Music Selectivity in Neurons

MIT made news by locating a neural pathway activated by music and music alone. McDermott and his colleagues played a total of 165 commonly heard natural sounds to ten subjects willing to be rolled into an fMRI machine to listen to the piped-in sounds. The sounds included a man speaking, a songbird, a car horn, a flushing toilet, and a dog barking. None sparked the same population of neurons as music.

Their discovery that certain neurons have “music selectivity” stirs questions about the role of music in human life. Why do our brains contain music-selective neurons? Could some evolutionary purpose have led to neurons devoted to music? McDermott says the study can’t answer such questions. But he is excited by the fact that it shows music has a unique biological effect. “We presume those neurons are doing something in relation to the analysis of music that allows you to extract structure, following melodies or rhythms, or maybe extract emotion,” he says.

When it comes to understanding subtle neurological activity, brain scans are more like magnifying glasses than microscopes. fMRI scans highlight activity in specific regions of the brain, but each data point corresponds to hundreds of thousands of brain cells. Until recently, scientists didn’t have a way to disentangle the behavior of smaller groups of neurons. Even if music and language seemed to activate the same regions of the brain, no one knew if they activated the same cells.

The MIT team adopted a new technique to break down the fMRI data. They tried to explain the response to each of the distinct sounds at each point in the brain as a sum of a small number of canonical responses, each potentially corresponding to a different population of neurons. It was a little like zooming in on a photograph until pixels appear, and then finding a way to separate each pixel into even smaller components.

The results challenge a persistent claim that the brain processes music and language in the same way. “You have different neural circuitry that’s involved in music and language,” says McDermott. “There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of overlap.” Could music be its own form of communication? “To the extent that music functions for communication, it’s quite different from language in that it doesn’t denote specific, concrete things in the world, like something you would say,” he says. “But it obviously expresses something, typically something emotional.”

McDermott says his research “doesn’t really speak to any kind of social activity.” It locates music-selective neurons in an area anterior to the primary auditory cortex. “Beyond the anatomical location,” he adds, “we don’t really know anything more.” Yet McDermott, whose field of study is hearing, and not necessarily music, would love to know the role and purpose of musical circuitry in the brain.

“It’s pretty clear that music has a biological basis,” he says. “The evidence is that music is a universal phenomenon. It doesn’t seem to be a purely cultural convention in the way that movies are. In pretty much every culture we know of, no matter their state of development or technological advancement, there’s always something you see and recognize as music. That seems to suggest that there’s something in the human brain that causes groups of humans to engage in musical behavior.”

SOURCE: Gross, D. (2018) “Your Brain’s Music Circuit Has Been Discovered”


Maestra Celeste S. Sanchez, MT
Ms. Maricel G. Morales, Viva Artist
Prof. Shedy Dee C. Mallari, RPm, LPT
Ms. Karen M. Atendido, Seiko Artist
Ms. Maria Blessilda M. Bascon, RN, LPT
Maestro Conrado Manuel N. Del Rosario
Dr. Peter Charles Kutschera, PhD, LMSW
Dr. Homer J. Yabut, PhD, RPsy
Prof. Alain Bernard A. Andal, MA, LPT, RPm, RGC
Pastor Robert Albios
Atty. Francisco S. Yabut
Instructor John Vernon Nuguid
Instructor Manuel S. Cordero
Instructor Dareen L. Bonzon
Prof. Jose Maria G. Pelayo III, MASD, MP-MT

Music Psychology Research (2010), Angeles City, Philippines, aims to update empirical data that is essential for music psychology research. This group of academic researchers is committed to ensure creative and dynamic approaches that utilize music in any form of program development and psychotherapy. The Advisory Board Members are academic professionals contributing their specific expertise in Psychology, Neuroscience and Music.

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