The mind of music

While we're increasingly able to map regions of the mind to certain conscious states - we know for example that the pre-frontal cortex plays an executive role in decision making - grand reductive efforts have failed spectacularly to map its streaming, conscious, self-aware state to a corresponding molecule-by-molecule brain state. We're left with a nascent understanding of regions of the brain and very little understanding of how they interact to produce your experience of a satisfying walk in the park or the thrill I get from stories of exploration.

To demonstrate the point, Daniel Levitin points out that by getting a pail of water from a river, a scientist can study the water that's in the pail, but not - in the fullest sense - the river itself. That's the "problem of science," he remembers the philosopher Alan Watts once saying. He and David Byrne, who you may recognize from the Talking Heads, discuss in this SEED Salon the hold of music in this context of its analyzability: why should these pleasing, regular sounds have such universal appeal? And how can we know why? Unlike the mind, music can, at the risk of losing its intelligibility, be stripped to its essential elements by removing rhythm or melody or pitch.

All is not lost though. Levitin, loosely quoting another artist, says the goal of art or music might in some sense to activate those feelings of being co-participants in a great work of art or performance or exploration, a feeling that may be due in no small part to the recent discovery of mirror neurons.

Who knows whether the problem of experience will ever be fully understood, but the study and enjoyment of music, and perhaps, performance, might offer one approach to one of the enduring mysteries of the human experience.

The other participant you might recognize id David Byrne of the Talking Heads.


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