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Essay: Music, Neurology and Human Experience

March 4th, 2017 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 92 views | Print this Article

by Robert DePaolo

This article discusses the neuropsychological underpinnings of rhythm and the musical experience with respect to the influence on emotional states, neural quiessence and what is referred to here as the optimal experience. The point is made that the combination of rhythm, tempo, dissonance-resolution and rapid closure comprises an ideal state of mind and that this phenomenon can tell us a great deal about the general functions of mind and brain.

A Neuro-Duality…

Although it is somewhat unorthodox with respect to current ways of thinking I would like to arbitrarily divide neuro-experience into two parts. One is discrete. It consists of inputs separated from one another by time and association. The other (which comprises the main theme of this article) is defined as “continuous experience.” It consists of input packages linked together by a rhythmic nexus, i.e. a binding aspect of the input that, while maintaining a discrete “quantum” separation nonetheless impinges on the central nervous system as “one” (wave-like) stimulus
(Wade, 1996)

Ergonomic Bridges…

There are many differences between the discrete and continuous input experiences but one of the more critical is the amount of work required to process either configuration. While the brain obviously categorizes and discriminates among stimuli in discrete fashion it appears to operate ultimately in a holistic manner by linking inputs together for the sake of mnemonic/ retrieval convenience and energy conservation. That is because holism holds entropy at bay (Prideaux 2000). In other words while our sensory parsing capabilities enable us to differentiate one thing from another the drift in the brain (in storage and alignment) is toward a grouping process where links among discrete aspects of experience are assembled into concepts. This facilitates memory, both through generalized associative ties and in terms of the spatial topography of the brain. By narrowing input volume through broad, multi-referential links we are able to store information redundantly, i.e. in various sites around the brain. The capacity to convert high detail/ high volume, discrete item by item inputs to broader/low volume (streamlined) conceptual groupings enables us to maintain memories and learning sets despite loss of neural tissue from aging and injury (Jibu, Pribram et. al 1996).

The way in which this works is fairly simple. In a language context the brain converts items such as “orange”, “apple” and “pear” or “elephants, “lions” and “tigers”(which comprise three bits of information respectively) into the single information bits….”fruit” or” animals.” While such a process might seem to risk loss of detail memory (especially when dealing with more complex items) the opposite is true. By cross referencing “fruit” and “animals” detailed, derivative associations are brought up via a reciprocal mechanism.. It is essentially a holographic process, whereby partial stimuli contain all the information in the category and can therefore be accessed economically.

In that context Pribram proposed a holographic theory of memory (1999). This theory purports to explain why memory is stored and conserved despite loss of neural tissue and other mitigating factors. A holograph is a mechanism in which wholes can be retrieved from partial, surface stimuli by use of a coding process that triggers holistic (multi-dimensional) retrieval. One advantage of a holograph is that it needn’t store all the information on one plane or storage container because the code in itself converts parts into wholes. (In Pribram’s model the code is transmitted by brain wave activity; specifically through a process he referred to as a slow potential microstructure).

For purposes of discussion, all versions of conceptual processing will be referred to as an “experiential bridge”: the benefit of which lies in the capacity to treat myriad inputs and experiences as “one.” While, as discussed above this mechanism has a language component it also applies to non-linguistic phenomena. Indeed it appears to be more broadly related to basic neurology – specifically as pertains to the rhythms and cadence of neural activity.

Rhythm and Ergonomics…

Since experiential bridging transcends language the question could be raised as to how non-linguistic creatures conceptualize their experiences. One possibility might lie in the tendency of any creature’s brain to conserve energy by a “governing cadence” (which is a rhythmic, wave-like code). While discrete bits of information are easy to perceive and associate the separate processing of experience is less energy efficient because of the prolonged alternation of excitatory and inhibitory networks involved in one-at-a-time stimulus sequencing. Put more simply, brains work harder with details than with more global stimulus groupings. That is perhaps why brains gravitate toward holistic experience.

One fairly clear confirmation of that trend lies in the fact that the brain operates according to a mass action process. (Lashley 1929). In any learning or experiential instance it summons mass arousal prior to sifting through to the details in what amounts to an information-friendly whittling down from noise to codification, that is, from uncertainty to resolution. The advantage that provides is to globalize inputs enhances behavioral snd cognitive options. Despite the temporary logjam involved in sifting through circuits this actually improves response efficiency by streamlining the otherwise grueling work involved in stop and start excitatory/inhibitory activities.

There is an obvious caveat to this. Piecemeal (quantum) discrete chunking of stimuli is necessary with respect to the initial perception of inputs. As discussed above, stimuli that are continuous and blurred together in a wave-like holistic stream create the possibility that specific details will be lost. For continuous (wave-like) experience to work it must have an interpretive element or code by which to ameliorate noise, and despite the overlap of input flow, preserve the information content. Just how continuous experience could co-exist with associative specificity entails further discussion.

