A brain for music

1 minute read

From Brainethics, I was pointed to this article in the Boston Globe about evolutionary explanations for music.

Researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, for example, have scanned musicians' brains and found that the "chills" that they feel when they hear stirring passages of music result from activity in the same parts of the brain stimulated by food and sex.
As evidence mounts that we're somehow hard-wired to be musical, some thinkers are turning their attention to the next logical question: How did that come to be? And as the McGill University neuroscientist Daniel Levitin writes in his just-published book, "This is Your Brain on Music," "To ask a question about a basic, omnipresent human ability is to implicitly ask questions about evolution."

It's a good article, that draws clear contrasts between some of the main hypotheses, and has quotes from folks like Geoffrey Miller and Steven Mithen. Personally, my favorite part of the article is Pinker's contribution:

To Steven Pinker, though, none of this adds up to a convincing case for music's evolutionary purpose. Pinker is not shy about seeing the traces of evolution in modern man-in "How the Mind Works" he devoted a chapter to arguing that emotions were adaptations-but he stands by his "auditory cheesecake" description.
"They're completely bogus explanations, because they assume what they set out to prove: that hearing plinking sounds brings the group together, or that music relieves tension," he says. "But they don't explain why. They assume as big a mystery as they solve." Music may well be innate, he argues, but that could just as easily mean it evolved as a useless byproduct of language, which he sees as an actual adaptation.

Levitin's book, by the way, has a very well-produced website (warning: Flash). I'll be talking about music and evolution later in my Biology of Mind course, so I may pick up this book and do a review.

Meanwhile, Brainethics has some good links for recent papers trying to fuse music and evolution.

And yes, I have had "Crazy" in my head all week.