By Bruce Goldman
Art By Top: Junior Gonzalez; Bottom: Digital Vision
The brains of different people listening to the same piece of music respond in the same way, which may help explain why music plays such a big role in our social existence.
“We spend a lot of time listening to music — often in groups, and often in conjunction with synchronized movement and dance,” says Vinod Menon, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who recently studied brains on music. “Here, we’ve shown for the first time that despite our individual differences in musical experiences and preferences, classical music elicits a highly consistent pattern of activity across individuals in several brain structures including those involved in movement planning, memory and attention.”
Menon’s team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify a distributed network of brain structures whose activity levels waxed and waned in a strikingly similar pattern among study participants as they listened to classical music they’d never heard before. The results were published in April in the European Journal of Neuroscience.
The team showed that the brain’s motor-planning centers respond to music by foreshadowing movements that often accompany it: clapping, dancing, marching, singing or head-bobbing. The similarity of such patterns among participants may play a role in the social coordination of movement.
In addition, midbrain structures typically thought to passively relay auditory information to thinking-related centers higher in the brain are selective for musical stimuli, suggesting that the higher-level centers direct these relay stations to tune in to specifically musical sounds. Meanwhile, right-brain counterparts of two key structures in the brain’s left hemisphere (Broca’s and Geschwind’s areas, crucial for speech and language interpretation) show synchronization from one study participant to the next. “These right-hemisphere brain areas track non-linguistic stimuli such as music in the same way that the left hemisphere tracks linguistic sequences,” says Menon.
The notion that healthy subjects respond to complex sounds in the same way could provide insights into how individuals with language and speech disorders might listen to and track information differently from the rest of us.
“We are particularly interested in language and social communication in autism,” Menon says. “Which brain regions are out of sync?”
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