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Connections • Posted: Dec 23, 2014 20:35:44Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Back in University, I was once tasked with writing a description of reading, including as much elaboration as I could muster as to what physiological, neurological, chemical, and cognitive processes were involved, and what those processes contributed to the success, or lack of success, in transferring information from one individual to another via the activity we commonly know as reading. I smile now, when I think back, because I don't believe the instructor anticipated receiving such a chokingly dense piece of work in such a short period of time. But, in fact, I'd been researching and thinking about how people think, learn, and communicate for quite some time. And much of that description was readily on the tip of my tongue. If I still had access to that description, I'd include it here. But I don't. So, in lieu of that description, I'd like to try describing, at least in part, something else: music. And the reason is: two developments in brain research that have come to light this past week. Both bear upon the question of how we so amazingly do some of the things that we do, including enjoy music and pictures. The first development, as reported by the BBC, was finding the area of our brains that enables us to maintain a sense of direction. And the second development, as reported in Science Daily, involved further insight into how our brains form memories.

To begin, sound, like light, exists in nature as energy traveling in waves. Sound waves are compressions in the air that enters our ears and pushes against our ear drums, which in turn wiggle three tiny bones that transfer those vibrations to the liquid within the cochlea of our inner ear. Fortunately, sound waves travel as compressions in liquids too, like in water, or in the liquid within the cochlea of our inner ears, as well as in solids, like through the wood, metal, and plastics used to make musical instruments, ear buds, and loud speakers. Light, on the other hand, exists as quantized oscillations of complementary electrical and magnetic fields traveling through empty space. Per Einstein, one quantized oscillation of light is a photon. We perceive streams of photons as beams of light. In both cases, with sound and with light, changes in frequency and amplitude of oscillation correspond to changes in pitch and color, loudness and brightness. Although, in the case of light, because of its quantized nature, changes in amplitude do not vary independently of frequency. What we interpret as an increase in the brightness of light is due to an increase in the number of photons striking the retinas of our eyes, not due to an increase in amplitude. In either case, higher frequency or higher amplitude equals more energy being transferred per oscillation. In terms of information, we interpret different energies as different messages.

So much for the physics. Now, what of the physiology and neurology?

Within our inner ears, sound energy is converted to neurologic impulses as compressions moving through the liquid within the cochlea of our inner ears cause tiny hairs to move. Those moving hairs stimulate or tickle nerve endings nearby, causing nerve impulses to propagate along nerve cells routed directly into our brains. Those nerve impulses are electro-chemical in nature. At rest, a nerve cell's outer wall separates positively charged ions on the outside from negatively charged ions on the inside. Certain kinds of stimulation, physical or chemical, at a cell's endings, or synapses, will cause pores to open in the wall of the cell and let positive ions in, causing a cascade of positive/negative chemical interactions throughout the cell body. That cascade is the message or information carrying impulse.

Ah so, you say. But how is that music?

Well, at that point, it isn't. The fact that the brain interprets some sound as music and other sounds as not music, noise perhaps, or speech, is a function of what happens farther up into the brain. And those higher order processes would seem to involve both memory and a sense of direction, the subjects of those two studies I've pointed to that were released this past week.

The brain is a tangle of stringy nerve cells. But it is not totally disorganized. From early in the womb it has been massaged by rhythms from within its mother's body: heart beats, breathing, stomach gurgles, tingles of voice vibrations, swaying from foot steps taken, even the erratic tossing and turnings of sleep. All of the brain's cells have felt those rhythms. Some of the brain's cells have begun to copy or mimic those rhythms within the rhythm of their own impulse firings. And some of those cells have begun to link up with neighboring cells. In other words, they have begun to touch synapses so as to allow the impulse of their rhythmic impulse firings to travel from one to the other in a kind of coordinated dance. Those linkups are the beginnings of memory, and the beginnings of basic structures that eventually become personality, knowledge, and competencies. What is interesting about the second study from this past week is that the reported results seem to show that memory is not dependent just upon a specific set of synaptic links, but may have more to do with the kinds of proteins produced within nerve cells when new associations or links are called for. That was shone when linked cells were removed from an organism, separated, placed in a Petri dish, doused with the memory recall and learning stimulant serotonin, and observed to reform the same links of association they had inside the organism. In other words, the researchers conclude, something inside the cell, presumably specific proteins, directed the rebuilding of previously learned associations, and not completely new ones. Their conclusion corresponds to something observed decades ago, wherein flat worms were taught to find food at the end of a simple T-maze, then ground up and fed to other flat worms, who had no previous experience with that maze, but subsequent to feeding upon their brethren were observed to already know how to find food in that same T-maze. The suggestion there again is that proteins somehow encode the instructions for building and rebuilding neuronal knowledge structures.

Anyway, back to music. At its most basic level, music appears to be the reactivation of largely primitive rhythmic structures within the brain, associations learned and established way back inside the womb. Depending upon subsequent life experience, those early structures have since been built upon and layered over, over, and over again, in a hugely complicated matrix of yeses and noes, a kind of map, amounting to what we find tasteful, meaningful, interesting, and enjoyable with regard to organized sound. And that's where that BBC cited study comes in. The area of our brains enabling our sense of direction undoubtedly helps us achieve correspondence between what we are currently experiencing externally and what we have previously learned, as mapped internally. Comfortable congruence yields pleasure and a degree of security. Incongruence invokes discomfort and, potentially, nausea and fear.

Interesting, don't you think? But then, what does all this have to with the images above?

Well, the naked branches reminded me of nerve endings reaching out, trying to find and establish functionally meaningful coordinated associations. And the pattern of snow on ice reminded me of neurological structures built upon structures, built upon structures, built upon structures, with so much dependent upon and influenced by all that has gone before.

May your year-end holidays result in reactivating all the very best neurological associations you've ever had. And may those reactivations form the foundation for ever more pleasurable, meaningful, inspiring, and productive associations throughout the coming year.

Happy holidays.

Friday, November 28th, 2014
Lake City - Florence