Dan Lloyd, Trinity College – Music As The Language of the Brain

On Trinity College Week: Does your brain speak in music?

Dan Lloyd, professor of philosophy, discusses how repetition is shared between the language of music and our brains.

Dan Lloyd wonders how our gray and squishy brains could be the location of the symphonic kaleidoscope of human consciousness.  For centuries this question was the province of philosophy, but now philosophy has teamed up with neuroscience, with revolutionary results.  An explosion of research on the brain is bringing us closer to knowing what’s really going on, in the neurons, when we spot a familiar face, feel happy or hungry, add numbers in our head, or engage in thousands of other tasks that flow together in our moment-to-moment  experience of the world and ourselves.  It’s a grand, ultimate mystery and Lloyd’s students confront it as colleagues with their professor.  A Lloydian classroom is intensely interdisciplinary, where a discussion of what it’s like to taste a jalapeno pepper is followed by a lab where students analyze and question brain scan data.  In many cases, the brains and minds students study are their own;  through an affiliation with the nearby Olin Neuropsychiatric Research Center, students volunteer as healthy control subjects in functional MRI experiments, and frequently go on to pursue independent research in brain imaging as part of an undergraduate major in Neuroscience, Psychology, or even Philosophy.

Music As The Language of the Brain


Analogies are tricky when it comes to the brain.  The brain is like a biological computer — not a bad analogy to start with, since what we do with brains is not altogether unlike what we do with computers.  This leads to the next question:  Computers come with programing languages, so:  What language encodes the brain’s many programs?  Is it like Java or Python or maybe English or Chinese?  The tricky part is that the language analogy leads us to overlook the many ways brain processing is not like language at all.  For example, the stream of perceptual experience involves a great deal of repetition.  Think of how your glances of the scene around you keep returning to the same points, checking for changes and orienting new information to the framework of the old.  Memory too:  how much of what passes through the mind is repetition and rehearsal, both of what happened and what you expect to happen over seconds, minutes, and days.  The languages we speak and use to program our computers are not nearly so loopy.  But there is something very familiar to us all that shares in the repetitivity of thought, and that is Music.  Maybe the basic operations of the brain are really like musical improvisations and performances, with all the repetition that is typical of music, at the level of notes, motifs, phrases, refrains, themes, and variations.  In my research I explore this outlandish idea that we should turn to music for our best fit description of brain processing.  Taking off from brain imaging data, those orange blobs we know from magazine articles about the brain, I ask whether we can apply notions of scale, harmony, rhythm, and so on.  In short, I’m looking into the possibility that at the neural level, each of us is a symphony.