Music's Effects on the Mind Remain Mysterious

man listening to music
People use the same types of features to capture emotion in both movement and music across cultures, a new study finds (Image credit: Russ Toro, LiveScience Contributor)

NEW YORK — While jazz musician Vijay Iyer played a piece on the piano, he wore an expression of intense concentration. Afterward, everyone wanted to know: What was going on in his head?

The way this music is often taught, "they tell you, you must not be thinking when you are playing," Iyer said after finishing his performance of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," a piece that requires improvisation. "I think that is an impoverished view of what thought is. … Thought is distributed through all of our actions."

Iyer's performance opened a panel discussion on music and the mind at the New York Academy of Sciences on Wednesday (Dec. 13).

Music elicits "a splash" of activity in many parts of the brain, said panelist Jamshed Bharucha, a neuroscientist and musician, after moderator Steve Paulson of the public radio program "To the Best of Our Knowledge" asked about the brain's response to music.

"I think you are asking a question we can only scratch the surface of in terms of what goes on in the brain," Bharucha said. [Why Music Moves Us]

Creativity in the brain scanner

Charles Limb, a surgeon who studies the neuroscience of music, is attempting to better understand creativity by putting jazz musicians and rappers in a brain-imaging scanner called a functional MRI, which measures blood flow in the brain, and asking them to create music or rap once in there.

The set-up is awkward, he said, comparing the confines of an fMRI machine with a coffin. And Limb cautioned how much creativity, like that on display during Iyer's performance, can be reproduced in the lab as part of an experiment. [10 Strange Facts About the Brain]

"I can't help but realize there is a biology to everything we do musically," Limb said. 'While it's comfortable as a listener and admirer and an artist to say 'Let's not delve deeper.' … There is something missing if you don't try to search, to find out what’s going on."

Images of creative brains reveal complicated activity, but one theme has emerged: Some decline in activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region sometimes called the "CEO of the brain" and associated with cognitive analysis and abstract thought. This area of the brain isn't turning off; instead, certain processes that are typically prominent recede into the background — for instance, conscious self-monitoring, which produces concerns about doing something correctly, Limb said.   

Later, when an audience member pointed out that creativity, like that Iyer displayed while improvising within the structure of Coltrane's piece, is not a random process and requires work, Limb clarified, saying the complexity of brain activity and its implications are difficult to distill into a few sentences. The prefrontal cortex is involved in a long list of activities, he said.

He noted that a part of the brain associated with autobiographical self and self-reflection becomes more active in musicians when they are performing.

Musicians offer a conduit to study the larger realm of creativity, said Limb. Improvisation can take place at different levels, but expert musicians have the skill set to improvise at a profound level in a way others cannot, he said.

"For me, I don't see how human society could have survived if we hadn't been creative," he said.

A social purpose

Bharucha noted that humans are capable of creativity in a number of domains, not just music, but in games of chess and in language, for instance. There are commonalities to these domains. "One is there is a structure, a framework, then there are all kinds of, an infinite number of possibilities within that framework,” Bharucha said.

The question is why? Bharucha said he believed creative domains enable humans to connect with one another and forms groups in which individuals are synchronized, creating a sense of group identity.

The appeal of music goes beyond pleasure; people are also drawn to sad and angry music, Bharucha said. "The notion of resonance and synchronization is much more important than making you happy or lifting your spirits."

Iyer, too, pointed to the importance of music to for creating a common experience.

"In my own experience playing for audiences, that is the primary force that I feel is at work is that sense that we are in a room experiencing this together, and I think we tend to forget that because we all stockpile music by the terabyte and keep it in our shirt pocket," he said.

Healing power

Music also has a therapeutic power. Panelist Concetta Tomaino, a music therapist, works with patients with neurological problems such as brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease and stroke that have caused them to lose functions, such as memory, and motor and verbal skills.

Yet the structure and emotional content of music can help them to access these functions again, she said. "It speaks to the structures that are shared by musical perception and musical ability with other functions."

This panel was part of a four-part series on consciousness, moderated by public radio host Paulson and presented by the Nour Foundation.

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Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.