Down The Line: Don’t Let The Darkness Eat You Up

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the personal varying affect of art in general, be it the written word, a piece of music or stenciling on the wall. It’s kind of interesting to get into the motive (as much as one can ‘get into’ the motive) of the love and affectation of any type of aesthetic stimulus. Why do we gaze into any object for an extended amount of time? It can be used as object of analysis, as a stepping stone to greater inspiration for our own output, or lastly, what I find to be the case most often with myself: its amount and height of mental and emotional affectation.

As a musician myself, the vast majority of music I enjoy stems from one of the above: critiquing a performance of Chopin’s Valse Op. 64 No. 2 to better my technical grace as a pianist, listening to acoustic ditties (otherwise known as masterpieces) by Sufjan or Joanna in attempt to improve my songwriting, or dancing around to the Arcade Fire because, well, sometimes a little “Rebellion (Lies)” is all you need on the way home from a tiring day.

However, there are the occasional hidden gems one stumbles upon from time to time that kill in all three categories and beyond. I’ve found “Down The Line” by Swedish-Argentine José González to be one of these. As object of analysis, it’s rhythmic and percussive accents, simple vocal line and walking bass are perfectly fitting. As inspiration, I’m not sure I need to go into much detail here- it’s the concept of ‘beauty in simplicity’ at its finest. In “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” Charles Bukowski says An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.” José has done this. I can’t and won’t begin to disclose what these unadorned verses mean to me, but maybe you can see for yourself.



I see problems down the line

I know that I’m right.

There was a dirt upon your hands
doing the same mistake twice
making the same mistake twice

Come on over, don’t be so caught up
It’s not about compromising.
I see problems down the line
I know that I’m right

I see darkness down the line
I know it’s hard to fight.
There was a dirt upon your hands
doing the same mistake twice
making the same mistake twice.

Come on over, be so caught up, it’s all about colonizing.

I see problems down the line
I know that I’m right.

Don’t let the darkness eat you up  

Why Beauty Exists: The Neuroscience of Curiosity

I’ve come across a wonderful post over at Lapidarium Notes this morning and cannot help but share. Originally written by Jonah Lehrer in his blog (The Frontal Cortex) Jonah puts forth an speculative (albeit intriguing) theory as to the literal faculty of why beauty exists.

Upon initial reading, I’m taken back to working through my introductory thought process on Hegel’s Philosophy of Art. At first glance, to be completely honest, not only does it seem a bit of a narcissistically beaten-horse, I’ve simply come so near to believing (more than once) that the whole discussion is better left to Kantian scholars of aesthetics; and for the good of the academy, I simply best stay out of it. Au contraire, enter the reason I love plasticity and neuroscience in the first place: with a little dissection, a lot of faith and a very open mind-the potential of our neuronal comprehension is, at this point at least, limitless.

It also brings into play a fundamental reason why I become giddy at the overlap of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience: pragmatism! “Speculative” as Jonah’s theory may be, the minute you bring in data from fMRI and PET scanners, things become a bit more serious. Neuroscience (for me) is a way of turning  highly theoretical abstracts (philosophy) into possibly more practical endeavors (clinical psychology).  Now, before I am the target of hate emails, I am not saying philosophy is not practical, by all means, I find it very much so. I’m speaking in the context more in the arena of bettering the all-encompassing, easily accessible acculturation of society by means we may find in a clinical (or neurologically educational) setting. Jonah has done (as per usual) a splendid job of combining the concepts of arousal, the ‘mental itch’ that is the curiosity of an inquisitive mind, and the usefulness of beauty as learning signal, emotional reminder, and motivational force.

Before I go on and let Jonah explain the study far better than myself, I will say one thing more. Ironically enough, I pin the very moment I knew I wanted to study music and neuroscience concurrently to him. I remember so clearly-a friend had sent me a blank email, except for the link to the post. I often ignore such things, but the respect I had for them academically prompted me to do otherwise. I’ll never forget that evening sitting at my laptop at the local pizza joint reading that article and knowing this is what I had to do. The post, entitled The Neuroscience of Music, can be found here.

The following is taken directly from Jonah’s blog post Why Does Beauty Exist?


“Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Let’s begin with the neuroscience of curiosity, that weak form of beauty. There’s an interesting recent study from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, led by Min Jeong Kang. (…)

The first thing the scientists discovered is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for more information – the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I see beauty as a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation, and not just information. It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way. (Italics mine)

Beautiful music and the brain

The best way to reveal the link between curiosity and beauty is with music. Why do we perceive certain musical sounds as beautiful? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext; there is no content to get curious about. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tittilate some universal dorsal hairs.

We can now begin to understand where these feelings come from, why a mass of vibrating air hurtling through space can trigger such intense perceptions of beauty. Consider this recent paper in Nature Neuroscience by a team ofMontreal researchers. (…)

Because the scientists were combining methodologies (PET and fMRI) they were able to obtain a precise portrait of music in the brain. The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that beautiful music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, as the scientists looked to see what was happening in the seconds before the subjects got the chills.
I won’t go into the precise neural correlates – let’s just say that you should thank your right nucleus accumbens the next time you listen to your favorite song – but want to instead focus on an interesting distinction observed in the experiment:

fMRI and PET results,

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music – those sublimely beautiful bits that give us the chills – were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate, the same brain area involved in curiosity. They call this the “anticipatory phase,” as we await the arrival of our favorite part:

Immediately before the climax of emotional responses there was evidence for relatively greater dopamine activity in the caudate. This subregion of the striatum is interconnected with sensory, motor and associative regions of the brain and has been typically implicated in learning of stimulus-response associations and in mediating the reinforcing qualities of rewarding stimuli such as food.

In other words, the abstract pitches have become a primal reward cue, the cultural equivalent of a bell that makes us drool. Here is their summary:

The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s beauty. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

Why the feeling of beauty is useful

What I like about this speculation is that it begins to explain why the feeling of beauty is useful. The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony –the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”

 Jonah Lehrer, American journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities, Why Does Beauty Exist?, Wired science, July 18, 2011

Neural Differences Between Musicians and Non-Musicians

Nature or Nurture, the Chicken or the Egg? The following paper has certainly given me much to think about, and will be addressed in posts soon to come.

Excerpt taken from Enhanced brainstem encoding predicts musicians’ perceptual advantages with pitch.

Musicians have different brains – that fact we have known for a long time. The study of musician and non-musician brains is probably one of the first stories in the science of neural (brain) plasticity; the idea that our brains respond and become modified by the things we experience in everyday life. Nowadays the existence of neural plasticity is beyond doubt: We see regular, remarkable examples of how the human brain, at any age although particularly in childhood, is able to re-organise itself in response to circumstances. For example, we know the brain can adapt after stroke or serious injury, after the loss of any of the senses and even as a result of our career choices. As for the latter, my favourite example is that of London Taxi drivers. Dr. Eleanor Maguire and her team found that the drivers show enlarged posterior hippocampus structures (the memory centre of the brain) which correlate with their possession of ‘the knowledge’, the mental map of London streets that they use to navigate.  As a result of such evidence we take it as a given that our brains will adapt to the world around us and to the demands that we make of it every day. And it therefore makes sense that musicians’ brains would adapt as a result of their exposure to and engagement with music.

But the ease with which we today accept brain plasticity as a result of musical practice is a result of over a century of research, which at first did not have the benefits of the sophisticated brain imaging tools. In fact the evidence goes back to Victorian scientists. Sigmund Auerbach (1860-1923) was a very popular German surgeon and diagnostician who contributed numerous works on the operative treatment of tumours of the brain and spinal marrow/cord, nervous damages, and epilepsy. At the beginning of the twentieth century he conducted a series of post-mortem brain dissections and reported that parts of the temporal and parietal lobe (in particular the superior temporal gyrus) were larger than normal in the brains of 5 famous musicians of the time (1911). However, the problem with simply noting differences between musicians and nonmusicians brains in this way is that you have no evidence for causation – how do you know their musical practice caused these changes? Maybe their brains were different to start with and that is the reason they became successful musicians?

The only way to solve this kind of riddle is with longitudinal, developmental studies. You measure kids’ brains before they start music (or choose not to – that is your control group) and then you determine whether the changes that occur to their brains as they learn match those that we see in adult musicians. I know of only one group braving this kind of study. Gottfried Shlaug’s lab’s results are starting to confirm that the neural differences we see in adult musicians are not present when children start learning – so logic suggests they must be a response to their environment. It is not conclusive yet, but it is a good indicator that musician/non-musician brain differences are largely the result of neural plasticity.

