Deep Dive

Are Musicians’ Brains Wired Differently?

Issue 148

It’s not unusual for musicians to be characterized as strange, eccentric and even downright wacky. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them. I’m fascinated by eccentricity, nonconformity and rebelliousness, traits seemingly exhibited by many top-shelf artists, along with their innate musical abilities. Is it possible musicians’ brains are wired differently than us mere mortals? According to neurological studies, clinical evidence suggests that they indeed are.

Did you know, for example, that the corpus callosum in musicians tends to be larger? “The porpoise calzone,” you ask? No, no the corpus callosum, the band that unites the two hemispheres of the brain. It’s where you’ll find the largest collection of white matter tissue in the brain. “Oh, that corpus callosum,” you sheepishly respond while scratching your noggin.

That fun, cocktail party fact is courtesy of Dr. Gottfried Schlaug. He’s the director at the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Credentials that pretty much allow Dr. Schlaug to say whatever he wants about the corpus callosum. I’m certainly in no position to question the good doctor.

Dr. Schlaug relied on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to measure different parts of the brain. Standard MRIs show brain anatomy, while fMRIs show the areas of the brain that are active while performing tasks, such as playing a musical instrument. That’s when he first discovered the size differences in musicians’ corpus callosum. And then he discovered enlargements in the auditory and motor parts of the brain.

You can’t look at the fMRI images and determine if person is a genius (or not), but you could say with some degree of probability if a person is likely a musician. Schlaug also discovered that musicians who started their training at less than seven years of age had a significantly larger corpus callosum than those who began musical training at a later age.

 

fMRI image with areas in color showing increased brain activity. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/OpenStax.

fMRI image with areas in color showing increased brain activity. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/OpenStax.

 

A large part of Dr. Schlaug’s work is studying the therapeutic benefits of music for patients with brain injuries, including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and stroke victims. Click on this link for more information.

Other studies have reported differences in brain structure with musicians who play different instruments. For example, a part of the brain associated with hand and finger movement was more prominent on the left hemisphere for keyboard players, and more prominent on the right hemisphere for string players. The differences in brain structure are likely due to musicians adapting to the specific needs and demands required for the instruments they play.

Music as a tool for healing is accepted in many cultures. Only in the past twenty years or so have the medical and scientific communities come together to acknowledge the correlation. Mickey Hart, former drummer for the Grateful Dead, has been exploring music and healing for a number of years. He’s also on the Board for the non-profit Institute For Music and Neurologic Function.

Hart first experienced the therapeutic value of music with his own grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Hart described the encounter this way: “my grandmother was fading and hadn’t spoken in three to four years. Not a single word. I started playing the drums and she started smiling, you know, as best she could. And then she said my name. It was a startling discovery. Musical rhythm reconnected her to the world that was fading away.”

So how do you explain the idiosyncratic behavior of some of our better-known rock stars? Ozzy Osbourne biting off a bat’s head or snorting ants. The Red Hot Chili Peppers performing nude with only a sock over their privates. Keith Richards smoking and snorting his father’s ashes, or Keith Moon throwing a piano in a pool. Can this all be attributed to eccentricity, a need for attention, illicit drugs and/or perhaps the presence of brain anomalies; which I’m asking with the utmost affection? It’s hard to say, but it’s quite likely some combination of the above.

Pink Floyd paid homage to its late co-founding member Syd Barrett in the track “Brain Damage,” from the seminal LP The Dark Side of the Moon. Co-founder and bassist Roger Waters has said the LP’s insanity-themed lyrics are about Barrett’s poor mental health. Water’s has also indicated the lyric, “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon,” is an acknowledgement that he somewhat related to Barrett’s idiosyncratic behavior. Waters views himself a bit of an outlier, though, of course, in far more modest terms than Barrett, who exhibited strong schizophrenic tendencies.

 

We all know the brain is a highly complex organ. It controls thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger and more. It has several large-scale neural networks, including the default, salience and executive networks. Among people with high levels of creative thinking, there’s a strong connection between those neural networks, while in most people those networks generally work in opposition. Researchers have found strong evidence that the ability to think creatively can be reliably predicted based on an individual’s unique brain connectivity profile.

If you exposed a battery of objects to a large sample of people and asked them to describe a range of possible uses for each of those objects, the vast majority will produce a fairly limited number of ideas. But a small minority will suggest a large array of creative ideas that will leave the others baffled by their sheer number.

The late, great David Bowie once said, “I find only freedom in the realms of eccentricity.” Bowie, who exhibited massive degrees of creativity in music, fashion and so on, was hardly fearful of self-expression. He wasn’t afraid to take chances or display his individuality. How do you explain one of his greatest creations, Ziggy Stardust? Ziggy, a fictional character, isn’t an accountant, a schoolteacher or a bus driver. He’s a left-handed, bisexual, alien rock guitarist, who acts as a messenger for extraterrestrial beings. It’s just a hunch, but I’ll bet Bowie’s corpus callosum was obscenely massive.

Other uber-talented musicians who qualify or are in the margins of eccentricity include Michael Jackson, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Prince and Frank Zappa, to name a few.

 

In the world of comedy, look no further than the late great Robin Williams. In a previous lifetime, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg while filming a commercial for HBO. The filming happened to coincide with a 1993 NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) debate between then vice president Al Gore and Ross Perot, the late billionaire, philanthropist and former presidential candidate.

