If I could start my undergraduate education all over again, I would study the brain.
The human brain is, as far as I’m concerned, absolutely hands-down the single coolest object in the entire known universe. We can measure it, test it, fool it and be fooled by it. We can even operate on it while its owner is awake (the brain lacks pain receptors) — but it takes only a microscopic clot to turn it off forever or erase decades from its memories.
The brain is one of the most fantastic puzzles yet to be fully solved by the scientific community. So what effect could something as artistic, emotional and seemingly unscientific as music have on arguably the most complex machine in existence?
The effect of music on the human mind seems like a topic completely unfit for quantitative study or qualitative research. Have you ever tried to put into words how music makes you feel? How about the reason why you get a knot in your chest when someone superimposes sad piano music over time lapses of the night sky, or why you get shivers and chills while listening to a favorite song?
These emotions are not only hard to place, they’re also difficult to articulate — conditions that provide exactly the sort of challenge any eager scientist could hope for. And as a former biology major who enjoys the smell of agar as much as the sound of Arensky, a peek into the science behind art would be a dream come true.
Thankfully, for those who refuse to believe that science and art lie on two separate paths, hope has emerged alive and well in the cognitive neuroscience of music.
The field is essentially a scientific analysis of the brain’s chemical and neurological responses to music. It may sound dry at first, but a little light reading will go a long way for anyone even remotely interested in why Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” makes them cry like a little girl.
Take Montreal Neurological Institute researchers Anne Blood and Robert Zatorre’s 2001 study on the relation between emotion and music. Right in the first paragraph abstract, they announce their intentions to tackle the mystery behind the “shivers-down-the-spine” and “chills” music-listeners report feeling, which they group together as “intensely pleasurable responses” — a feeling so surprisingly universal and concrete, it required the creation of a special term just to describe it.
Non-scientific? Not remotely. The two end up confirming a connection between these responses and increased blood flow in the brain to regions that control rewards, emotion and arousal. McGill University cognitive neuroscience researcher Valorie Salimpoor and co. established a relationship between music and the brain’s release of the mood-chemical dopamine in 2010. It turns out our enjoyment of Bach or Bieber isn’t all in our head — it’s a physiological response to the sound of their music based on preferences and predispositions we’re still struggling to understand.
Understanding the meaning behind our musical pleasures is fascinating, but what does this mean for the music-listener in us all? Is science working to systematically reduce the art of music into a series of chemical combos floating around in our gray matter?
Actually, science is just giving a serious high five to the human brain. Music in and of itself is an art form — if a song plays in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it’s still beautiful — but our ability to emotionally and physically connect to a piece is just one more awe-inspiring facet of our minds.
Even if this art-science mix doesn’t blow your own mind, you can’t argue against its effectiveness.
Every person who has ever tried to sell you a product, service or idea is already well aware of music’s effect on consumers. Music in commercials is tailored to make products seem more trustworthy or services more friendly. Movies use music to enhance even the worst plotline or help you empathize with the brooding antihero with the hidden soft side.
And think about this: Would the viral KONY 2012 video that’s currently rocketing around the Internet be half as effective without the melancholy violin warbling in the background? Would implicit trust tug at your heartstrings if they’d piped “Safety Dance” through your speakers instead? Would you have bought into their idea as thoroughly if you’d listened to the video on mute?
Science and art may not immediately come to mind as a pair, but our still-developing understanding of our brains is revealing more and more each day about the connections between the equally-inspiring fields of aesthetics and science. For those of you who love both, there’s still time to do some research of your own in this growing field.
And if you’re still not convinced that music can turn something good into something visceral, hop over to Vimeo and search for “The Mountain.” You’ll thank me (once you stop crying).