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music and brain

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According to a new Stanford study, our reaction to music in social situations may be explained by brain activity.

New study shows that music elicits a people connection

by Andrea Towers
Apr 18, 2013

Have you ever wondered why thousands of people at a concert react similarly when exposed to music that makes them clap their hands or stomp their feet?

Some scientists believe this social phenomenon may be linked to brain activity that controls movement planning, memory and attention.

The correlation was investigated by using imaging technology that allowed scientists to view patterns of the brain as 17 participants with little or no musical training listened to a long stretch of classical music. The findings were reported last week in a Stanford University study.

“One of the things that we used to think years ago is that music was a wonderful motivator and that humans like music and could use it to effect change. Now, we’re finding that it’s not only a motivator, but that it’s hard-wired into our system,” said Victoria Storm, board-certified music therapist at Oak Park Music Therapy.

To ensure the findings were based strictly on music as the primary stimulus rather than language, researchers used a symphonic musical piece by 18th-century composer William Boyce, whose work is largely unfamiliar to a majority of modern Americans. The results, published April 11 in the European Journal of Neuroscience, showed that human brains react naturally to musical stimulus. This suggests that because of similar brain activity, movements can be socially coordinated.

“The highly consistent patterns of brain activity in these movement-planning regions reflect the role of music in our common evolution,” said researcher Daniel Abrams, a neuroscientist at Stanford. “The ability to move together may well be an adaptive trait that has been selected in human evolution.”

Researchers identified that the right hemisphere of the brain tracks musical (non -linguistic) stimuli the same way the left hemisphere of the brain tracks linguistic arrangements.

“In the higher cortex associated with working memory and processing of information, there were two structures in the right brain that were predominantly responsive to music, and automatically mirrored images of what was being seen in the left hemisphere,” said Bruce Goldman, a science writer at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Among all individuals, each music-responsive area of the brain appeared to track music in “real time,” which corresponds to the everyday experience of casual music listening.

“Whether we’re listening to it or whether we’re playing it, there’s something communal about music …and this may go a piece of the way to explaining it,” said Goldman.

Although the study’s focus was primarily rooted in drawing a connection between musical response and social coordination, scientists believe that its results could also prove useful in research areas where language and communication are concerned.

“The system that we’ve developed and used here can definitely be used to study individuals with autism, to examine how their brains integrate speech or music information over long periods of time,” said Abrams. “We hope this will be a sort of leaping point.”