More than 20 students donated their brains to science for a day to help unravel its structure by listening to classical music.
Over the past decade, the Music Dynamics Lab on the Boca campus has been using an fMRI machine — a huge magnet that uses radio-frequency radiation to create images of the body — to peek inside FAU students’ brains while making them listen to Chopin. They used the results to try to determine how music affects the brain.
The research team, led by psychology professor Ed Large, developed a new method for studying human emotions last year by looking at what music does to your brain, while you’re listening to it and long-term.
Until now, emotion research has tended to only allow scientists to show subjects single pictures, but the FAU researchers created a way to use long samples of music while analyzing their brains.
“Human performance nuances cause emotion — it’s something assumed by musicians, but this is the first time it’s been shown what areas of the brain are responding,” Large said.
He went on to explain that they chose to study music not just for its own sake but for what it can show us about emotion in general: “The reason it’s a good stimulus is we can control it. We’re using music as a model for the experiences people have every day.”
“Even if I could put a portable brain scanner on you while you walk around all day,” he suggested, observing your reactions to everything you encountered, the stimulus would be too complex. “What we need to do as scientists is control the stimulus.”
The Music Dynamics Lab, which conducts neuroscience research, uses studies like this one — published in December in the online journal PLoS ONE — to serve as a basis for trying to understand why the brain is shaped the way it is.
Large said MRI scans normally cost up to $1,000 each, but the cost of this study was cut significantly because of a partnership with University MRI. Dr. Fred Steinberg, the owner of the company, provided the researchers with free usage of its MRI equipment and was credited as an author of the study.
Some of the lab’s projects are specific, focusing on finding out how individual brain cells connect with each other. Others, like this one, try to break down the function of whole regions.
Large, who coordinates the labs’ projects, explained, “When you think about the development of species on this planet … why is it that we like music?” Why do professional musicians, he added, spend so much time on their craft, perfecting their technique?
After all, music performance doesn’t just consist of playing notes — any computer can do that. What makes music meaningful to us is how it makes us feel, with variables such as the volume, duration and force of each note, according to the study.
To answer the question of why music even exists — and why every culture creates and enjoys music — the researchers set out to design an experiment in 2001 that they hoped would provide some clues. Over the next 10 years, they experimented on FAU students to see what goes on when music enters the brain.
The resulting images show what different areas of the brain are doing by highlighting how much blood and oxygen are being consumed by each area. Using what they already knew about the functions of each area, they were able to draw out several correlations.
The study explains how the team compared several variables. First, two versions of Chopin’s “Etude in E major” were used, differing only in interpretive performance: One, called the “expressive” version, was played by a real musician, while the other, called the “mechanical” version, was generated by software to eliminate variations in volume, tempo, and use of the sustain pedal.
Second, two types of listeners were examined. To investigate the effect of long-term experience with music on the brain, some of the participants were chosen because they were amateur musicians. The rest of the subjects didn’t have experience performing music, but they were still considered “deep listeners” — people who spend a lot of time actively listening to music, rather than just casually hearing whatever is popular.
As they expected, the areas of the brain that manage emotions, like the amygdala (see picture below), lit up for all subjects when the researchers played the expressive version. But, contrary to their expectations, those areas, instead of continuously fluctuating in response to changes in the music, remained relatively constant.
What surprised the scientists was the part of the brain that actually did vary: the mirror neuron system.
Large explained that when we see someone doing something, our mirror neuron system attempts to replicate the same condition in our own mind. This enables us to empathize with someone else on a very fundamental level.
The discovery that mirror neurons are involved in hearing music shows that when we listen to music, the same cells that are active in motor actions are part of the response to the music.
As opposed to non-musicians, musicians who participated in the study showed unique emotional patterns in response to the music. This raised another question for the researchers. If music is culturally universal, are we genetically programmed to desire it?
“I actually believe that it’s mainly biologically based,” said Large. “The cultural influence can only really tweak” the brain’s natural response to music. However, he admitted that many in the field think the cultural factors are more influential.
Music has often been compared to language for its ability to communicate, but Large believes the similarities might be more than superficial. “Like language, music is made of complex, temporally structured sequences of sound,” he explained, adding that if music is biologically based, it probably has a “universal grammar,” referring to the rules in the brain hypothesized to underlie all human languages.
Another unresolved question this raised is whether those with more pronounced brain responses to music naturally seek out more musical experiences, or those who spend a lot of time listening to or creating music develop more intense brain responses.
Heather Chapin, a doctoral student at the time the study was done who ran the experiments, commented on the difficulty of trying to understand the workings of the brain from the outside: “I’m a black and white kind of girl, and human neuroimaging was much more gray than I was prepared to handle.”
Large didn’t know how much the study cost in total, but said that the only real cost went toward funding a research position for Chapin.
The Music Dynamics Lab is part of the Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences, an interdepartmental research program.
To read the study and see a video of its results, you can go to the Music Dynamics Lab’s website
The lab will be publishing another study next month, analyzing tempo expectation violations.
[Source: Ed Large: “Dynamic Emotional and Neural Responses to Music Depend on Performance Expression and Listener Experience,” PLoS ONE.]