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What the Beatles Can Teach Us About Our Brains

What the Beatles Can Teach Us About Our Brains
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Parents ought to think twice about telling their teenager to turn off the rock ‘n’ roll/rap/whatever music they are blasting through their headphones while studying. Georgetown University neuroscientist Josef Rauschecker tells NPR that his mother did just this when he was younger, on the grounds that he couldn’t concentrate with the Beatles playing. Fortunately, he did not heed her requests, as his teenage music obsession has led to a discovery about how we remember strings of information, by using the parts of our brains that control our movements.

That might sounds counterintuitive at first, but as Rauschecker says of activities like performing a dance sequence or riding a bike, “you have to program your muscles to work in particular sequence, especially when you learn something.”

Ever lost something and literally retraced your steps to find it to “jog your memory”?

The Beatles and Brain Science

Rauschecker listened so much to The White Album, Revolver and Rubber Soul — who hasn’t? — that they “seemed to become a part of his teenager brain, and the memory of which songs came in which order never faded.” Years later, when he turned on a Beatles record, Rauschecker noted that, as one song was ending, he would start singing the next one “as if it was all stored in your brain as a continuous sort of story.” He wondered, how was it that he could remember sequences of songs after such a long time?

What he found has implications for understanding how some, such as poets including the ancient Greek Homer (8th century BCE), could recite thousands on thousands of lines of verse all from memory, without the aid of writing. From studying contemporary traditional oral poets, scholars have observed how key music is to oral tradition, of one poet handing down poetry by “word of mouth” to ensure its survival in the next generation.

Being a neuroscientist, Rauschecker did an experiment in his lab to understand what he observed. Volunteers were asked to have their brains scanned while listening to a favorite CD. The researchers noted distinctive areas of the brain in motion after each track ended, but not the areas of the brain for hearing, but those for movement.

He and a graduate student, Brandon Green, then did another experiment to see what happens when the brain learns a new musical sequence. They found that motor areas of the brain are in use when people hear something new, but not so when people hear familiar music; in the latter case, brain areas involved in hearing are more active.

What it all suggests is that, while hearing areas can “remember small chunks of notes,” the motor areas are needed for sequencing, for putting together, all those “chunks.”

The implications of Rauschecker’s research are that the brain may have a “highly specialized system for storing sequences of information, whether those sequences contain musical notes, words or even events.” Learning a sequence of actions is one way and recalling them — by playing back the songs in your head or, yes, singing them — helps keep the memory going.

He Can Sing Better Than He Can Talk

My teenage son, Charlie, is autistic, minimally verbal and not, despite many efforts that continue, able to read. He loves music, listening to it often on his iPad. Before he could string two words together, Charlie could sing a complete line of a song, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Today, he typically speaks in short phrases of one to five words but can sing verses and stanzas of entire songs.

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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65 comments

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11:44AM PST on Feb 20, 2013

interesting. When I would get a new CD, I would subconsciously memorize the order of the songs. Even now when i sing a song from forever ago, the next song from the cd comes to mind immediately after that song is over :)

5:16AM PST on Nov 30, 2012

My son was labelled "Remedial" in Infants school. We knew he wasn't, but we sang all sorts of stuff to him and saw an improvement in his response time.
Luckily for us his very experienced Headmistress saw no problem when was tested by her and did not follow through on the Remedial school suggestion.
The trouble we "diagnosed" was that he was too busy' thinking'..... He has an Master of Science Degree and can play the piano and is a wonderful son, husband and father.

3:17AM PST on Nov 30, 2012

Wonderful article,thank you!

3:29AM PST on Nov 19, 2012

Thanks for the article.

2:59AM PST on Nov 18, 2012

Thanks.

1:23AM PST on Nov 18, 2012

ty

9:57PM PST on Nov 17, 2012

The Beatles had real music- not some of the crap we hear today- totally forgettable.

9:00AM PST on Nov 17, 2012

Very interesting article and especially the comments from Linda M, Stephen B, David Y &
Gary A. Thanks folks for your input.

2:41AM PST on Nov 17, 2012

Thanks for sharing.

10:42PM PST on Nov 16, 2012

I agree with A N M.,
I always preferred the Stones.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches and writes about ancient Greek and Latin and is Online Advocacy and Marketing... more
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