Sondheim and Pinker on Music and Emotion

When it comes to explanations for human behavior, preeminent experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, Ph.D., adamantly believes that genes matter. When others question this position, claiming that attributing emotion and behavior to genetics is merely a way of evading responsibility, Pinker will often offer a cultural rather than a scientific response:

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,

You gotta understand

It’s just our bringing up-ke,

That gets us out of hand.

Our mothers are all junkies,

Our fathers all are drunks.

Golly Moses naturally we’re punks

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How music rewires the brain

Evidence continues to grow that musical training may not
only serve as a powerful tool for treating mental illnesses but may also rewire
the brain to be more nimble at learning math and other subjects.

This ability to alter brain connections was the focus of a
recent “Music and the Brain” lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington,
D.C. Gottfried Schlaug, an associate professor
of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical
School, outlined three lines of neurological research into musical experience
and explained why scientists are optimistic about its potential for education
and rehabilitation.

“Music making engages quite a lot of real estate in the
brain,” he said. “We wanted to know if everyone has the potential to become an
accomplished musician, or if [musicians] start off with an atypical brain.”

In adults, for instance, he said, musicians with a long
history of practice tend to have bigger corpus callosa—the bundles of fibers
that connect the right and left halves of the brain—as well as enhanced motor
and auditory processing areas than do non-musicians.
Many of these changes were specific to the primary type of instrument used by a
musician. But everyone seems able to benefit: Adult non-musicians who took a
crash course in piano showed changes in their sequencing, musical and math
abilities even after just two weeks.

Schlaug also outlined results from a four-year study of
young children he is conducting with Ellen
, a psychology professor at Boston University. After 15 months,
children who began practicing music showed, as expected, improvements in motor
skills and melody and rhythm identification tasks. There were also suggestive,
but not statistically significant, evidence that the children were beginning to
excel in nonmusical tasks such as vocabulary and abstract reasoning. This type
of extension into a nonrelated mental ability is known as “far transfer.”

We have covered many of these findings in the context of
neuroeducation, a new field that seeks to use neuroscience findings to improve
teaching practices. Schlaug and Winner, for instance, were featured speakers
at the “Learning, Arts and the
” summit in May, where they presented their 15-month data.

Since then, however, data from 30 months into the child
study has been collected; although it is still in the process of being
analyzed, far transfer trends seem to be continuing, Schlaug said, increasing
interest in music’s potential educational benefits. Since the May conference,
Schlaug and his colleagues have also compiled videos demonstrating the extent
and rate of improvement in musical ability in their study participants.

Schlaug also presented a video showing how extensive rhythm
and singing therapy helped a four-year old boy with autism speak his very first
words. “Music,” Schlaug said, “may provide alternative entry into broken brain
systems that may not be linking up properly.” (The use of music for autism is
just the tip of the iceberg; music is also being used as treatment for spinal
cord injuries, stroke and other conditions. Look for more extensive coverage of
these therapies in the coming weeks.)

Schlaug’s presentation was the final “Music and the
” lecture of 2009. The series, presented by the Library of Congress
and the Dana Foundation, will resume on Jan. 21 with “Music, Memories, and the
Brain,” in which Petr Janata of the University of California, Davis, will outlining
brain imaging results from people who have experienced musical “trances.” As an
early Christmas present, the LOC has released free podcasts
of earlier lectures in the series.

-Aalok Mehta

When senses combine

Synesthesia is a phenomenon in which people’s senses seem to be crossed. Some people with the condition can feel tastes or see sounds; others taste voices (think of the opposite of anesthesia, literally “no senses”). Neurologist Richard Cytowic has studied such people for more than three decades, starting with a man in the rare latter category.

“Some people are born with two or more senses hooked together,” Cytowic told an audience of around 120 people at the Library of Congress on Oct. 30. For example, for the first synesthete he studied, some flavors “were more than a mouthful.”

Synesthesia experts estimate that one in 23 people has some form of this involuntary sense-mixing. Some scientists working with infants theorize that all babies are born synesthetic but lose the trait at around three months, when their sense networks start to firm up.

In 1979, when he was a young researcher, Cytowic said, no one had heard of synesthesia, and if they had they thought it wasn’t real. But he was hooked—“it interested me to explain a subjective experience that seems impossible to prove.”

He and others eventually did prove it, through well-designed experiments and a mass of data from people who started calling and writing to describe their experiences. Now “a new generation in 15 countries” studies the trait, from its individualistic expression in behavior to its possible molecular and genetic components.

“Five groups around the world are working on analyzing for the synesthesia gene,” he said. Researchers currently think the trait is genetic (“hyperconnectivity between disparate brain systems”) but requires early exposure to over-learned groupings. For example, many synesthetes see colors or shapes related to such sequences as days of the week, calendars and other common number forms, including music. (Are you synesthetic? Take a computer-based test at

Cytowic played two short films to help illustrate the ability. The first paired Chopin’s Valse Brillante with a moving pattern of dashes of color changing in time with the music. The second, a short film by Terri Timely seen below, cleverly captures the idea of living with many forms of synesthesia, Cytowic said. One difference, though, is that instead of the discrete objects such as cats seen in the video, synesthetes are more likely to see general shapes or colors.

