Road Map of the Mind: Understanding Functional MRI

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Limb continues: “Talent doesn’t usually show up in the brain in terms of its shape, but on some level there may be differences — in cortical thickness, volume of neurons in a particular region and so on. There are trends, but it’s a chicken-and-egg-type situation. Does a person become a musician because they have that kind of brain, or is it the other way around? People may have natural aptitudes and then exercising them through music may introduce brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to restructure itself, creating new pathways with its neurons, as the individual has new experiences or learns new things).”

So, ultimately, it may be a little of both. Your grandmother may have had an eye for color and an aptitude for painting, something that you might have inherited, since our own brains are really not all that different from those of our closest relatives — but it’s ultimately up to you to pursue your interests. Think of it in terms of working out — you might not have muscles right away, but the potential is there for the longer you keep at it.

According to Le Bihan: “Genes make us able to learn, to do many things, but then what you do with your brain is your own story, and that’s why I say to teachers that they have a huge responsibility because they model the brain of the children. Whatever they teach will modify the brain.” For the brain, education really is a journey, with new roads of neural networks forming along the way.

When we’re born, we have more neurons than we’ll ever need — over 100 billion acquired well before birth. As we grow, they’ll either gradually disappear or form new connections. It’s the environment that helps with determining these connections — as the individual picks up new skills, or recognizes new colors, sounds, or patterns. Finding the right pattern has further driven Limb’s quest for answers.

He performed a fMRI experiment that consisted of several rappers as its test subjects. Before the brain scans, the individuals were asked to memorize a series of novel rhymes, or invited to freely generate rhymes that made use of a random cue word, all of which would be accompanied by a single rhythmic beat. The findings intrigued Limb even further: “During creative freestyle improvisation, rappers demonstrated functional activation in language areas, sensorimotor regions and deactivation in prefrontal cortical areas that were distinct from those changes observed during memorized rapping.”

So it would seem that creativity suggests a merging taking place between two or more regions of the brain as the artist works. Other areas become less active as Limb and his team also noticed, such as the area of the brain that tends to filter what we say while in polite company. As interesting as all of this is, you may wonder whether it has any real-world applications. Sure, it’s great figuring out how your favorite musicians improvise, but how does it help me, or anyone who can’t read music, for that matter?

Limb’s interests go beyond his own life experience as a musician too, yet another reason why he has pursued research in music. While you might think it’s pretty easy to just put on an MP3 while you drive and listen in, it’s yet another incredibly difficult task undertaken by your brain each day.

“There’s nothing more difficult to hear and process than music — it’s more complex than speech,” says Limb. “If we can understand how people hear and understand music, we could learn how to diagnose and assess the brain and improve hearing. For example, you can give a deaf person a cochlear implant and train them to achieve speech reception quite easily, but music is much more difficult.”

Listening to music not only runs you through auditory processes but also engages visual stimulation as well — forming images and invoking memory. Modern humans have been around for just over 200,000 years, and even in antiquity people were aware of the incredible emotional experience of listening to and creating music, as well as the physical intensity of performing it — which was a group activity that brought tribes together. Perhaps music’s longstanding presence is a reason why it has somehow found its way into nearly every part of the human experience — from religious services, to wars, to lovemaking. Even before modern humans, it seems reasonable to suspect that our closest evolutionary ancestors may have had their own senses of vocalization and music.

Perhaps by understanding more about these processes, not only can we solve a number of problems with hearing, but also a great number of lifelong problems as well, such as memory and even the gradual shaping of the brain — questions that have been with us for centuries, and now seem to be close within our grasp. With all we’ve managed to accomplish in just over 20 years of research — a golden age for neuroscience — who knows what we can expect from the next decade? Perhaps we should ask instead, how much longer it will take.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine.

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