Ask Dr. Universe – Musicians and Their Brains

Dr. Universe: Why do musicians use both sides of their brains?  -Rohan

Dear Rohan,

The left and right side of the brain each have unique abilities, so when they come together, it’s a kind of brain duet.

My friend Sheila Converse is a music professor here at Washington State University. She said to try this out: Snap the fingers of your left hand while patting your right leg with your right hand.

It’s might seem crisscrossed, but the left side of the brain is controlling the right hand. Meanwhile, the right side of the brain is controlling the left hand. As you hear the snaps and pats, thousands of little hairs inside your ears pick up vibrations from sound waves.

“Our ears and brains are amazing,” Converse said. “They haven’t yet invented a computer that can do all the things our ears and brains can.”

While computers can’t perfectly mimic brains or ears, engineers have built tools that can help us get a closer look at brain activity. Turn on a device called an EEG, stick a few electrodes on a musician’s head, and the technology will reveal lots about the brain.

When scientists look at musicians’ brains they can detect activity in areas associated with emotion and memories. They are the nucleus acumbens and the amygdala. Both of these parts are located toward the middle of the brain.

Humans also use four, or some might say five, different brain lobes to see, feel, speak, focus, remember, enjoy music and friends, and make complex decisions in their social lives.

That’s what I learned from my friend Bill Griesar, a brain scientist at WSU. He also told me the octopus has more than 40 lobes. More than two-thirds of its brain cells are found in its arms. But even though it has nearly ten times more lobes than a human, it still can’t play music, of course.

Humans can learn to play music because of their highly developed cortex. Cortex actually means “bark” and it’s the outer layer of the brain. In a way, you could also say musicians use both the outer and inner parts of their brains, too.

As musicians play an instrument, the cortex helps them learn and understand. As they practice, the activity becomes more fluid. As Griesar put it, it is the subcortical brain that allows musicians to “feel the force.”

The temporal lobe, located right in the middle of the brain, is especially important for making sense of sounds. When processing music, there are the specific sounds and words that are the details of a piece. Then there’s the overall sense or emotional point to it, Griesar explained.

Musicians use both sides of the brain because the right side can help make sense of a whole situation and the left side can make sense of details.

As researchers learn more about the gears churning in human brains, their discoveries can help us understand how the arts impact memory and how humans learn. That’s music to my fuzzy little ears.

Dr. Universe

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