Brainy Music

AA048776Usually, the Facebook invites I get are some type of party or nightlife activity, but a while back, I got an invitation of a rather different sort: It came from Lindsea Wilbur, an activist for sports safety, specifically involving traumatic head injury, and the invite was for Hawaii Pacific Neuro-science’s lecture, “Music & Brain Function.” Her father, John Wilbur, was a professional football player with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Red-skins who died from complications due to a sports-related head injury.

As everyone knows, Facebook invites are not typically a good gauge of how many people will attend an event — usually there will be hundreds or thousands of people invited, with only a handful saying that they’re attending. For the Music & Brain lecture, that was flipped, with far more people RSVPing than had actually been invited — I think that speaks to the appeal of unraveling the mysteries of how we perceive music on a scientific level that is almost more interesting than hearing music itself.

During my time at Columbia University, I took entire courses on music cognition, and even at the Ph.D. level, they were only scratching the surface of how music interfaces with the brain. Dr. Elizabeth Chen did a fantastic job of providing a comprehensive overview of how sound waves are transferred to electrical signals in the inner ear by thousands of tiny hair cells. These electric signals then travel down the auditory nerve through several parts of the brain.

She showed brain scans that illustrated the difference between casual listening, active listening and performing music. While simply exploring how the brain encodes and decodes musical information would have been interesting enough, she also blazed through at least 15 studies of practical applications of music in a therapeutic/medical environment — music can be used to treat a range of ailments, including epilepsy, migraines, stroke recovery, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The most captivating moment of her presentation was when she showed a video of elderly people with dementia so severe that they were unable to respond to even the simplest questions. However, when music was played, their eyes would light up and they would sing along and somehow their brain circuitry would reactivate and they could hold conversations again.

If you missed out on this one, there are more presentations planned for the future on music and brain function, and Hawaii Pacific Neuroscience hosts lectures on a broad variety of topics that discuss our contemporary understanding of the brain.

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