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Music and the Brain

Channel 5, or “Five” as it is properly called, has been making a serious effort to shake off its “sleaze-and-US-derivatives” image. Among many excellent documentaries, it recently offered a competitor to Channel 4’s Genius Children.

My Brilliant Brain was a series investigating that old chestnut, Nature or Nurture. Its essential message was that advances in neuro-science mean we can give far more detail and meaning to the physiological dimension of the mind.

Musical performance is an ideal vehicle with which to investigate these questions, since it draws on so great a variety of brain activities, motor, emotional, intellectual. So musicians featured heavily in several of the programmes.

The first programme’s protagonist was Marc Yu, a child who plays the piano as well as Yevgeny Kissin did at the same age. In the course of the programme, Marc turns eight, his hands grow to the point where he can stretch an octave, and he meets his hero, Lang Lang, who offers him a date at Carnegie Hall in 2009.

Around Marc, who is eccentric but by no means peculiar or unsympathetic, the familiar story is narrated, Nature matters, and so does Nurture. We did not learn anything very surprising, but it was striking how much more sophisticated such a programme could be than –say- thirty years ago.

Both genetics and neuroscience have made great strides; mapping the cerebellum (which orders the muscles around) and the corpus callosum (connecting the two hemispheres of the brain) can be done with immensely more sophistication. Genes are now routinely isolated, so we can identify propensities to certain activities. Having the gene in itself, of course, does not guarantee success.

The most interesting observation was that prodigies have a genetic propensity towards strong will in pursuit of their ability. That is, it would be impossible to force even a gifted child to follow a certain path if he did not already wish to do so. Marc provides an excellent example. Though he has a frighteningly pushy mother, who played the piano endlessly to her unborn child in the hope he would pick up musicality even in the womb, he is himself completely obsessed with each piece that he learns. Marc would wish to devote more or less every waking moment to his music, though he is clearly a well-enough socialised child to have genuinely loyal friends who love his company.

Compared to the Channel 4 programme, which will be made over a number of years, this was just a snapshot in time; we heard about the well-known pitfalls a prodigy may encounter, and the two key changes that each much face, puberty, then being measured against adults, rather than being treated as a miraculous curiosity.

While we know that neither nature nor nurture operates in isolation, and that most prodigies fail, it was interesting to find out that what one psychologist described as a ‘rage to master’ is genetically encoded. Also, we learned that the critical function of exercising one’s talent early is that connections in the brain can already atrophy in childhood if not used.

Our brains have a total capacity far greater than is needed for any single task, even very advanced and complex tasks like playing music or chess. Mapping which parts of the brain are actually used when we do something allows us to see that those who are highly developed at a particular activity are actually (unconsciously) allocating more of the brain’s resources to that activity than an average person. Rather as computer processor allocates power to different software programs. For example, that part of a particular chess prodigy’s brain normally devoted to recognizing human faces was seen to be calculating the moves. She had been trained from a very early age; she and her family believed that genius was the result of taking infinite pains.

What we see is a convergence between how scientists and philosophers describe things. Genius? Intuition? Phenomena we have already discussed from the point of view of the music critic make just as much sense applied to performers. One man’s intuition is another’s “perfection of pattern recognition.” Just as distinguishing the essential from the ephemeral is what makes good judgment, so it is what a great performer can do in interpreting. And he does this partly being able to ignore that ephemeral, those unimportant elements, and internalising the pattern of what is important.

In some cases, this ability is not in the subject’s control, let alone something that is learned. Among so-called savants, Leslie Lemke is a musician able to play back on the piano, with whatever density of harmony or texture, note-perfect, whatever is played to him.

We are predominantly a left-hemisphere society, in other words, language and logic structure our lives. Injuries to the left hemisphere, whether in the womb or in later life, can in a few cases liberate the other capacities of the brain, associated with the right hemisphere. Art, music, mathematics. So savants, people with unusually, even unnaturally, developed capacities, are also those who in general have autism or similar problems that make their survival in ‘normal’ social life more difficult. In a primitive society, such people would simply not survive. But we are able to tolerate, and in some cases nurture them; for science, they are also a valuable ‘control group’ in terms of understanding the brain.

This series has been palatable popular science at its best.

Ying Chang