The musical brain

Several years ago, Bonnie Simon, hosted me at the Cosmos Club to ask me about the neuroscience of human musical experiences. At the time, I pointed her in the roughly correct directions towards the fMRI literature and wondered whether my friend and colleague, Bill Reeder, Dean of our College of Visual and Performing Arts, might have something valuable to add–after all he is a real opera performer; I just enjoy classical music.

Here’s a more recent blogpost from Jonah Lehrer at Wired. Not surprisingly the neurotransmitter, dopamine, plays a starring role (although recent work from Huda Akil’s lab calls into question the exact role of dopamine in reward).

I’m fairly certain that, one day, when we understand a lot more about the brain, it will be the mathematical aspects of music as reflected in the dynamics of tone and rhythms that will turn out to be the key to why humans, of all ilks, love it so much.

So perhaps the more underlying question is why (and whether) human beings have a deep underlying need for mathematics–from my viewpoint in the enjoyment of aspects of the natural experience which are especially mathematically symmetric (or not).

My take on the Decline Effect

So I’ve read Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece now several times. I take it seriously. The policy implications, particularly with regards to the use of pharmaceuticals, are incredibly disturbing. I’m less concerned with the Rhine’s ESP research in the 1930’s.

I should point out that there are many areas of science ranging from molecular biology to astrophysics where I don’t believe there is any evidence at all for such a “decline effect”.  The disciplines affected by the problem are those that generally depend on to a greater extent on parametric statistics (t-tests and the like) rather than categorical “yes-no” results (e.g. a gene sequence, the timing of an eclipse, a band in a gel).

So what about the causes? First, yes there is experimenter bias. Experimenters are (still) human and hence are imperfect.

But much more interesting to me is the problem of replicability.  As a journal editor myself, I have to make difficult decisions about what to publish and the reality of today’s scientific marketplace is that negative results have a hard time making it past editors and into print. So another real part of the problem is that when many studies are compared for replicability (meta-analysis), this type of research itself is inherently biased by the “dark matter” of unpublished negative results.

Is something else spooky going on here? I don’t think so. Science, I’m pleased to say, has not yet been seriously targeted by deconstructive criticism.

Jonah Lehrer’s piece in the New Yorker

Behind the firewall, here’s the abstract of Jonah’s new piece on the “decline effect”. And here’s Steven Novella’s response on his NeuroLogica Blog.

Basically what’s at stake is our (the community of scientists and those who use scientific results to create informed policies) faith in the Scientific Method (as defined best by Popper).

I’m still working through my own thoughts as to Lehrer’s article. It’s creating a big stir among my colleagues and it deserves a serious response. So stay tuned.