Last month, The New York Times reported on new research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology involving the most musical of organs: the brain. Professors Nancy Kanwisher and Josh H. McDermott, and postdoc fellow Sam Norman-Haignere have proven that there are neural pathways dedicated to experiencing music – think a special HOV lane specifically reserved for musical transportation. And it doesn’t seem to matter what type of music it is. Regardless of the style – hip hop, show tunes, rock and roll – these pathways only light up in scans for music. Other sounds seem to have no effect.
The Auditory Cortex
The part of the brain in question is rather small, but important. The Auditory Cortex, as you might have guessed, is responsible for processing aural info – any sounds that come at you get dealt with here.
The area in question is that tiny pink part of the temporal lobe. Now, why does that matter? Well, I thought it might be worth mentioning that the temporal lobe, among other things, is responsible for long term memory, and we know that music and memory are closely related. I’ll admit it: sometimes I have to sing the alphabet song in my head when putting things in alphabetical order. And those of you of a certain age might remember this gem from Cheers:
Come on now, friends…the brain is a complex subject. I’m never above bringing in a 1980s sitcom to underscore a point. The fact that the Auditory Cortex is located in the lobe of the brain that deals with long term memory AND there are pathways nearby that only light up when we experience music is telling and perhaps more than coincidental.
So…beyond the fact that music is an incredibly enjoyable pastime, why does this matter to us? Well, there is a theory out there that music is actually older than speech. If music is “more fundamental” to the human brain than everyday verbal communication, than it can have tremendous impact on the human experience. Dr. Josef Rauschecker, the director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition at Georgetown University puts it this way:
…music works as a group cohesive. Music-making with other people in your tribe is a very ancient, human thing to do.– NYT, 2/8/2016
More proof that music is integral to our lives. So get out there! Light up those pathways that seem to have been put in place just to respond to music. Make some musical memories. And as we have learned over the past few posts, make those memories meaningful by creating them with someone special – your spouse, your kids. Hey, if you build a bookshelf, you put books on it. Your brain is built to respond to music: give it what it wants.