Crossing sense pathways can run in families and seems to be more common in artistically creative people, Cytowic said. Examples include writers Douglas Coupland and Vladimir Nabokov (and his family); artists David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky; musicians Olivier Messiaen, Itzak Perlman and Billy Joel; and performer Marilyn Monroe. Stevie Wonder also has a form of sound-color synesthesia. “Synesthesia is very common in blind people because you don’t need your eyes to see—you see with your brain,” Cytowic said.

Their experiences are not always positive, though. One audience member described herself as a mild sound-taste synesthete and her son a stronger one. One year at school, she said, her son found that his new teacher’s voice “brought a bad taste to his mouth” to such an extent that she had to arrange to move him to a new classroom, “and it was ridiculously difficult. Nobody believed it” when he kept saying “her voice makes me sick.”

Sometimes it’s a synesthete’s friends and family who need to close their eyes. Cytowic told of a taste-color synesthete who had to wait until his wife was out of town to eat a favorite, “very blue,” dish: baked chicken Alaska drenched in orange juice and topped with ice cream.

“Synesthetes have taught us that cross-talk is the rule, not the exception,” Cytowik said. “Minds that work differently are not that different at all, and we can learn from them.”

With David Eagleman, Cytowik co-authored Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, which was recently reviewed in Cerebrum. His lecture is part of the “Music and the Brain” series, presented by the Library of Congress and the Dana Foundation. The next event, on music and trance states, is tonight; a lecture on dangerous music takes place Friday, Nov. 6.

—Nicky Penttila

Grief: a musical case study

   Grief and depression are distinctly different human experiences, but even experienced psychologists and brain scientists sometimes have trouble teasing the two apart.

   Those slivers of contrast were the central theme of “Music and Grief,” a panel discussion held on Tuesday at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The event kicked off the second season of the “Music and the Brain”lecture series (an earlier program on the mystery of Beethoven’s deafness had to be rescheduled for next year).

   In keeping with the series’ mission to delve into how brain science gives us insight into the mysteries and benefits of music, the three speakers recounted their personal and professional experiences with music, grief and depression. Live illustrations were provided by the Julliard School graduate string quartet in residence.

   Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of its Mood Disorders Center, outlined the rawness of her grief following the 2002 death of her husband, Richard Wyatt, then chief of neuropsychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health. Jamison, who was previously written at length about her struggles with bipolar disorder, read from her new memoir, “Nothing Was the Same,” about how her grief was at times overwhelming, even causing her to give away her entire music collection because of unpleasant associations. But, she said, she didn’t suffer from a single day of depression, which she had greatly feared given her history. Unlike grief, in which the comfort and company of others is powerfully helpful, “the capacity for solace does not exist in depression,” she added.

   Her colleague J. Raymond DePaulo, chairman of Johns Hopkins’s psychiatry department, expounded on some of her comments based on his experiences treating more than 15,000 patients. Grief generally begins with a period of numbness that is followed by a bout of “profound sadness” that has ups and downs and varies in length from weeks up to years, he said. People slowly re-engage with normal life, though memories of the lost loved one can bubble up suddenly and unexpectedly for decades afterward.

   In contrast, while extreme grief can cause depression, only a fraction of depressed people consider themselves sad. Rather, the dominant feeling in depression is one of hopelessness or emptiness, which erodes people’s self-confidence, causes them to pull away from friends and damages their ability to function in daily life. “We must distinguish these conditions, but it can be extremely difficult, and we must be prudent,” DePaulo said. “We don’t want to medicalize a universal human condition [grief], and at the same time we want to give them solace.”

   In between those presentations came an interesting case study: the extreme reaction of musical virtuoso Felix Mendelssohn to the death of his beloved sister Fanny. Ara Guzelimian, provost and dean of the Juilliard School, described how Mendelssohn—then at the height of his prowess and celebrity—largely withdrew from the world, writing only a few pieces of music before his death less than six months later. But his prolific correspondence emphasizes the depths of his feelings, as does his last major composition, String Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Guzelimian said. Characterized by an unrelenting bleakness and harshly conflicting notes, this is “an extraordinary extreme piece of music” with a “music vocabulary utterly uncharacteristic of Mendelssohn,” he said before the Julliard musicians played its first movement. “Every restraint comes off the music.”

   Responding to audience questions, the presenters emphasized that music has shown, at least anecdotally, therapeutic benefits both for grief and depression. Pieces like String Quartet No. 6, for instance, can help listeners purge or come to terms with their negative emotions, Guzelimian said, and the Julliard performers remarked about the emotional exhaustion they feel after playing the entire piece. Guzelimian gave a personal example of how music can serve different roles at different times: A particular piece that he had found comforting when undergoing a major surgery, contemplating his own possible death, was unbearable to him shortly after the death of a close friend.

   The Dana Foundation funds the Music and the Brain series. Jamison and DePaulo are members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

—Aalok Mehta

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