Wednesday, 4 January 2012

This is my Brain on Books about the Brain

Ahhhh… The kids are back at school and I finally have a little time to myself.  As I take a few days to catch up, I thought I’d give you an informal post about what neuroscience and music books I’ve been reading lately (and what I think about them), what I’m reading right now, and also what I plan to read soon.

I should preface my reviews of these books by saying that I generally have little patience for books written about music and the brain.  This sounds like I’m being snotty, but it’s just a topic that I already know a lot about, so I have to sift through a lot of information to find something that catches my interest.  Daniel Levitin’s bestseller This is Your Brain on Music was particularly mind-numbing for me (although I do recommend it), because it assumes the reader knows nothing about music and nothing about the brain.  It’s a good book, but I am certainly not the intended audience.

Anyway, I’ve recently finished two books “for the layman” about music and science:  Healing at the Speed of Sound, by Don Campbell and Alex Doman, and The Power of Music by Elena Mannes.  Although the two books cover very similar topics, they are very different.

When I read an interview with the Don Campbell on, I immediately requested Healing at the Speed of Sound from the library.  The book purports to discuss how pervasive music has become in our society, especially through the use of ipods, and the effect that this is having on our brains.  Sounds interesting, no?  Unfortunately, the book did not live up to its potential.

I was a more than a little disappointed by the fluffiness of this book.  In part, it tries to be a self-help book, starting out with recommendations for music to start the day with.  Depending on how easy it is for you to wake up, the book recommends nature sounds, classical music, or rock ‘n’ roll.  And it goes on from there, discussing the whole soundtrack of your day.  Music to listen to in the car on the way to work, music to listen to at work.  Listen to Bach to increase your creativity, listen to driving rock while you work out to keep you energized.  You get the idea, I’m sure.  I was unimpressed. I can find my own playlists, thank you.

Later chapters read like an infomercial for the benefits of music.  This is not a story or a serious discussion, it’s more like a list of all the great things music can do for you.  Music is amazing!  Music can heal!  Music can make you smart!  There is very little detail about the research.  Although some of the claims the book makes are intriguing, I found that most of the references are newspaper or on-line new articles rather than original research or conversations with scientists, leaving me unsure what to believe.  Many of the topics are ones I am familiar with, so I have an idea of what research has been done, but the book didn’t offer me any of the caveats of the research, or tell me that some of the conclusions are only tentative.  And the repeated warnings throughout the book to turn down our music so as not to harm our ears left me feeling like this book was written by someone’s grandpa.  As my kids would say, “I know, that; I’m not a dumb-head!”

In contrast to Campbell, Elena Mannes describes specific experiments and has interviewed a number of scientists and musicians, mostly as preparation for her documentary The Music Instinct:  Science and Song, upon which the book is based.  This lends credibility to her writing; her fluid story-telling prose helps too.  She loses some of that credibility (to my mind) in the chapter “Music of the Spheres”, where she compares music to the vibrations of the stars and planets.  I was also bored by the discussions of whether birdsong and whalesong should be considered music – it’s a little too “if a tree falls in a forest…” for my liking.  Still, her explanations of the role and potential roles of music in healing are much more scientifically based than Campbell’s, and though she discusses therapies that are outside of the mainstream, such as psychoacoustic therapy, and brain-wave entrainment, she at least admits that the scientific support for these areas is weak, and the jury is still out on their usefulness.  Overall, this book is worth reading, although I suspect watching the documentary would be a lot more entertaining.

On my bookshelf right now is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  It’s not music-related, and I’ll admit that I’m not very far into the book yet.  But so far, it’s a fascinating account of how we use two very different systems for thinking – one automatic, quick and often highly biased, and a second one that is effortful, slow, calculating, and also very lazy.  Kahneman, a renowned psychologist and Nobel laureate who has written a number of books, has a style that is dense but gripping.  The book is full of quick self-tests to demonstrate the fallibility of our reasoning systems, followed by engaging explanations.

And here are my future reading plans:

I’m itching to read Michael Gazzaniga’s Who’s in Charge? Free will and the Science of the Brain, as soon as it actually gets onto the Vancouver Public Library bookshelves; it’s still listed as “on order”.  It’s based on an idea that I’ve been interested in for some time:  our actions are all controlled by our brains, which are collections of cells, governed by the same deterministic and probabilistic rules as the rest of biology.  So when we choose to do something, isn’t it really just our neurons responding to the action potentials of other neurons, which are triggered somewhere upstream by external stimuli?  Where does free will come into this?  Does it actually exist or is it a figment of our lively imaginations?  My interest in this topic was stimulated by another book, The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, who brings quantum mechanics into the mix.  I’m not sure what I believe about all this, but I definitely want to read more.

Also on my library hold list is Music Cognition: A Science of Listening by Henjan Honing, a professor of music cognition at the University of Amsterdam.  The book sounds promising, even though it is written for a general audience.  I’ll keep you posted.

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