Scientists can now prove that your mom was right, practicing an instrument really is good for you. Dr. Mark Goldberg is the chair of neurology and neurotherapeutics at UT-Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Brain Institute. And he’s helped curate an event Saturday called Music and the Brain. In our weekly State of the Arts conversation, I spoke with him about creating an afternoon of cutting-edge science for lay people.
In your position at UT Southwestern, you’re interested in all sorts of treatments for brain disease and brain injury. Where does music fit in?
Our studies of brain science allow us to see inside the human brain while we are listening to music, while we’re appreciating music, while we’re loving music and this gives us the chance for the
first time to really understand how music shapes our lives.
And of course, music is therapy. So understanding better how we can harness the power of music to help people heal is a challenge for us at the Peter O’Donnell Brain Institute.
We’ve all known that studying an instrument as a child has many benefits. But researchers are just now proving that it actually changes the structure of the brain.
One of our visitors is Dr. Assal Habibi who comes from Los Angeles. And she’s had the opportunity to study a very talented youth group in which small children, young children, ages 6 to 8, are given intensive music training. And they perform as a symphony.
She had a chance to study those kids before, and two years after, training And she found exactly what you said: that the musical training, specifically, enhanced and grew the areas of the brain that were responsible for auditory perception, for listening, for making sense of what you hear. And it also grew the connections between these areas. So this is the first proof that musical training really does change your brain when you’re young.
And aren’t they using the results of those studies to show that community music programs can help offset some of the effects of poverty?
That’s exactly what the lesson is. This is a group of children that come from underprivileged neighborhoods and they get this opportunity. And it’s been long known that the kids that enroll in this program in our country and other countries, have done well. But it wasn’t shown until now, maybe how that could be occurring, and how it does change their brains in a positive way.
Another of your guests makes what he calls Google Earth of the brain. And he develops them into planetarium shows.
Dr. Jonathan Fisher from New York takes beautiful scientific data, which is honestly beautiful only to us as scientists, and he turns it into art and music. He puts the images of brain neurons at the smallest possible level, and of the whole brain at the largest level, and seeing how the circuits work. he puts that to music and he gives it an artistic appreciation. He shows this in places where people – not scientists – can interact with the science and really travel into the brain and see how it works.
Why is that important? Why should we be able to visualize what’s going on in our brains?
I think it’s important that we see science as fun. So this does that. And it makes us appreciate not just the value of the science and medicine we do for healing, but also just the intrinsic joy of understanding how things work. And I love to see how people who are not scientists get to interact with things which we consider beautiful.
So much of this research focuses on things we’ve intuitively known, but haven’t been able to prove. For example, one researcher has proven how music triggers pleasure in our brains
Dr. Robert Zatorre is one of the world’s foremost experts in what’s called music cognition, how our brain processes music. And in his laboratory, he’s studied how we perceive pitch, why there are people who can’t tell one note from another, and how we perceive and enjoy music.
Because we have now such advanced MRI techniques, we can observe the human brain while people are listening to music and while they’re appreciating music and we can see that in order to really derive pleasure from music, we need two things: we need some experience and knowledge of what the music is and what’s coming. And we need our rewards center of the brain to say this is fun, this is pleasurable.
And this seems to be a universal human experience. Even me, a non musician, can experience the pleasure of listening to music. And we do that through pathways that Dr. Zatorre has worked out.