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Stanford University School of Medicine

Brains of different people listening to the same piece of music actually respond in the same way

Ever wonder - say, while sitting quietly in a concert hall or screaming your lungs out in a crowded ampitheater - whether the musical experience you're having is anything like that of the person three seats up or three sheets to the wind on your right?

A partial answer is in: Our brains process music in pretty much the same way, providing it's got the requisite combination of components (rhythm, melody, harmony, etc.), according to Stanford neuroscientist Vinod Menon, PhD. In a just-published study, Menon's group monitored several healthy peoples' brains while these subjects listened to the same piece of music. As the music played on, activity in a broadly distributed network of neuroanatomically connected brain areas waxed and waned very similarly for each listener. This synchrony among individual responses was absent when participants listened to "pseudomusic" stripped of  either rhythmic or tonal characteristics.

The inter-subject synchronization extended to the brain's movement-planning zone. Evolution, it seems, has designed us this way. As I wrote in my release about the study:

[O]ur brains respond naturally to musical stimulation by foreshadowing movements that typically accompany music listening: clapping, dancing, marching, singing or head-bobbing. The apparently similar activation patterns among normal individuals make it more likely our movements will be socially coordinated.

It's easy to imagine the survival value of coordinated movement in response to auditory cues. Hunting, gathering, warmaking - all benefit from choreography. That would objectively explain how people who run, shout and pump their fists in synch might win the evolutionary race.

But about the subjective aspect of this synchronization, I'm not so sure.

Look. It's important that our brains respond similarly to identical stimuli. But what about our minds? In the house of mirrors that is our consciousness, how can we know whether music sounds the same, or color looks the same, to different people?

This takes me back to long ago when, as a philosophy major at the University of Wisconsin, I flunked a course in epistemology. That's the philosophy of what we know and how we know it, and what we think we know that, actually, we don't. Turns out I didn't know much.

One day, the professor - a tweedy, pipe-puffing Princeton man who paced the room in an elbow-patch-bedecked jacket - shouted to the motley assortment of assembled esistentialist ectomorphs: "I PROPOSE. THAT. WHEN I SAY: 'BLUE!' ALL OF YOU. SEE. EXACTLY. THE SAME. COLOR!!!"

He paused. "Refute. That. Hypothesis," he snarled, taking a toke from his pugnacious pipe.

I didn't raise my hand. It raised itself. He called on me. "I see the same color slightly differently with each eye," I said, illustrating my claim with alternating winks of my left and right eye. Seemed like a slam-dunk to this Milwaukee boy. (It also happened to be true.)

He glared at me, cross-examined me fiendishly for five long minutes and, striding to the blackboard (I did tell you this was long ago), multiplied the number of minutes we had dueled by the dwindled number of my classmates and thundered: "You've wasted 45 student-minutes of class time!"

It was right about then that I started thinking maybe I should switch to science.

So, what is "music," really? Well, we don't really know. But whatever it is, it makes us wanna shout, kick our heels up and shout, throw our hands up and shout, throw our heads back and shout.

Previously: New research tracks "math anxiety" in the brain, Why memory and math don't mix: They require opposing states of the same circuitry and Can playing familiar music boost cognitive response among patients with brain damage?
Photo by gilmorec

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