MIND Reviews: October/November 2006 [Preview]

Reviews and recommendations from the October/November 2006 issue of Scientific American MIND

Singing His Own Song

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
by Daniel J. Levitin. Dutton Press, 2006 ($25)

Everyone knows that music can calm a savage beast, rouse a marching platoon or move lovers to tears. But no one knows exactly how. Daniel Levitin, a professional musician, record producer and now neuroscientist at McGill University, explains the latest thinking into why tunes touch us so deeply. He also speculates about whether specific pathways have evolved in our brain for making and listening to music.

Using brain imaging, Levitin has documented neural activation in people as they listen to music, revealing a novel cascade of excitation that begins in the auditory system and spreads to regions related to planning, expectation and language as well as arousal, pleasure, mood and rhythmic movement. "Music listening, performance and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified and involve nearly every neural subsystem," he notes.

Music’s effects on neurons are so distributed that in some cases stroke victims who can no longer decipher letters can still read music, and some impaired individuals who cannot button a sweater can nevertheless play the piano. Levitin describes new insights into these conditions as well as disorders that cause certain individuals to lack empathy, emotional perception and musicality. He and others suspect a cluster of genes may influence both outgoingness and music ability. He also posits that music promotes cognitive development.

Not surprisingly, music reaches deep into the brain’s most primitive structures—including our ancient “reptilian brain” tied to motivation, reward and emotion. Music elevates dopamine levels in the brain’s mood and pleasure centers in ways similar to those
triggered by narcotics and antidepressants. Levitin also explains how the neural underpinnings of auditory stimulation and mate selection reach far back in life’s evolutionary scheme.

Levitin has no agenda per se, although the book is a rebuttal of sorts to scientists who
say music has served no purpose other than to pleasurably stimulate auditory nerve endings. He simply explains an emerging view about the coevolution of music and the brain. To tell his tale, Levitin engagingly weaves together strands of his own life as a professional musician (who dropped out of college to form a band) with those of his transformation into a neuroscientist. To revel in Ravel’s Boléro or Charlie Parker’s Koko, he reminds us, is to stimulate the brain in a “choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems”—a ballet of brain regions “exquisitely orchestrated.” —Richard Lipkin

More Than Simple Speech

The Human Voice
by Anne Karpf. Bloomsbury Press, 2006 ($24.95)

Despite the onslaught of text messaging, e-mail and emoticons, we still enjoy speaking to one another, if only over our cell phones. Casting the voice as an unsung hero, British author and radio broadcaster Anne Karpf challenges the notion that the visual has superseded the aural and oral. She argues that “there are three reasons for exploring the voice”: it is distinctly human, vital and just plain fascinating.

Karpf begins her case by pointing out that unlike other primates for whom certain vocalizations are innate, we gradually develop our voices by learning. Humans can produce 325 sounds with vowel and pitch combinations alone. To convince us that the voice is as vital as the writ ten word, Karpf demonstrates that words are only one color on a verbal palette that includes pitch, tone, timbre, volume and emphasis. Examples of sentences whose meanings are voice-dependent provoked this reviewer to read aloud and to think twice about the different tones with which my e-mail compositions could be read before clicking my “send” icon.

This article was originally published with the title "Mind Reads."

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