The Neuroscience of Music in Real Time

At my web site I’ve got a new picture of my ugly mug, recently taken by my friend and fellow storyteller, Simon Brooks. I’ve been heavily right-brained all my life, and it shows in my left eye. It’s always slightly larger and more alive than the other one, no matter how much I try to keep my right eye open to look passably normal.

The right hemisphere of the brain–the seat of imagery and intuition–is connected to the left eye via the optic chiasm. Ask any brain scientist. They’ll confirm it. Same thing with the left brain; it’s wired up to the right eye.

You’d think since I use language in my work, it would be the other way around, but nope, the imagery side remains dominant, so I’ve just lived with it since my twenties and worn sun glasses whenever possible.

Of course, in my approach to storytelling, there’s music happening. According to Wikipedia on the Neuroscience of Music, the music part is a bit more complex:


Motor sequencing has been explored in terms of either the ordering of individual movements, such as finger sequences for key presses, or the coordination of subcomponents of complex multi-joint movements.[19] Implicated in this process are various cortical and sub-cortical regions, including the basal ganglia, the SMA and the pre-SMA, the cerebellum, and the premotor and prefrontal cortices, all involved in the production and learning of motor sequences but without explicit evidence of their specific contributions or interactions amongst one another.[19] In animals, neurophysiological studies have demonstrated an interaction between the frontal cortex and the basal ganglia during the learning of movement sequences.[26] Human neuroimaging studies have also emphasized the contribution of the basal ganglia for well-learned sequences.[27]

So it looks as if they’re really not sure what’s going on, other than while creating and playing music, all these regions are firing away together in happy harmony.

I’ve been thinking about all this because coming up in a week, I’ll be doing it in public down in Cambridge, MA, for a return appearance at Grendel’s Den. ODIN AND THOR BATTLE THE FROST GIANTS. Two 12-strings and a harp. Lots of language. Lots of music.

We’ll see how it all spins together this time.

As for my ugly mug, you needn’t worry. Half the audience listens with their eyes closed anyway.

Incivility and Short-Circuited Mirror Neurons

Everybody needs to be a little selfish, of course. In the vast scheme of Nature we’re all competing with one another for various things. Food. Clothing. Shelter. Love. Safety. There’s nothing wrong with that since living things have evolved that way, from we humans down to the tiniest of viruses. And yet in modern human societies burdened by unprecedented crowding, incivility, a form of selfishness, is a complicated Gordian Knot, and when incivility ends up getting in the way of our obtaining food, clothing, shelter, love and safety, the behavior loses its luster. Every time I get in my car, I’m trusting other people to be civil while they’re driving theirs. Please don’t lose control of your vehicle and hit me. Please remain in your lane over there beyond the median. Please don’t pass me at high speed and immediately slow down in my lane so I have to hit the brakes. That drives me nuts. A truly uncivil driver is eventually taken off the road in one way or another. And unless you’re part of a gang, an uncivil child is pretty quickly a lonely one, too, which leads to all manner of social difficulties later in life. Empathy, the opposite of incivility, works better.


“Mirror neurons” in monkeys are neurons that fire when the monkey “acts” and also when it sees the same action in another monkey. We’re still on the way to proving that we have them, but the chances are good. When I tell stories and make ridiculous faces, half the kids in my audience make them, too. Laughter is contagious as well, of course. Neuroscientists are discovering that these behaviors are rooted in a kind of built-in empathy.


“…neuroscientific evidence suggests that merely observing another individual in a painful situation yields responses in the neural network associated with the coding of the motivational affective dimension of pain in oneself.” (you can read University of Chicago researchers Jean Decety’s and Claus Lamm’s paper about empathy here.)


According to empathy studies, when someone else is in pain and we see it firsthand, most people’s “mirroring systems” light up with a similar feeling. How many of us groan when we see a particularly tough hit during a football game? We don’t experience the player’s actual pain, but we groan anyway.


Many parents and educators––and someone like me who reads the “comments” section of just about any online publication these days––have been scratching their heads at why the level of incivility is so very high and the language is so coarse, offered by people of all ages, but lots by young people. Even threats of violence are fairly routine if you express opinions publicly on the web. Especially, and most sadly, if you’re a woman.


So here’s a theory about why that’s going on. If while we’re online and we read people’s opinions with which we vehemently disagree, then we increasingly feel comfortable with hyper-aggression because we can no longer see the reactions on their faces when they see our comments. In other words, Nature’s old way of keeping us civil is no longer there.


Our mirror neurons have been short-circuited by our own technology.