Song, Dance and Information Content…

A blend of stimuli can provide superior information content if it is regulated by a cadence/code providing an overriding grammar to the stimulus flow. Despite its common use as a language/cognitive element, “grammar” – that is, grammatical organization is a broader aspect of experience and is always some function of rhythm. But what is rhythm? Many thinkers have addressed this question, perhaps the most interesting theses revolving around the related experiences of rhythm and pleasure (Blood, Zatorre 2001)..

There are a number of reasons why rhythm is a pleasurable experience. Two of which pertain to its capacity to both minimize aversiveness and maximize the enhancement of experience. Reading the names in a phone book would, over time lead to yawns and pleas to end the exercise. The same result would ensue from reading a newspaper column verbatim or a garden variety term paper by a high school student. But when cadence is added to the exercise; for instance in a song lyric or poem (both of which include cadence, stanza, verse and other codes that provide both a broad concept and an internal structure), then the listener will more likely be attentive and inspired.

What happens to the mind under the above circumstances? For one thing the blend of mass brain arousal accompanied by a coherent cadence makes for a more comfortable assimilation of both complexity and recognition The work required to convert one to the other is just enough to produce pleasurable feelings derived from ultimately reaching closure – not enough to produce mental fatigue; bearing in mind that the attainment of pleasure requires some degree of work. The neurophysiological consonance resulting from closure, which in turn occurs in the transition from uncertainty/novelty to resolution has been linked to a state of pleasure (Berlyne 1960).

The activation of pleasure-perception phenomena adds emotion to the mix. It facilitates more fervent and efficient attention to the details of the song/poem or other encoded experience. By superposing positive affect on cognition such rhythmic experiences have lasting effects on memory and behavior. In other words; feel better-learn better. (One anecdotal proof of this can be seen in the enormous legacy of the ancient biblical prophets whose words have endured for millennia despite a dearth of written documents and. for that matter, literacy among the people of the time).

Ancient Messaging…

Once upon a time man had little or no technology. Yet he still had to communicate, learn and remember. Papyrus and stone tablets were available mostly to the privileged and only through painstaking craftsmanship. Despite that lessons were learned and imparted among all strata and those lessons have endured to this day in the form of religious and historical texts, psalms, and poems. One reason for this informational permanence is that the lessons were typically sung rather than spoken. The biblical prophets have been described as whirling dervishes, jumping about, dancing and singing hypnotically for maximum communicative impact (2017) – and perhaps because they enjoyed the jolt themselves.

Modern Messaging…

In modern times the centrality and efficiency of rhythmic experiential bridging is rather ignored, indeed as separated from every day life as a concert is from a classroom lecture. Yet, because our brains are what they are the process somehow persists. To maximize fan interest and investment virtually all sports contests feature musical preludes and interludes after nearly every time out and even during the action to override the (literal) nuts and bolts of mere competition. Political conventions, graduation exercises, weddings and commercials all use music and cadence to teach, inspire and influence. It is obviously a time-honored method in teaching young children.

We humans seem to recognize instinctively that our most vivid experiences occur when wave-like inputs mimic the natural, neuropsychological traits of the human brain in what amounts to an optimal experience featuring consonance between input and mind. Whether or not we could more effectively) utilize this mechanism (in an “old school” sort of way) to improve human learning, creativity and cultural development is another question. Will homo sapiens ever re-aspire to a mode of expression through which neuro-musical visions move us toward a new/old mode of expression grounded in happiness rather the drip, drip, drip of exhaustive detail, endless self-examination and guilt? It’s anybody’s guess.


Berlyne,D.E. (1960) Conflict, Arousal and Curiosity. McGraw Hill
Blood, A.J. Zatorre,R.J. (2001) Intense pleasurable responses in music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,98 (20) 11818-11823

Jibu, M. Pribram, K H. Yasue, K. (1996) From conscious experience to memory storage and retrieval: the role of qantum brain dynamics and boson condensation of evanescent photons. International Journal of Modern Physics 10: 1735-1754

Lashley,K.S.(1929) Brain mechanisms and Intelligence: A quantitative study of injuries to the brain. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Wade,J. (1996) Changes of Mind: A Holographic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness. Albany State University of New York Press

Prideaux, J. (2000) Comparison between K. Pribram’s Holographic Brain Theory and more conventional models of neural computation. Internet Article; Virginia Commonwealth University

Pribram. K.H. (1999) Quantum Holography: It is relevant to brain function? Information Science 115 (1-4) 97-102

Prophets reference, Internet Article: Teaching Messianic Jewish Biblical Truths – Worship and Dance; Jewel Jewel Television Series, March 2017

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