December 3, 2012

Music, Memory and the Motor System

Can you take a guess as to what the three things in the title of this blog post have in common?

If you can't, don't fret - five minutes ago I wouldn't have been able to give you an answer either. Funny thing is, I was taking a break from doing work when I came across this on Twitter:

Obviously intrigued, I clicked on the link and was brought to the following page:

The Beatles' Surprising Contribution to Brain Science

As I read this story (filed appropriately under News in Science), I came to several realizations:

  1. Social media is the main (if not sole) reason why people procrastinate as much as they do.
  2. Said social media has the power to influence anybody, anywhere, at any time.
  3. It's amazing how fast you can learn something new.
  4. The Beatles' music is so influential that it surpasses any and every socially constructed standard.
  5. Ignoring your mother will get you far in life! (I should note that this is meant to be a joke, for those of you who are taking me too seriously - I love my mother, and only sometimes ignore her!)
  6. Most importantly, that hearing new music activates motor areas - that's right, not areas involved in hearing, but motor areas!

Before dwelling on this last point a little more, I'd like to write a quick recap on what exactly these researchers did. Josef Rauschecker and graduate student Brannon Green from Georgetown University devised an experiment in which participants listened to atonal music (generated by a computer) while in the scanner. Participants first heard a single musical phrase made up of several notes, after which they heard the same phrase of notes but this time, with a new phrase added on at the end. This pattern continued until the entire musical sequence was played in full. You can imagine, then, that at the end of the sequence, the first musical phrase would have been played many times over while the last phrase of the sequence would have only been played once. The purpose of the study? To see precisely what was happening as the brain learned a new musical sequence, of course!

What Rauschecker and Green found from this experiment was what landed them a spot in the News section of the KOSU Radio website. The brain scans showed that motor areas became active when the participants heard something new (i.e., the newest phrase of musical notes played). On the other hand, these same motor areas showed significantly less activation when participants heard more familiar notes. It was during these familiar sequences that activity increased in areas involved in hearing, which suggests that these hearing areas can remember small chunks of notes, but that the motor system is what compiles these chunks of notes into a correct, coherent order. Now some of you may be slightly baffled, thinking, "But motor areas? Really?! I thought motor areas were for movement, not for hearing music!". It actually makes sense, if you think about it this way. Just as in dance, when your motor system is programmed to work with your muscles in a particular sequence, so too your motor system is activated when you hear a new piece of music. Your motor system is responsible for sequencing the notes you hear and programming them into your memory, which explains why you see activity in the motor areas when new music is played. Rauschecker has even gone as far as finding evidence that the motor system can help retrieve chunks of forgotten musical notes - something all musicians (including myself) have surely experienced at least once in their musical career.

So next time you hear a new song on the radio, do a little dance - chances are, you'll be more likely to remember that song the next time you hear it (which should be within the next hour or so, if you listen to the same radio stations I do!).