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.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
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