What the Beatles Can Teach Us About Our Brains
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.
I thought it was the melody of the song that helped him be able to do so, in contrast to the intense efforts he expends to say a phrase like “I want to go to school.” On his own (i.e., without us prompting him), Charlie says “I want” or “go” or “school,” but stringing together the sequence of words is really hard for him. Perhaps there is some disrupted connection between the parts of his brain that control his speech and those that control his motor system?
Charlie also has a lot of difficulty doing motor activities like writing with a pencil or pen and catching a ball. He has learned to do the latter if the ball is thrown directly to him; for a long time, he always raised his hands several beats behind seeing the ball heading towards him, as if he couldn’t get his eyes, brain and body to all work together at once. He was also a quite late walker (16 months) in part (I reflect now) because he just couldn’t figure out how to coordinate all the parts of his body involved in getting on his feet. When we were first teaching him to understand what was being said to him, it helped to pair words with movements so we told him to push a ball but to get a shoe.
My husband Jim taught Charlie to ride a bike, which certainly involves a lot of coordination between brain and body. Often while they’re riding Jim sings a number of songs. Perhaps by doing so, he is helping Charlie to set his brain’s motor system into action?
One of those songs is one sung to Charlie since he was a baby: “We love you Charlie , / oh yes we do, / we love you Charlie, we do-oo, / oh Charlie, we love you.” It’s a variation on a song fans used to sing to the Beatles that Jim remembers from his younger days — and that Charlie can sing on his own, one verse after another.
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