaryngologist and musician with joint appointments at the Johns Hopkins Medical School and the Peabody Institute, one of the nation’s finer music consrvatories. He wants the cochlear implants he puts in people’s ears to hear music better, and figures the way to do that is to find out how music works in the brain.
So he studies jazz musicians – people who improvise on the fly.
Limb was profiled recently on NPR’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which is a really entertaining show if you like waking up at 6 on Saturday morning (you can get the podcasts at ttbook.org.) So what did Limb find out?
How difficult it is to study musicians playing in an MRI machine.
MRI machines are giant magnets. To do any research they had to create a functioning keyboard that uses no iron based, magnetically primed materials.
That was for starters. Then you needed special mirrors so players could see what they were playing (this was no ordinary keyboard.) Next, special headphones so they could hear what they were playing against the background music of four other musicians recorded earlier. Then, more special hardware so they could actually see and play with someone else – improvising, like they do in daily life, with other musicians.
Improvising in the Brain
These were some of the results:
- When musicians started playing they deactivated large parts of their prefrontal cortex, important in decision making and analysis.
- They activated instead their “default network” (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811907001309) – the part of the brain that is always “on” in active rest when people have “nothing to do” and are “doing nothing.”
- The activation of the default network really took flight when they were deeply improvising.
Lots of people wonder what the default network “does.” It’s known it’s “active” when people are daydreaming or meditating. Many think it’s heavily involved in the sometimes denigrated “housekeeping” parts of the brain which allow the brain to continuously rebuild and regrow.
But here was an example of relatively “pure” creativity – jazz musicians making up and simultaneously playing new music directly from their heads. And the part of the brain they used to do much of it is the one implicated in “active” rest.
Things got more interesting when musicians played with other musicians. New areas lighted up like Christmas trees. They were brain language areas.
It was as if the musicians were having a musical conversation.
Clicks, Blind People, and Bats
The brain is more multivalent than we give it credit for. Recent studies have looked at echolocution in people.
It’s not just bats that use clicks to find their way.
It’s been known for some time that blind people will sometimes use sounds they make themselves to figure out where they are. A few in Britain were finally studied with fMRI to see what happened to their brains.
Auditory areas were certainly activated. But for those who navigated through the world using self-created sounds, the area that really lit up was the visual cortex.
The blind were using their brain’s visual areas to topographically “see” where they were in the world – except they did not see anything. Their brains were using the visual cortex, but the inputs were auditory.
That’s what we normally do when dealing with disease – the body tries to find ways around the bottlenecks. In these blind people, visual areas are used to create “visual” maps in the mind of the world outside – though without vision itself.
Our brains evolved, rather than developed from engineering models. Parts that were “designed” to do one thing end up doing parts of many other processes.
The British studies of blind echolocution show how adaptable the brain is. If a part can’t be used for what it normally does, use it for something else.
Similar implications come from Limb’s musical studies. The so-called “default mode” is anything but default – it’s involved in creativity and innovation. Rather than “resting” it is at the least a repository of thoughts and simulations which are then used to analyze, combine, and facilitate brain functions everywhere.
And “language” areas of the brain quickly get involved when someone is playing music with another musician; so some of their function involves listening, collating, and responding – to data that are beyond language.
That’s what the body does – regenerate as it needs. The brain is ever learning, ever shifting, doing many things simultaneously and silently – so quietly we never get to notice until we decipher the biochemistry and energy flows. All of which show us our capacity to adapt and renew is not infinite, but remarkably powerful.
That adaptivity is itself adaptive. It does much to keep us alive.
Even in “rest.”
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