So what are the neural differences between musicians and non-musicians ? Well there are quite a few of them and I want to focus on just one recent study in today’s blog. So you will forgive me, I hope, if I say that if you want to know more about differences in general then I can recommend an article by Dr. Lauren Stewart which gives a great summary of this subjectToday we are interested in the brainstem. This is the oldest part of the brain and the part that is largely in charge of pre-conscious processing.

I first heard about brain stem studies about 4 years ago when I saw talks by Dr Nina Kraus and Dr Patrick Wong. Up until that point I had heard a lot about studying the higher centres of the brain with fMRI, PET and EEG but I have not been introduced to subcortical measures of musical processing. I found it fascinating. Both authors had perfected the technique of measuring the Frequency Following Response (FFR), an evoked potential generated in the upper portion of the brain stem. What happens in an FFR experiment is that a small number of electrodes are placed on the scalp (nowhere near as many as in a typical EEG scan) and then a series of simple sounds are played to one ear. As a participant you don’t have to do anything, in fact you can even fall asleepYour brainstem follows the frequency of the sounds that it hears, even when you are unconscious. It becomes ‘phase locked’, meaning that it displays a characteristic waveform that follows the individual cycles of the stimulus (i.e. its frequency).

Before the FFR paradigm came along we knew that musicians could unconsciously detect smaller changes in pitch than non-musicians (see work by Stefan Koelsch) but we didn’t know where this ability came from; was it coming from the lower pre-conscious levels of the cortex or the much older brainstem regions?  Use of the FFR paradigm has shown that long-term musical experience changes how the brainstem responds to sounds in the environment, and that this correlates with performance in behavioural tasks. For example, Dr Patrick Wong (Wong et al., 2007) showed that musicians show enhanced brain stem responses to tones within speech (in Mandarin Chinese). What about skills that are critical to performing musicians though, such as detecting minute pitch variations thereby being able to tell whether you are in tune?

A paper out in the European Journal of Neuroscience by Gavin Bidelman and team recently looked at this  question using the FFR paradigm. They looked at the properties of the FFR in response to tuned (major and minor) and detuned chordal, triad arpeggios in eleven musicians (vs. 11 controls). Detuning was accomplished by sharpening or flattening the pitch of the chord’s third. Following each note onset the authors took a ‘snapshot’ of the phase-locking in the FFR which occurred 15-20ms post-stimulus onset. Peaks in the FFR were identified by the researchers and confirmed by independent observers. FFR peaks were then quantified and segmented into three sections corresponding to the three notes heard. The authors then completed a separate, standard pitch discrimination task to determine whether the musicians had better responses at the perceptual level. What they found was amazing.

FFR waveforms (image from G. Bidelman’s site, link below) 


1) For the perception test: musicians showed better discrimination performance, and their enhanced ability was the same for major and minor distinctions, as well as for tuned-up vs. tuned-down manipulations of pitch.  The nonmusicians could distinguish major from minor, but could not reliably detect the detunings.

2) For the FFR data: musicians showed faster synchronisation and stronger brainstem encoding for the third of the arpeggios, whether the sequence was in or out of tune (notice the enhanced peak size and regularity in the image above) Nonmusicians on the other hand had much stronger encoding for the major/minor chords compared to that seen for the detuned chords.

The close correspondence between these two results supports the theory that musicians’ enhanced ability to detect out of tune pitches is rooted in pre-conscious processing of pitch that occurs in the brainstem, and specially in the enhancement of phase locked activity.


The thing that fascinates me is that this kind of evidence fills in some of the much needed gaps in our knowledge about how the so-called ‘lower’ centres of the brain are involved in processing jobs that it is very easy to causally attribute to the ‘higher’ centres of the brain, namely the cortex. In reality our perception of music starts at the level of the ear and all the way along its journey to our conscious minds it is carefully dissected, pre-processed and shaped. And it seems that our experience of the world can shape destinations all the way along this pathway, contributing to the overall behavioural differences we see in musicians and nonmusicians when they listen to music.

Bidelman, G.M., Krishnan, A., & Gandour, J.T (2011) Enhanced brainstem encoding predicts musicians’ perceptual advantages with pitch. EJN, 1-9.

Many thanks to Vicky at Victoria Williamson Psychology UK for post.