Monday, January 22, 2007

Music on the Brain

It is an amazing a and powerful experience to hear a song and suddenly be transported to a different time and place. How does it happen? From the Washington Post:

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I've got some money 'cause I just got paid/ Now, how I wish I had someone to talk to/ I'm in an awful way . . .

It came to him unbidden, that song from his college days. Only now it meant something completely different. There was a man on a stretcher before him, draped in a poncho. Blood dripped off the end of the stretcher, the only sign of life from a lifeless body. It was 1967, but Howard Sherpe had already decided that the war in Vietnam was pointless, that the dead man before him had died for nothing.

Sherpe felt lonely, but not the same way he felt back in college when he didn't have a date on a Saturday night. He felt alone, existentially alone. In his mind, he heard Sam Cooke's voice, but the lyrics were different.

Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody/ I got all bloody and feel some pain/ I just want to get the hell out of here/ I'm in an awful way. . . .

Nearly 40 years later, Sherpe needs to hear only a few bars of the song to be transported back to Vietnam, where he served as a medic attached to the 4th Infantry Division. The music brings the sights and sounds and smells roaring back. He can even see a cigarette in his hand that is splotched with blood -- the dead man's blood.

"What I feel is the sense of all of this was in vain, it was for nothing," said Sherpe, 62, of Madison, Wis. "That sense of loss. . . ."

Sherpe's experience is both unique and universal. That moment in Vietnam was highly personal, but the experience of having a tune bring to mind a powerful memory is something everyone can relate to. For neuroscientists, this raises a question: How is it that music connects people to faraway places and events from long, long ago?

Music hooks deep into emotions and memories in ways that words do not; in fact, Sherpe is contributing to a project that aims to get at a history of the Vietnam War through the music of the era. At the University of Wisconsin, scholar Craig Werner and Vietnam vet Doug Bradley have found that music is a highway into veterans' memories of the war.

"Words are tied up in politics," said Werner, who is chair of the Afro-American studies department. "When we talk about wars, it becomes an issue of liberal ideology versus conservative ideology, hawks versus doves, you are for it or against it. . . . For the guys who were there, the words don't fit the complexity of the experience."

"What music does is reach down into parts of our brain, it opens networks and pathways that you can't get to via language," he added.

For neuroscientists, the power of music poses a puzzle.

McGill scientist Robert Zatorre once hypothesized that because music is abstract, it must activate parts of the brain that process abstract ideas -- areas that developed relatively recently as humans evolved from apes. But when Zatorre asked people to listen to their favorite pieces of music as he ran brain scans on them -- people selected whatever kinds of music sent chills down their spine -- he found that music activated very ancient parts of the brain.

"Because music was abstract, we thought it would activate higher levels of cortex," he said. "Instead we got this very ancient system which is usually involved in biological reward. . . . What we found in a nutshell is when people experience chills, there was a huge range of activity all over the brain. It lit up like a Christmas tree."

Music seems to activate pleasure networks that are typically activated by food, water and sex. Why would music have the same effects on the brain as biological experiences integral to survival?

Zatorre hypothesized that the capacity to appreciate music might be an accidental outgrowth of other abstract human skills. But Mark Jude Tramo, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and a songwriter, said that notion sells music short -- and overestimates the importance of words to survival.

"Some of the most emotionally laden sounds we hear and make are non-speech vocalizations, like moans and groans and oohs and aahs and laughing and crying," Tramo said. "If you believe music does not have evolutionary significance you are in a very small minority."

Tramo argued that the sounds and grunts widespread in the animal kingdom set the stage for the human brain to appreciate music. If music grew out of nonverbal communication, and nonverbal communication is essential to survival in much of the animal world, it would make sense that music should hook deep into the brain. For social species such as humans, Tramo said music can bind groups together.

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