The Casual Blog

Tag: evolution

Your brain on music

Why do we love music? The question has always bothered me. There’s no doubt that music is a powerful force, but how does it work? It seems like a fundamental human activity, practiced in every society now and as far back as we have knowledge. As a thoroughgoing Darwinist, I assume musical activity must confer some evolutionary advantage, like being able to throw a spear well or make a fire. But it’s by no means obvious what music contributes to survival, or even what it does to make us happier.

For a philosophically inclined musician, that’s troubling. The question has a moral aspect. We can use our limited energy in various ways, with various positive or negative outputs. We can, for example, help feed the poor, ignore the poor, or rob the poor, and the choice partially defines us. If we’re making music, and not feeding the poor or doing some equally valuable thing, how can we justify it?

Last week I learned of a study that gave a new perspective on these questions. Neurologists at McGill University did brain imaging using PET and fMRI techniques that established that the music can cause the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released in the brian. Dopamine is part of the deep reward system involving the limbic system. It makes it pleasurable for individuals to do things that are good for the species, like eating and having sex. In other words, dopamine is connected to key behaviors, and drives those behaviors.

So in some sense, music is as significant as eating and sex. We can do without any of those things, at least for a while, but they are fundamental to human animals as a whole. This doesn’t answer the basic why questions of music, but it suggests the possibility of an answer. At any rate, it shows that music can be something powerful.

The McGill researchers found that dopamine release levels vary with different kinds of music, and related those variations to the what they called “chills,” and I call goosebumps. So not all music is created equal. I’ve developed as my own test for when music is most effective the monitor of when it makes a lot of goosebumps. Thanks to the neurologists for a new way of thinking about this amazing thing.

Our computers, ourselves

More proof that computers and humans are becoming one:  a  NY Times yesterday on the dozens of computers embedded in each of our automobiles. Millions of lines of code accompany us on each on of our daily drives.  In many ways, this is a good thing.  Microprocessors assist with all basic functions of a higher-end car, including unlocking it, accelerating, steering, traction control, and braking, not to mention air bags, climate control, and entertainment.  They improve engine efficiency, warn when tire pressure is low, correct certain driving errors, and generally make sure things are OK.  We hardly notice them, but they’re always there, taking care of us.

The trajectory of this technology seems clear:  the driverless vehicle.  How long until we have them?  We already do.  Last year, in the most recent DARMA competition, cars navigated through an urban environment without realtime human intervention. High end consumer cars now can park themselves.  Indeed, computers already do most of the work flying planes, piloting ships, and directing missiles.  So, how long until we’re required to give up driving our cars and let the much-more-safe-and-reliable computers take over?

This is a somewhat painful question for me, as a person who loves cars, and technology, and also has a soft spot for humans.   I’ll resist giving up (the last part of the) control of my beautiful BMW.  And I have some worries about becoming like the bloated and clumsy humans in Wall-e who had no function other than leisure.  There may be a middle way, though, between a human dominated world and a computer dominated world.

Just now, it feels like we’re an an awkward intermediate stage of evolution in relation to our computers.  A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran a piece noting that email and the internet had become a necessary part of a middle class vacation. I can confirm, as it noted, that in the last five years, checking email and the internet during vacations and weekends has gone from a novelty to a necessity.

When Blackberries first came on the scene a few years back, I initially thought the increasing frequency of people checking their email — whether in exotic locals, local restaurants, elevators, or bathrooms — was mainly a new type of status display.  It seemed to say:   I have new technology and I’m so important many people must get their orders from me, and I cannot pause to pay attention to anyone else or my surroundings.

Old fashioned ego is surely part of it, but I no longer think it’s the largest part.  The technology requires that we work harder.  It has made it possible for more people to contact more people (not to mention that more bots contact more people), creating an escalating flood of information.  This has an overwhelming effect on those who rely for their livelihood on being a bit smarter than others, whether they sell products, provide advice, manage projects, or offer services.  For those people, information is necessary for survival.  The flood of data in their in box may  include something important.  Success depends on knowing more than the competition, and survival depends on not falling behind.  There is no rational choice other than to try to keep up.

So how can we keep from being devoured by our technology?  That is the question.  Yoga?