Friday, March 2, 2007

Deepak Chopra's music of the mind

Deepak Chopra's second part to "Why Robots Love Music" (I ignored the first part) is up and he begins by making a dangerous confession, he admits that brain research is useful - but only for things like treating Parkinson's disease or aiding in the recovery of stroke victims, and only if the following factors pertain:
-- A brain function has gone awry in some organic way.
-- The impaired function can be isolated.
--The impaired function can be observed.
-- The mechanics of correcting the impaired function are well understood.

But Chopra thinks that where music is concerned, those factors are not in play:

-- No brain function has gone awry.
-- The brain functions that produce music are complex and mysteriously connected
-- The actual transformation of noise signals into meaningful music cannot be observed physically.
-- The mechanism whereby music arose in every society is not at all well known, since there is no evolutionary advantage to healthy brain function.

Deepak wants to claim that the whole model in science of mind and brain is fundamentally wrong. He says: "Music points to a truth that science isn't set up to accept: music is a function of the mind." And in Deepak's "mind" there's a difference between mind and brain. He doesn't agree with neuroscientists that say that "Mind is what brain does." He probably doesn't even know any neuroscientists that say that. Instead the "mind" is some sort of free floating consciousness that doesn't need anything physical for it to work.

From these assumptions Deepak might have a hard time believing some of these facts, such as when he says, "No brain function gone awry" he ignores the fact that there are brain areas that when damaged will interfere with musical ability and appreciation. There is in fact a condition called amusia and here's someone losing their ability to carry a tune or whistle after brain injury: Link.

After a fall that caused a traumatic brain injury she lost her ability to speak, read, write and carry a tune, or even tolerate the din of any music. As part of her therapy she taught herself to play the fiddle and discovered it gave her a kind of focus and comfort that nothing else could at that point. Turns out learning an instrument following a brain injury or after a stroke is good therapy.

Because listening to music and playing it is a complex process that involves many brain areas it helps one relearn other old skills. Thus come practical benefits unanticipated by Deepak.

Brain disorders can also cause musical hallucinations.

Another of Deepak's claims; "...transformation of noise signals into meaningful music cannot be observed physically," is also wrong. MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) can brain scan while you listen to the music. We also know that there are striking structural differences in the brains of professional musicians compared to non-musicians. Musicians have a larger than average corpus callosum (a fiber bundle connecting the left and right hemisphere of the brain) which may result in enhanced communication between the two halves of the brain. Furthermore, brain regions responsible for movement planning and movement execution as well as brain regions responsible for hearing were found to be larger in musicians compared with matched non-musician controls.

And Deepak's last claim, that there is no evolutionary advantage? And how does he know that? Simple, because he can't imagine one and the limits of Deepak's own imagination must be the limits of reality -- according to Deepak. And here again Deepak is just dead wrong. There are people who can see an evolutionary advantage to music? For example, Mario Vaneechoutte and John R. Skoyles who put "The memetic origin of language: modern humans as musical primates" on the web.

They think that songs, musicality, underlie both the evolutionary origin of human language and it also evolved as a means to establish and maintain pair- and group-bonding. Examples exist of tropical song birds, whales and porpoises, wolves, gibbons where song - with regard to its capacities for reinforcing social bonds. Anthropologists find song has this function also amongst all human societies.

There are a ton of other flaws in Deepak's short little essay, but I'll leave them to others commenting on his blog. Again, Deepak reads one pop science article about music and the brain and he suddenly thinks he knows everything science knows about the brain. Is that not stupid?

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