Easy Listening — The Neuroscience of Music: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Levitin

In addition to being a neuroscientist, musician, and author of the best-selling books — “This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,” “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature,” and “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload” — Dr. Daniel Levitin is also the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he runs the Levitin Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise.


He attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology before dropping out to become a music producer. Since then, Levitin has developed a passion for reading books and articles about the brain, and he used to sit in on neuroscience classes at Stanford University while producing records in California, which sparked his lifelong interest in the brain. His recent book, “Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era,” gives us tips for managing our brains in a world overloaded with information.

Brain World: How did you become interested in neuroscience, coming from a background in music production? And what compelled you to write about it for popular audiences?

Daniel Levitin: I was always interested in science, and attended MIT before dropping out to become a music producer. I realized that neuroscientists had learned a great deal about how attention and memory work, and how music affects the brain, but that most of this information hadn’t trickled down to the average reader. I found that my musician friends — especially Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Rosanne Cash — were so interested in what was going on in my laboratory that I thought there might be a wider interest among musicians and music listeners.

BW: Has your background in neuroscience helped with collaborations with other musicians?

DL: It has, in both scientific and musical contexts. On the science side, Bobby McFerrin, Sting, and Paul Simon have suggested or participated in experiments and their insights have been very helpful — they’ve come up with ideas that only people with their deep musical intuitions would.

On the musical side, I’ve had the opportunity to perform and to play informally with some of my favorite musicians, musical collaborations that grew out of our scientific conversations. I played electric guitar with Young the Giant last week to a sold-out crowd in Toronto, and I sang with Neil Young and Stephen Stills at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood last year — it doesn’t get better than that.

BW: What do you feel is the most-significant discovery in neuroscience of the past 10 years?

DL: I’d have to say that it is the methodological contributions being made by Karl Deisseroth at Stanford in building a “see-through brain.” This is very exciting work that is pushing the field forward, for which he won the Massry Prize. With his technique, using optogenetics, he installs photo-sensitive proteins on the surface of particular cells in a live brain. These cells can then be either excited or inhibited by light by way of an implanted fiber-optic cable. The ability to turn electrical activity on or off in directed parts of a live, functioning brain allows us to view and map the workings of the brain with much-greater precision and detail than was previously thought possible. A host of brain disorders and diseases can be better understood, and ultimately treated, based on this work.

On the “findings” side, I think that the discovery elaborated our understanding of the brain’s “default mode network,” first uncovered by Marcus Raichle. The default mode, or “daydreaming mode,” acts in opposition to the central executive mode. The central executive mode occurs when you’re paying focused attention to something, undistracted. The default mode occurs when your mind is wandering. The two act a lot like a child’s seesaw or teeter-totter — when one is up, the other is down, and they can’t both be active at the same time. (In collaboration with Vinod Menon, we discovered that the neural circuit that switches between these two attentional modes is located in a region of the brain called the insula.) The default mode supports a great deal of problem-solving and creativity, and it serves as a kind of neural reset button when we become fatigued from focusing on something for an extended period of time.

BW: Could you explain the Levitin Effect and how it works?

DL: Hah! Well, I wouldn’t call it that. I just call it accurate memory for musical attributes. It’s the idea that our long-term memory encodes rich details of perceptual experiences. With music, we find that even nonmusicians can often remember the actual pitches (notes), tempo, and nuances of their favorite songs for a very long time. This is surprising because the function of memory was long seen as forming abstract representations of perceptual experience, not in storing the specific details.


BW: How does our perception of music start? And how does it evolve as we grow up?

DL: We begin hearing music in the womb, through the amniotic fluid — it sounds like listening to music underwater, such as in the bathtub or a swimming pool. The developing brain wires itself up to the patterns it hears, first in the womb and then as an infant. As we hear more and different kinds of music, our brain incorporates them into its wiring. We tend to start out liking music that is melodically and rhythmically simple, as our brains try to extract simple rules that make music work. Then, later, we often develop a taste for more-complex music.


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