Several friends have been passing around a recent NY Times articles about neurological studies and music. Naturally, it is fascinating stuff if you like working on cars. The article is called "Why Music Makes Our Brains Sing", and you can read it here.
My problem isn't with the research as such, but in the claims of the title and the general direction of the thought process. While "indie and electronic music" may very well stimulate dopamine release in Montreal hipsters, I'm not sure it actually tells us anything or explains "Why" music works. Forgive my naiveté, but the discovery that patterns and expectations from the auditory cortex are involved seems not to shocking a revelation. The article is all done with the requisite shibboleths like "ancient part of the brain" - as if part of my body is somehow older than the rest. Walking around with that ancient part of my brain has become an increasing burden, and I'm glad for some of the new handicap accessible entrances into the world of academic thought.
The authors provide an amazing explanatory chain. It reminds me of the man who woke up every morning and believed that the sun came up because he farted. Since the two events never occurred apart from each other, he made the obvious connection that they were in a causal relationship. Of course, when we explain something with a chain, it gets rather complicated.
Imagine me, as a neuroscience researcher, opening the hood of a car. I start learning about how the different parts work. I've observed that when fire and gas mix together dopamine is released - or energy, or something that makes the car go. There is a carburator that is carburating something, and a fan that spins to blow hot air on me while I'm researching. Once I've figured out what everything does, I'm still left with more questions about where the chain of events should end. I haven't yet figured out why gas burns, and why all the molecules in my left turn signal don't explode apart from each other when I touch them. Then once I understand that, I still have a longer chain to build because I have to figure out why the electrons aren't chasing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle off to Pluto, and whether there is a Higg-Boson particle that has an opinion on global warming.
But we don't really do that, do we? We just cut the chain off at some point and say, "Now it is explained." Of course there is no way of knowing whether or not our research is telling us whether what we observe is part of the causal chain. It's like someone studying the fleas that caused the bubonic plague saying, "I have discovered that the fleas have green eyes! That may or may not be significant in the long run, but for right now, it is enough to publish an article and secure funding for more research."
It reminds me of Chesteron who said, "They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing."
Of course, it could be that the fleas have green eyes for more amorous purposes. It could also be that Montreal hipsters don't like electronic music, but that listening to electronic music transforms you into a Montreal hipster. Really, it doesn't matter because, as the researchers point out, we are all just dopamine junkies motivated by ancient parts of our brain.
Fortunately for me, the younger parts of my brain are telling me that music works because it has magical powers. This seems to be a much more elegant and comprehensive explanation. While you are off trying to understand how I did my last trick, I will be conjuring up some new alchemy that will give you years more research to do.