During breaks in filming, cast and crew all huddled over a portable radio to listen to the debate. Without missing a beat, Robin Williams broke into impersonations of both Gore and Perot. He’d shuttle between the two like one would turn the channel on a television remote. In real time and totally unscripted, Williams nailed both their voices and their points of view, completely misconstruing their words for comedic effect. It was a close-up look at Williams’ comedic brilliance and his eccentricity. It was astonishing to listen to Williams spontaneously pull this together, his brain and timing in sync like a fine-tuned engine. It was all “A”-level comedic material and startlingly funny!

Of course, after Williams’ tragic death in 2014, it was revealed he suffered from Lewy body dementia (LBD), a brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s.

The famed clinical neurologist and renowned author Oliver Sacks spent 40 years studying the brain and chronicling his patients’ stories. A few of the late Sacks’ books include Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the BrainThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, the inspiration behind the 1990 film of the same name starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

When you listen to interviews with Sacks he’s both positively brilliant and hysterically funny, a trait generally not associated with the neurological profession. Raised in England, Sacks grew up in a musically-oriented family. When reminiscing about his childhood, Sacks said when he was a five year old his mother asked him, “what do you like most in the world?” Sacks replied, “smoked salmon and Bach,” updating the story by saying, “almost 70 years later it’s still the same.”

Sacks’ tells a story of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s. The man could not recall what transpired a mere 10 minutes ago, where he lived or what he did for a living, though he remembered the baritone part to every song he’d ever sung, and could still perform each flawlessly.

Sacks rationalized the man’s behavior this way: “The memory to perform, procedural memory psychologists call it, is vested in the lower parts of the brain. You use your (brain) cortex to learn, and with repetition, the action patterns, along with all the intelligence and sensibility built into them, is safeguarded in the lower parts of the brain.”

https://www.npr.org/2007/11/13/16110162/oliver-sacks-observes-the-mind-through-music

Pianist Derek Paravicini was three months premature at birth and weighed only 1lb. 5 oz. An overdose of oxygen therapy in the neonatal ward left him blind and severely autistic (similar circumstances led to Stevie Wonder’s blindness).

By the age of two Derek was drawn to the piano, and his parents realized something unusual was going on. At the age of four, while attending a school for the blind in London, Derek made a beeline for a piano and without any musical training started playing scales and the song “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from the musical Evita.

Derek, now 42, can’t remember his phone number and has trouble counting beyond 10, but he can hear a complicated musical composition once and instantaneously play it back note for note. Ordinary daily tasks that we take for granted are incredibly challenging for him, but today Derek is considered a prodigy and a world-class pianist. Derek’s case demonstrates how music can activate parts of the brain that for some are dormant or non-functional. Music functions as a trigger that stitches together non-functioning parts of Derek’s brain.

 

The brain indeed is like a musical instrument. Every individual brain is “tuned” a bit differently. The brain has restorative powers, while it can also short circuit like a guitar or amplifier. It can adapt and be programmed, though in moderation and with limitations that can vary by individual. The brain by far is the body’s most complex organ, and the therapeutic value of music for healing is undeniable.

There are many ongoing research studies on music, the brain and its related diseases. Given the brain’s complexity, there are far more questions than answers to unpack. A few neuroscientists are also working on a brain preservation technique called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation (ASC). The goal of ASC is to preserve human brains at a molecular level, allowing for the possibility of future uploading to a computer or a synthetic body. It sounds like a Stephen King sci-fi novel.

Perhaps it’s the limitations of my own noggin, the smallness of my corpus callosum, or that I’m not a visionary, but that kind of brain restoration project sounds just batsh*t crazy. So, here are a couple of modern-day concerns to ponder: whom do you call if after uploading your brain begins to buffer incessantly? AppleCare? And how about viruses? Will McAfee or Norton provide virus scans?

Well, call me old fashioned, but I kind of like my brain exactly where it is.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/ElisaRiva.

2 comments on “Are Musicians’ Brains Wired Differently?”

  1. Back most of 100 years ago, the grandfather of aptitude research in the U.S, Johnson O’Connor, found that musicians are born wired differently. His focus for musicians would have been especially on that high combination of aptitudes for tonal memory, pitch discrimination and rhythm memory, plus finger and hand and hand dexterity, maybe forms of visualization aptitudes, along with personality style — individual vs. people person. How those got expressed and developed depended on life opportunities. The reason this work isn’t better known, as opposed to, say, the more subjective Meyers-Briggs testing, has mainly to do with two things: the distinctly American ideology that became especially popular in the 1960s — and since with Me Generation ideology — that one can be anything they want to be with enough opportunity and effort — “be all you want to be,” “follow your passion” and the 10,000 hours nonsense — and second, because after O’Connor’s passing, if not during the latter part of his lifetime, his foundation’s insistence on keeping the aptitude testing private and relatively costly, has kept it marginal, let alone appreciated. A big loss.

    The psychological dimensions that drive many artistic and creative types for better and worse, no doubt genetic in good part, but also developmental, are of course not limited to musicians. And the technological developments leading to brain studies and neuropsychological insights, as you’ve discussed, have added a whole new exciting dimension to this area of understanding.

  2. Fascinating article, Stuart. I have a great appreciation for complex music, but can’t play a damned thing. Must be a small corpus callosom, I guess.

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