Check out the powerful video on this page. You’ll see an old man, Henry, in a nursing home – inert, lifeless, seemingly depressed. Then, his nurse puts headphones over his ears, and starts playing one his favorite songs on an iPod. Immediately, Henry comes alive. He begins moving in rhythm to the music and singing along. When the headphones are removed, he is, quite suddenly, responsive to questioning and even garrulous. He talks about how the music is “beautiful, lovely” and how he feels that it came from the “Lord”. This amazing transformation is just one of many that is documented in “Alive Inside,” a documentary created as part of Dan Cohen’s Music & Memory project, featuring the commentary of Oliver Sacks (neurologist, author, and “musicophile”).
These videos are powerful and moving, because they present a simple manipulation (playing someone some music) that can reinstate someone’s identity and feeling. How can a song resurrect someone in this way?
We already know that music is special. We know that it produces emotional responses, including reward responses. We know that it is not “stored” where language is, and that even people who can no longer speak can hum a melody, and sometimes even sing lyrics. We also know that memory for music is astounding. Elderly people remember songs from their youth impeccably, even when they’ve forgotten so many other details. But why does this happen? How?
The neuroscience of music still has a long way to go, but I suspect that part of the reason why music is so special is that it triggers so many neural networks at once. For one, almost all music increases activation in your motor cortex. Even if you don’t want to dance, your mind has the urge to. Foot tapping or rocking can come so automatically when listening to music. Our brains (our cerebellums, in particular) have timing mechanisms that ensure that our movements are coordinated. This is why we don’t have to think about which muscles to flex or contract when we reach for a soda. Strong rhythms in music can trigger these timing mechanisms in a way that we don’t quite understand yet.
Besides movement, musical chords and intervals inspire emotion, and activation in affective systems of the brain. You don’t have to know anything about music theory to know when a song is “sad” or “happy.” And there is agreement among most people on what elements of music produce certain feelings.
Third, music triggers memory. When you hear a familiar tune, don’t you immediately try to “place it”? Since music does not engage our visual system, but it does engage our emotions – which are a sort of salience, or “importance” monitor – we use our visual system to contextualize the music. Even without realizing it, we are creating associations between sounds and our surroundings. This doesn’t happen with just any sound that we hear, though, because most sounds don’t carry any weight or meaning. Music – which is patterned and emotional – inspires this kind of implicit learning.
Finally, music triggers social bonding. I talked about this at length in a recent post (Bharucha’s theory of synchronized brain states), but just knowing that music was created by someone and for someone, causes our mentalizing networks to come online. “Mentalizing” is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – that is, trying to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling. We might mentalize about the singer or composer of a song that we like, or we might mentalize about people we know, using the emotions in the song as a guide. I’m sure that you’ve experienced thinking about a loved one when you hear a romantic song, or thinking about how others don’t understand you, when hearing a lonely song.
Now, no one knows where “consciousness” or “identity” are located in the brain. But chances are, they live in the coordination of all these neural networks. Finding meaning in something like music – heck, even finding meaning in life, through philosophy and religion – is a uniquely human capability. Appreciation for something beyond the mundane, such as art, is what makes us feel like humans, and not like rats on a wheel.
It’s pretty amazing how a piece of music could engage your brain so extensively. It’s no wonder that a song – especially one that has lots of associations – can make a person come alive.