Thoughtful research on music

I have come across a study that I really like and think is important in extending our understanding of art, i.e., Langer’s presentational symbolic forms. Entitled “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters” is on PLOS at Wow, they used fMRI to study the responses to familiar and unfamiliar music and to liked and disliked music. The methodology is complicated as the subjects surveyed musical passages first to find which ones an individual recognized and/or liked, then a few weeks later listened to a selected list individualized for each subject with 4 groups, +L+F =liked and familiar, +L-F=liked and unfamiliar, -L+F=disliked and familiar, and –L-F=disliked and unfamiliar. While these passages played, the researchers recorded fMFI activity to look for neural correlates in the processing of the four groups. The technical expertise to do this is beyond my ken, but I am glad to work at understanding their results.

fMRI machine

fMRI machine

Two things about this study stand out for me. One is that they explicitly set out to explore our aesthetic sense. Most researchers never mention art, much less aesthetics. Now they do this by ranking how much or little we like a song and they relate this to the strength of emotional processing ensuing after perception, i.e., how much does the limbic system fire up its engagement as a reward circuit in response to the auditory segment. This brings up the second thing that caught my eye. The reward system is heavily biased towards the immediate situation, and an aesthetic appreciation of symbols, presentational ones in the form of music, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, etc. is abstracted and displaced. In Langer’s terms, the symbolic form’s artistic import is composed by the artist who is engaged in an intellectual rendering of vital life. So the immediate motivational rewards of a stimulus does not really capture this aspect.

And it turns out that the biggest factor associated with greater processing energy is not +/- liked but +/- familiar. More familiar tunes, especially those subjects liked, promoted greater limbic engagement; this makes good sense because these circuits process the stimulus’ valence (is it positive or negative) and autobiographical memory. I would think these are the raw materials for any artistic work, but the raw materials only. Songs that were –L-F were the least engaging. But what about +L-F, the songs that were liked but had not been heard before? What guides that sense of liking before the brain develops the contexts of reward and experience very much? Ah, here is a glimmer of an aesthetic sense, the feeling forward into time. Here is where complex feelings not amenable to the simplicities of verbal expression are rendered musically. Is the song exciting, coherent, true? Are its forms based upon congruent cultural mores? Is it vital?


Of course teasing all this out is currently impossible but these researchers found a way to go further forward. I am still studying their neurological findings and if I can make some sense of them I will do an additional post on this study. I want to end with a quote from Chapter 5 of my book entitled, Meaning and Culture, and it begins:

William James’ notion of the ‘remembered present’ is literally apt when we consider the small but significant amount of time for visual and auditory stimuli to be sensed, perceived and integrated. Aptly enough our ‘remembered present’ can also be considered the conscious process of ‘feeling the future,”   . . . .  To do this we make meaning [and artistic import] using symbolic forms to control the process.

So by feeling the future we can often complete another’s utterance or project what notes come next even in an unknown melody. And as can be seen (sort of) in this study and my discussion of our preferences for “liking” art, our aesthetic sense, that, when meeting a new work of art, operates as a guiding standard for engaging or embracing what new forms may come. This illustrates one way how we feel the future. (And then when we like something, we can create the familiar, and that is important as we age. Remember the post of 8/27/14 about lasting memories of music evident even through dementia). And the band plays on.

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