This Is Your Brain on Music, an exciting new tome, confirms many of the basic truths we understand about music. Its author, former Bay Area neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin, explains that we’re hard-wired to learn our culture’s scales and rhythms; that most people’s core tastes solidify by late adolescence; that music can literally get you high; and, lastly, that music taps directly into the seat of hardcore emotions in the primitive, “reptilian” brain — the cerebellum.
This last fact rattles around what’s left of my cerebellum as I stand reading the book’s index while waiting in line to buy a PlayStation 3 on a soggy Friday morning. What’s left of my reptilian brain is blasted, jumpy, and ready to murder the fifty other strangers camping in a Best Buy parking lot underneath a freeway overpass with bright, buzzing white lights and armed guards.
TV reporters and their cameramen expect some type of ebullient display from the soon-to-be PS3 owners. Instead, the cameras capture prison-camp visuals — cold, hungry, fearful, and dirty men, women, and children of all ethnicities in single-file lines. The guards order us hooded refugees into the retail building five at a time while the rest of the line stares aimlessly at the parking lot we’ve all stared at for the last 47 hours, scanning for predators and other threats, then looking back to our feet. No high-fives. No clapping or cheers. The roar of the freeway drowns everything out.
Along with my boom box, fifty new CDs, and a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, This Is Your Brain on Music has become my Valium here, a cure for boredom and stress. One of the most startling revelations in the book is how little we know.
We know more about the chemical composition of Saturn’s rings than we do about some of the most basic brain functions. But empirical evidence about specialized, higher-order neuronal processes is finally starting to emerge thanks to advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalograms, studies of brain damage, and cross-disciplinary research between cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and other fields.
And long-held truisms seem to be the first things we can prove. First and foremost, as with language, we humans are hard-wired to learn our culture’s music. Levitin talks of children as young as age two favoring their own cultures’ scales and rhythms over foreign sounds. Furthermore, musical preferences begin to form physiologically in the brain as early as the second trimester of pregnancy, and continue until the brain stops making neural connections and begins pruning them after adolescence. You may claim to hate Depeche Mode now, but part of your brain still gets off on similar beats and timbres. You can think of your musical tastes as a building whose foundations are laid by age five, with walls and a roof added through puberty. Anything after that is just a remodel. And part of the reason you’re stuck with your early tastes has to do with the brain’s reward system.
Some of the hottest new brain research shows that its center for reward and pleasure — the nucleus accumbens — lights up when people listen to their music of choice. Music literally gets you high. The combination of familiarity and a continued sense of novelty in our favorite tunes generates dopamine releases right behind our eyes, which is the same area that lights up when a cokehead gets a snort, or a gambling addict hits a high straight. Levitin’s book inadvertently lays the groundwork for a whole new form of addiction, with perhaps millions of adolescent males in need of emo-therapy.
But back to the reptilian brain and emotion. Levitin describes a talk he had with Francis Crick, codiscoverer of the structure of DNA. In his spare time, Crick sought the evolutionary roots and significance of music in neural physiology. He posited unseen connections between the auditory complex of the brain (near your temples) to other, more primitive parts at the back of your skull. Sure enough, stick people’s heads in MRI machines, crank up their tunes, and the part of their brains associated with motor control and deep emotion in the back of the skull processes music in parallel with higher-order circuits for executive function and personality up in the front of the brain.
Levitin suggests that the brain processes music emotionally because it was evolutionarily advantageous fifty thousand years ago to react to sound without thinking. This is called the “auditory startle.” A Cro-Mag hears that saber-toothed tiger’s RRROOOOAARRR! and doesn’t stop to ponder it; he freaking runs his ass off. The auditory startle is the fastest and most important of our startle responses, Levitin explains, and that’s the reptilian brain at work. Processing sound emotionally kept us alive, and that helps explain what’s happened to me over the last 48 hours — how sanity has slowly slipped away.
A big part of why everyone looks so beat minutes before they make a $1,300 profit for two days’ work is the sound. The Best Buy at Harrison and 13th streets in San Francisco sits next to Highway 101 and four major traffic arterials. Closing my eyes in my sleeping bag the first frozen night, I tried to rest, but my brain went apeshit trying to track and analyze thousands of diesel trucks, generators, and strange male voices that created a 360-degree atonal, arrhythmic, unpredictable, totally alien wall of noise. There was no peace, no break from it. This soundtrack could break Abu Ghraib prisoners if played at a hundred decibels, and this racket most assuredly drives hobos nuts after weeks of exposure. We might be able to reduce homelessness with something as simple as a free earplug program.
Finally, as I shuffle out of the cold around 8:45 a.m., I am guaranteed my payday. Each of us filthy refugees makes our transactions slowly and blankly. The signature on my credit card receipt is barely recognizable. Beaten, we huddle before the exit and try to identify who in the parking lot wants to rob us.
“It’s happening all over America right now: stickups and pepper sprayings and beatings and whatnot,” the cerebellum whispers. “It’s going to happen here.” So instead, we stare out the windows at the asphalt tundra and bathe in the warm Best Buy Muzak. It’s some old Janet Jackson. I hate the song, but I can hum every word.