Saturday, April 9, 2011

Your brain on ... perceptible patterns?

I just read this short article, "Your Brain on Music" by Valerie Ross, in the latest issue of Discover Magazine. Here are a few excerpts:

If listening to your favorite song feels as satisfying as a good meal or a romp in the hay, that's because it probably is. According to a study published in January by neuroscientist Valorie Salimpoor at the Montreal Neurological Institute, music can activate the same reward circuits in the brain as food and sex.
[PET and fMRI scans of study participants] showed that just before feeling enjoyable chills in response to the music, listeners experienced a dopamine rush near the frontal striatum, a brain region associated with anticipating rewards, followed by a flood of dopamine in the rear striatum, the brain's pleasure center. "It's like you're craving the next note," Salimpoor says. That cycle of craving and fulfillment may be what keeps music lovers coming back for more.

The article goes on to explain the distinguishing characteristics of exceptional music, focusing on the masterful use of repetition and redundancy to form a composition that, according to Biologist Nick Hudson, "sounds complex but is actually built on a foundation of simple patterns."

A few pages later in the same issue, I found an ad from The Great Courses about a lecture series entitled "Building Great Sentences." The list of lecture titles offers a glimpse at all the compelling ways in which verbal and semantic patterns can be incorporated (and varied) throughout the structure of a written work:

1. A Sequence of Words
2. Grammar and Rhetoric
3. Proposition and Meaning
4. How Sentences Grow
5. Adjectival Steps
6. The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax
7. Direction of Modification
8. Coordinate, Subordinate, and Mixed Patterns
9. Coordinate Cumulative Sentences
10. Subordinate and Mixed Cumulatives
11. Prompts of Comparison
12. Prompts of Explanation
13. The Riddle of Prose Rhythm
14. Cumulative Syntax to Create Suspense
15. Degrees of Suspensiveness
16. The Mechanics of Delay
17. Prefab Patterns for Suspense
18. Balanced Sentences and Balanced Form
19. The Rhythm of Twos
20. The Rhythm of Threes
21. Balanced Series and Serial Balances
22. Master Sentences
23. Sentences in Sequence
24. Sentences and Prose Style

I don't think it's a stretch to relate our perception of music to that of language, or to recognize these phenomena as related aspect of human cognition and the experience of pleasure. In fact, when I was studying Kant's ideas on aesthetic judgement, I couldn't get away from the notion that aesthetic experience boils down to a cognitive perception of discernible patterns and a resulting experience of pleasure. Even the degree to which we are conscious or unconscious of this phenomena seems to matter only in terms of explanation.

Further, it seems to me that conceptualist varieties of art (and poetry) instigate a type of aesthetic experience even when sensual considerations of aesthetic norms (e.g. Marcel Duchamp's definition of "retinal art") are necessarily discarded as a means of activating a conceptual (supposedly non-aesthetic) experience of art. Which is to say, the perception of patterns--even in highly abstract forms of thought--can generate an aesthetic (i.e. pleasurable) response that relies on sensory input only as an instigating stimulus.


I could probably go on and on ... but won't. Not today, anyhow.


  1. Jim, So this explains it! Why I feel lifted into a better realm while listening to music I like.

    This weekend (here in my woods) - a center for mental health care has a special event for Veterans in the area who suffer from PTSD. They are putting on a *very visual* music presentation. This time, Pink Floyd will be the music. What the researchers have found (and the premise they're working with) is that the "startle" response and the reaction to flashing lights and loud sound, as seen and heard in war that's become ingrained as something to be petrified by - will shift and begin a relearning experience, one that teaches the receptors that sudden loudness etc can be a pleasant experience.

    When I first heard of this, I was surprised and a bit skeptical about using Pink Floyd. Oh, I like Pink Floyd, it's just I thought it might be a bit strong. Turns out - when I talked with the MH Center, this is precisely what they prefer in order for things to take root.

    I thought this ties in well with what you're writing about today and wanted to share it.

    ~ Elizabeth Jill

  2. Hi Jill. That PTSD thing sound interesting--if flashing lights and loud noises serve as a trigger for reliving the original trauma, then it makes sense to develop an alternative response. And if that alternative potentially triggers a rush of dopamine to the brain's pleasure center, then I can see how this type of therapy would have a positive effect.

    Thanks for stopping by!