FEATURE

Quartets on the Cortex: Neuroscience at Play

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2015
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Violinists and virologists, pianists and pathologists. The surprising confluence of music and medicine raises an inevitable question: do physicians and musicians have similar brains?

David Sulzer is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center. He is also a composer, violinist, and guitarist who was a rock of the downtown avant-garde music scene in the 1980s and ’90s.

“Voluntary movements in every part of the body are controlled by a specific region of the motor cortex,” says Sulzer. “When you learn a musical instrument, you’re changing your brain, in part because you’re devoting more area of the motor cortex and striatum to particular muscles and habits.” This sort of training, says Sulzer, especially on instruments that require a high degree of manual dexterity, develops the fine motor control so crucial for surgeons.

Sulzer’s lab studies the synaptic connections in the cortex and basal ganglia that give rise to memory, learning, and behavior. It’s in the learning process itself — “the figuring out of what’s possible” — that Sulzer sees music’s imprint on the scientific mind.

“When you learn a musical instrument, you undergo a change in neural computation: if something doesn’t work, you try another way. If that doesn’t work, you try again.” Sulzer says this process strengthens the synapses, the structures that carry electrochemical signals between neurons.

Some effects can be seen explicitly when you record brain activity with an EEG. “One of the features you’ll find,” says Sulzer, “is an ‘event-related potential,’ or ERP, which occurs when a person hears, for example, a syntactical error,” such as Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a fall great. “With music, if you give people an even rhythm and then you alter it, every listener will get an ERP. Musicians, however, will get bigger ones. So you really are changing the brain by learning music.”

Michael Shadlen, too, sees a musical–medical connection. Shadlen is a professor of neuroscience at CUMC, a neurologist, and a leading researcher in the field of cognition. He also plays jazz guitar.

“What is the consilience between musicality and being in medicine?” says Shadlen, like an improviser posing a melodic question. “It’s the sense that stories have diversions along the way.

“The brain,” he says, “is built for aesthetics. We are built to try to find structure, we are built to try to find meaning. Similarly, in medicine, we try to find the diagnosis.”

Could it be that doctors and musicians have a shared approach to creativity, one rooted in the brain’s primal need for story?

“You can think of creativity as directed exploration, with an aesthetic twist,” Shadlen says. “The artist, for example, communicates an idea that has an implied completion; the aesthetic twist is that there’s a sense of what a completion will mean. The musician plays something that establishes expectations in the listener, and then he teases you just a little bit — not so much that things begin to sound like chaos, but enough to take you to a few places, and tell a little story, before he finally delivers the goods.

“Now let’s go to medicine. In medicine, you have the facts, and you have the patient in front of you. You’ve got, ultimately, a story; you have a sense of how things should end, but you’re ready for surprises along the way. If you’re a good doctor, you’re always prepared to be wrong — things don’t always go from A to B and back to A. It’s the same style of thinking: directed exploration. We want to make a diagnosis. We want to solve a problem. We want to see this story have an end. We’re driven to do that. And that’s part of the fun and the intellectual challenge in medicine.”

 

Read the related article The Hippocratic Overturehttp://magazine.columbia.edu/features/spring-2015/hippocratic-overture

 

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