Friday, January 1, 2010

The music of our brain (Film - The Music Instinct & Book - Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki)

Typically, the new year is rung in here with friends and fondue but The Ragazzo has been so sick that he was in bed and I celebrated by doing the laundry, watching a video, and going to bed at 10:30. Woo- hoo. Hope you brought in 2010 with more appropriate pomp.

The Music Instinct: Science and Song
is the video I watched. It is a film by Elena Mannes first aired on PBS. I received it from The Ragazzo's brother and sister-in-law this christmas and it is about the latest research on music and neuroscience - one of my pet topics. It features all the usual PBS-type folks - musicians Bobby McFerrin and Yo-yo Ma, Oliver Sacks, and physicist Brian Greene - but it had pretty decent coverage of the major researchers in the relatively small field of music and cognition. It begins with a discussion between scientist Daniel Levitin and musician Bobby McFerrin asking - "Why music?" Levitin was the most well known researcher in the film because of his book This is Your Brain on Music, but they also had John Sloboda, Robert Zatorre, Isabelle Peretz, Sandra Trehub, and Aniruddh Patel (among others) - all respected researchers in the field. It was better than some pop-science I've seen in presenting more than one side of an argument, but it did not offer a narrative that clearly told the inexperienced viewer that that is what it was doing. It wanted, like most television fare, to make grand claims that could not be supported by the research presented. They ended with the Audra McDonald's voice-over saying - "Why music? It is written into our very being. Science is showing us that song is at the core of life." The film is straining to tell us that music is tied in some essential way to our DNA, although in actuality the film ended with a few differing opinions about why humans make music and it would have been more honest to have told that story. However it makes for an engaging primer on the subject for the lay-person and I found the inclusion of Brian Greene useful in that the program discussed not just the esoteric musings of a small group of specialized researchers about why music might have evolved in human culture whether as an adaptive feature or as a useless adornment, Greene discussed music as a physical phenomenon - a patterned disturbance of air - or a wave - and Levitin stressed music's ability to coordinate the firing of neurons and that reminded me of a book I have been meaning to pick up for the last six months - Rhythms of the Brain by Gyorgy Buzsaki - so I unearthed it and began reading last night (we really know how to party here at Bookeywookey central).

Buzsaki book does not address music per se, it focuses on rhythm, particular oscillatory patterns or periodic disturbances to a system or state as they occur across time. This phenomenon is found throughout nature and Buzsaki is particularly interested in groups of neurons that fire in patterns, establishing a temporal metric which could then organize larger patterns of activity among cells in the brain. This is seen as a self-organizing action that subsequently impacts the brain's cognitive and motor functions and whose temporal nature is essential to what may be the brain's primary reason for existing - predicting what will occur next in the environment.
Predictions and relationships are constructed by ordering the succession of events according to elapsed subjective time. We are usually able to say which of two events happened before the other...the cause precedes the effect in time.
If one observes how reactive systems evolved from single-cell creatures to nerve nets in hydra to complex mammalian brains over millenia, the substantial adaptation offered by a brain like ours is that of predicting events before they occur and the ability to more sophisticatedly collect data from our environment and use it to intercede in what would otherwise be an automatic repertoire of responses.

Buzsaki's range of knoweldge is broad - bringing in chaos theory, electrophysiology, mathematics and biology. His language is the language of science - when he day dreams he tells you so and when the information he presents has been measured via experimental means and expressed as a probability (as all study conclusions are) he tells you that. His writing is down-to-earth and very engaging and since he writes about the phenomenon of rhythm, I find his thinking stimulating for relating one of the features of music (which evolved along with the rest of the natural cultural word) with brain function. A superb book so far.

Buzsaki and my continued exploration of the superb Irish novelist Deirdre Madden with her The Birds of the Innocent Wood make up my reading as 2010 begins. And yourself?


Adam said...

Glad to see you're getting around to this book! Buzsaki really hits his stride in the last few chapters. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. I know I did. We should chat about it when you're done.

You write very well about science, Ted. I hope you have to opportunity to write reviews in the future.

Ted said...

Adam - Yes, at last I am reading this book in earnest (ah, the importance of being earnest). You bet we'll chat about it. I'm hoping we can get Buzsaki to speak at one of our colloquia soon.
Thanks for the compliment and Happy '10. I'll be around ccny at some point this week.