Recently, it was discovered that the human brain has a set of nerve cells that are entirely dedicated to responding to the sound of music. This has largely debunked the belief that musical appreciation is merely a portion of the ability to hear regular everyday sounds.
Neuroscientists from MIT conducted a series of brain scans while the participants listened to different kinds of sounds. The researchers found that a particular set of neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain only sent electrical impulses when music was being heard and not when alternative sounds were presented.
While additional research is still needed, the results support the idea that there exists a dedicated music center in the brain. This part of the brain is believed to have evolved over time to appreciate melodic tunes and vibrant rhythms.
In the past, researchers believed that appreciating music was just a side-effect of the ability of humans to identify and decipher complex sounds such as speech. But these new findings suggest that music might have even played a role in the evolution of the human brain.
MIT Neuroscience Professor Josh McDermott said, “We found evidence for a population of neurons in the adult human brain that responds selectively to music. The experiments also revealed a separate population that responds selectively to speech. In both cases the responses were strikingly selective. The neural response is strong when people listen to music, in one case, or speech, in another, and much less strong to every other type of sound that we tested.”
According to Professor McDermott, the two different neuron groups are located in different parts of the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. This suggests that the brain has different pathways for analyzing speech and music.
For now, the scientists want to conduct further research in order to learn whether or not people are born with “musical neuron” or if such nerve cells develop a “taste” for music through development over time.
Professor McDermott stated, “Our results suggest the presence of a set of neurons in the adult human brain that respond selectively to music. It remains to be seen whether these neurons are present from birth. It is possible that they emerge over development in response to the massive exposure most of us have to music throughout our lives. One way to address this would be to test whether comparable responses are present in the brains of young children, but we have not done this yet.”
Additionally, it is also still unclear whether or not these music-specific brain cells can explain differing levels in musical ability and talent. Scientists assume that musical talent is a factor of both genetics and one’s environment.
Professor McDermott explained, “None of the participants in our experiment were trained musicians, and we didn’t evaluate their musical ability. One obvious next step is to repeat the experiment on musicians to see if their neuronal music selectivity differs in any way from that in non-musicians.”
Professor McDermott and his team will continue their research to better understand just how powerful of an impact this region of the brain has on a human’s taste and appreciation for music. Regardless, it goes to show that humans and music are a natural match. It’s no wonder that virtually everyone in the world appreciates a good song.