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This is your brain on music

UCF instructors explore the intersection of music and neuroscience

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“We used to think just of music as soothing. Like a painkiller, a calm-down pill. That’s the only purpose of music being used about 10 years ago,” Sugaya says. “Nobody was thinking about music to be used for stimulation. … When we started this class, like seven or eight years ago, nobody was talking about the music and the brain. Now if you search for websites or something, you see it’s going to show a long list. But when we started, none. None exists. Only our class. ... So this kind of study is very new.”

Their work on the topic attracted the interest of the Central Florida Society for Neuroscience, a nonprofit organization that was formed by one of Sugaya's undergraduate students, Mario Pita. This nonprofit earned a grant from the Society for Neuroscience, which they immediately invested to launch an event series they hope will serve two purposes: to stimulate general interest in neuroscience developments in the Orlando area and to help generate an active local neuroscience community. The first event in the series was titled “Music and the Brain,” a lecture and concert that was held at the UCF College of Medicine Lewis Auditorium on May 11. It featured Sugaya as the speaker and Yonetani supporting him on violin. Thanks to radio promotion from our local NPR affiliate, WMFE (90.7 FM), the event drew a crowd of enthusiastic music and science aficionados who were eager to ask questions: Why does relaxing music disrupt my sleep patterns? Is modern music more complex than classical compositions? Are we less affected by dissonance than our ancestors? This last question intrigued Yonetani, who was willing to entertain a Darwinist filter on humanity’s engagement with music.

“At the conference the other day, somebody said, ‘We have more tolerance for dissonance than we did in the 18th century,’” Yonetani says. “So in a way, it might be that we’re so used to some dissonance, and they’re using it in music more, so it’s not shocking. In that way, I think there’s evolution.”

While science has learned that music can motivate people physically, Sugaya and Yonetani wondered: Could it motivate people in Orlando to voluntarily attend public lectures about science? They hoped so. They intend to host their series quarterly, relying on popular topics like music to charm people into appreciating neuroscience and, to varying degrees, its life-altering advancements. Future events could hinge on subjects like visual arts and stem-cell research, which is the principal field Sugaya investigates – although even in this different arena, it seems he always comes back to the music.

His most recent neurological investigation, for instance, is inspired by songbirds. He noted that birds learn songs in the spring but forget them by the time fall comes. (This sounds an awful lot like how we digest music in recent times, learning a band’s new album thoroughly at its release but forgetting it almost entirely a few months later.) When he looked at the brains of those birds, he discovered that when they relearn the same songs the following spring, they re-create neurons to do so. This led him to hypothesize that music itself was stimulating the regeneration of cells. Imagine the implications of these findings if applied to stem-cell developments in other species, and it’s easy to become enchanted by the physical impact of music on our systems and the different way this art form, typically regarded as purely for entertainment, or famously dismissed by popular scientist Steven Pinker as “auditory cheesecake,” can actually nourish us.

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