Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Music and Mirror Neurons

As I mentioned below, some of my favorite blogs are actually science blogs - or, more specifically, anthropology blogs, like Archaeoblog; John Hawks Anthropology Weblog, which focuses
on paleoanthropology, genetics, and evolution; Dienekes Anthropology Blog (featuring at the moment a post on "Mating patterns amongst Siberian reindeer hunters" ; you know that's got to be good); and PZ Meyers' Pharyngula.

One of the places their links have often taken me is the online science mag, Seed, which a couple of months ago ran a fascinating interview between David Byrne, the lead singer and songwriter, as Seed says, "of the seminal late 70s band Talking Heads", and Daniel Levitin, "who worked as a session musician, sound and recording engineer, and record producer", but "is now the James McGill professor of behavioral neuroscience and music at McGill University, and the author of The New York Times bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music".

The interview explores different approaches to articulating the role music plays in consciousness, and its complex relationship to emotion (from, for once, the performer's standpoint):

DB: In a musical performance, whether it's recorded or live, people feel the emotion is coming from the performer, and that's what makes it authentic and true and therefore more upstanding and good. Whereas I would say, yeah, okay, a little bit. But music has attributes that you can objectify. This kind of sound, this kind of rhythm, will generate this kind of emotion even if it's done in a half-ass manner.

Anyone who's ever played air guitar should be interested in their exchange about that bit of human play:

One of the great mysteries in human behavior was that a newborn child can look up at its parent, and the parent smiles, and the newborn will smile. Well, how does it know how to do that? How does it know by looking at an upturned mouth what muscles it needs to move to make its own mouth turn up? How does it know that it's going to produce the same effect? There's a whole complicated chain of neuroscientific puzzles attached to this question.

DB: So when you watch a performance, sports for example, you're not only watching somebody else do it. In a neurological kind of way, you're experiencing it.

DL:Yeah, exactly. And when you see a musician, especially if you're a musician yourself--

DB: —air guitar.

DL: Air guitar, right! And you can't turn it off—it's without your conscious awareness. So mirror neurons seem to have played a very important role in the evolution of the species because we can learn by watching, rather than having to actually figure it out step-by-step.

DB: Yeah, and not only that. You also empathize, you feel what they're feeling.
That, of course, is what drives Bill Knott up the wall about music, its power to inspire empathy:

(that's why they invented music in the first place: to accompany murder)

(that's the purpose of music: to facilitate killing) . . .
(Can you tell from those notes that Bill doesn't particularly like music?)

I may have more about all this later, but just go read it; it's a conversation well worth dropping in on.


Later 8/7/07: Update: To be fair, do read Bill's comment here, too.

Thanks to Strangepaths.com for the neuron image, and a hat-tip to John Hawks Anthropology Weblog for the link.

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