This is your brain on music
UCF instructors explore the intersection of music and neuroscience
Published: June 5, 2013
As anyone with compulsive-listening habits already knows, music is a drug. It can draw you in, sometimes inexplicably, compelling you to put a particular song on repeat or demanding that you listen to the same album over and over again.
That’s because, in processing music, our brains act like a pesky radio DJ infecting us with earworms – continually rotating the music in our minds, reacting to it and releasing dopamine that rewards us for the experience. It nourishes the nervous system and stimulates portions of the brain that moderate how we perceive and emote, and the physical way we function. Even a casual listener has a more complex relationship with music than you might think.
This is probably why Billboard charts exist, and it explains why so many of us can’t stop spinning the new Phoenix album.
And naturally, neuroscience is fascinated by our relationship to music. In the past eight years, especially, science has been increasingly obsessed with how music affects the brain. Neurological investigations into song have already begotten concrete conclusions. Sometimes the findings are somewhat trivial, such as the fact that music literally prompts the brain to send a signal to our feet, urging: “Tap your toes, fool.” But they’ve also turned up astounding findings connected to brain disease and musical therapy for patients with a range of conditions. For instance, in May, doctors had a Parkinson’s patient play guitar throughout the duration of a brain surgery to aid the process. During this experimental first, the musician’s performance activated his brain in a way that helped doctors locate the region on which they needed to operate. In this way, scientists have found, music can literally improve the quality of life for people who suffer from brain damage.
And that evidence has not been overlooked by two instructors at the University of Central Florida, where for the past seven years, the pair has actively studied the connection between music and the human brain with students. In 2006, a year before Dr. Oliver Sacks published his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and popularized this exact discussion, UCF began offering a course through the Burnett Honors College called “How Music Affects the Brain.” Offered only during the spring semester, the class has been wildly popular. Students gravitate to the peculiar conversational concoction of music, psychology and neuroscience. Since the class only admits 20 students, it’s in high demand, filling up well before the school’s typical enrollment period even starts, necessitating a waiting list. In fact, the spring 2014 course is already full.
The course was pioneered by Dr. Kiminobu Sugaya, a UCF professor of neuroscience, and Juilliard-trained violinist and UCF professor Ayako Yonetani, neither of whom can recall the impetus for creating it, besides a stray notion it might be popular. The pair blended their backgrounds to create a course with an interdisciplinary approach to exploring brain functions tied to mood, emotion, pain, cognition and memory.
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