Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Musician

A direct link to the above video is at

In entries like Magnets and Souls and Positive Vibes, we've talked about the Steven Strogatz book Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. Dr. Strogatz talks about entrainment as being one of the underlying factors that can create order even within seemingly random systems. In entries like Unlikely Events and Timelessness and Randomness and the Missing 96%, we talked about other ways of seeing how order can be found in patterns that may appear to be chaotic, and in Dreaming of Electric Sheep and Imagining the Omniverse we talked about how seeing those patterns may have more to do with the filters or selection patterns being used to observe these complex systems that exist simultaneously within timelessness... because Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation tells us that the patterns themselves continue to exist whether we're aware of them or not.

That's all quite lofty sounding. But in very simple terms, what we're talking about are the kinds of things that connect us together with each other. Seeing those connections is one of the most basic functions of the human mind - as I've said in entries like Auras, Ghosts and Pareidolia, and Do You Believe in Ghosts, our brains are all about finding the patterns with the noise. Once we find those patterns, we tend to lock in on them and a feedback loop can make those patterns appear stronger and stronger to our pattern-recognizing minds.

This takes us to our last entry, The Comedian, where we talked about how charismatic individuals can enthrall a live audience, and "take them on a ride". How can this happen? It's a form of entrainment, similar to the ones discussed by Steven Strogatz. To use a more emotional word, we can call that entrainment "empathy".

Empathy is usually thought of as a one-way street - an empathetic individual tends to be more sensitive to the emotions of others. But the effect is even stronger when it works both ways: an individual performer who understands, through their own empathy, what affects the hearts and minds of others, can then use that awareness to make their performance that much more emotionally engaging for others, and the more empathetic the audience the stronger the feedback loop. When that loop is in place, both the performer and the audience become transmitters and receivers, both tuned into that channel we call empathy.

The topic of this entry is "The Musician". So. Rather than re-hash the old sayings about the power of music to touch people's hearts, which is the most obvious connection to empathy and what we've been talking about here, I'd like to quote from an article written by Hazel Muir which appeared in the March 5th edition of New Scientist magazine:

Musicians are fine-tuned to others' emotions

Musical training might help autistic children to interpret other people's emotions. A study has revealed brain changes involved in playing a musical instrument that seem to enhance your ability to pick up subtle emotional cues in conversation.

"It seems that playing music can help you do all kinds of things better," says Nina Kraus from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. "Musical experience sharpens your hearing not just for music, but for other sounds too."

Earlier studies suggested that musicians are especially good at identifying emotions expressed in speech, such as anger or sadness. But it wasn't clear what kind of brain activity makes the difference.

Trained brain

To find out, Kraus and her colleagues recruited 30 musicians and non-musicians, aged 19 to 35. Entertained by watching a subtitled nature film, they repeatedly heard a baby crying through earphones (hear an example). Using scalp electrodes, the team measured the electrical response to the sounds in each volunteer's brainstem, which links the auditory nerve to the cerebral cortex.

In the musicians, the response to complex parts of the sound, in which the frequency rapidly changes, was especially high. But the musicians had lower responses than non-musicians to simpler sections of the baby's sound.

"It's as though the musicians are saving their neural resources for the complex portions, which the non-musicians didn't respond to particularly well," Kraus told New Scientist.

Both more years of musical experience and learning to play an instrument at a young age increased a musician's response to the complex sounds. That suggests music practice makes the difference, rather than simply having a natural talent for music in the first place.

Therapeutic tool?

"It used to be we thought sensory systems were pretty passive – they took the sound and just passed the information to the cerebral cortex where all the hard work and thinking was done," says Kraus. "But now we're understanding that as we use our sensory systems in an active way, this feeds back and shapes the sensory system all the way down through the brainstem to the ear."

The results suggest musical training might be useful for kids with dyslexia, some of whom have trouble processing sounds.

Often, these children have trouble processing the complex sounds for which musicians develop an especially good ear. Autistic children might also benefit, if improving their responses to complex sounds helps them interpret emotional speech.

It may also be possible that measurements of brainstem responses to sound could help diagnose autism and language disorders in an objective and reliable way.

For me, the idea that learning music can rewire the brain and repair potential problems relates nicely to the newly growing science of epigenetics, which we looked at in entries like Changing Your Genes 2, The Placebo Effect, and You Have a Shape and a Trajectory: isn't it amazing that scientific studies have now proved that changes in lifestyle and attitude can switch good genes on and bad genes off? One of the important themes from my project is that there are a lot of things about our bodies and our lives we have been traditionally taught cannot be altered, because they are a part of the "hand we've been dealt" and there's no way to change them. New ideas like these show us that things are much less locked in than we've been led to believe. Since I'm a musician myself, I have to admit to some personal bias here - but I think the study talked about in this article shows some exciting implications for understanding the power of music to help re-organize the brain and improve its all-important pattern-matching skill-set. The more we can see how Everything Fits Together, the better we are able to function within the world.

In the long run, though, I believe discussions of empathy still have to come down to understanding what makes us all be individuals with unique points of view, and at the same time what draws us all together: like a performer and an audience, we're transmitters and receivers of the patterns of information that we are all navigating through and traveling within. We're going to talk about that more next time in an entry called "Where Are You?"

Enjoy the journey!


PS - Here's a song that ties into all this as well - about how our constant process of taking on new patterns as we move through our lives, and how the traditional viewpoint that we are powerless to overcome the "hands we've been dealt" by our physical bodies and our circumstances denies us knowledge of how much control we have (not an unlimited amount of control, but certainly much more than many of us have been led to believe). The song is called "Change and Renewal".

A direct link to the above video is at

Next - Where Are You?


C. Om said...

Wow Rob! I have a very recent entry called "Music to my Ears." I guess we still have the 'kindred spirit' thing going. :)

Anyway, I love this stuff. Keep it going.


ian said...

Great post Rob, thank you!

ian said...

Oh, and check this out on physorg:

Guitarists' brains swing together

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