Saturday, April 24, 2010


I just finished a book about the brain and music called Musicophilia. It is by the psychiatrist on whom the movie "Awakenings" focused, Oliver Sacks, and is more a recounting of tales about patients he's seen than a step-by-step description of how the brain processes music. (That was the case with the other book I read for this part of the project, This is Your Brain on Music.) He recounts fascinating tales of people experiencing musical hallucinations, musicogenic epilepsy, and musical savantism. He describes what is really happening when we find ourselves with an "earworm." Now I have to transcribe notes from my underlined passages in the book and make some mind maps as that is what I'm writing about--not so much the brain and music.

Sacks writes at length about dementia patients and how music alone has the ability to bring their "self" out. I can relate to that part, of course, because of my experiences with Dad (stroke and aphasia) and more recently Mom (advanced dementia). I wish I would have tried music on Mom. She wasn't musical, but perhaps the music from her young adulthood would have brought her some pleasure. I don't know. Dr. Sacks also wrote at length about music therapists. There were music therapy majors at the universities I attended as an undergraduate music major, Duquesne and at Temple, but I never really understood what they did. I assumed they worked mostly with children. Music therapists also work with adults suffering from brain disorders and it brings much success. Dr. Sacks supposes that the reactions to music are based on subcortical (rather than cortical responses), which I have learned is commonly referred to as the reptilian brain. I'm amused to remember that under my name in my Temple University yearbook, I am labeled a "Music Therapy" major. It is, of course, a typo for Music Theory, and I always thought my classmates would wonder that I never seemed a caring or outgoing enough person to choose to study Music Therapy.
All of that is the content for my learning-with-mind-mapping project, but what I'm really looking at is the process of organizing and learning the content. Early on in the reading of the book, I realized that linear, outlined notes would be easy, but a graphic representation would be much more difficult. This is because the book is made up of a series of tales of Dr. Sacks's patients with some explanation of why they act as they do and what might be going on in their brains. I created mind maps, but they are simply chronological, chapter by chapter. Perhaps these mind maps are an intermediary step and a more creative way to organize the information will occur to me later.

That said, the discussions on dementia and Williams Syndrome are extensive and could warrant their own mind maps (or other type of visualizations). These are the two brain conditions that are the most intertwined with the brain's processing of music, and so there is a lot of information to organize from Dr. Sacks's studies and observations in addition to many citations of other studies.

In any case as I have said before, the mere act of creating a mind map helps me see connections and hierarchies, and I will have the mind maps to refer to as I read the other books on my list.

Friday, April 2, 2010

This is Your Brain on Music

Since I am studying how mind maps can help us learn, I decided it would be informative for me to use them to learn something new. Whatever content I choose should be unfamiliar to me, or I would simply be organizing learned information (what I usually do with mind maps). The content should also be interesting so that it stays compelling to me. I decided to tackle a small (but ever-growing) pile of books I have been meaning to read about how the brain listens to and understands music.

The first of these, Daniel J. Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music (2006), explains in detail the parts of the brain involved in listening to and performing music and how each contributes to the musical experience. The brain functions are new to me, but the music fundamentals are mot. Even so, the parts of the book that describe how music is put together are extremely interesting, elegant, and easy to understand for the layperson.

The meat of the book details the cognitive neuroscience going on in our brains when we encounter music by listening, performing, or even simply imagining it. The descriptions of the brain parts and what they do are easy to understand, making this book a good introduction to the field. In order to get my own brain to understand and retain the information, I took traditional, linear notes, but I also made a mind map for each part involved in music cognition. The linear notes are more wordy with quotes and explanations. The mind maps are color-coded and show where the brain part is located in the brain. Here is the Cerebellum map:
The colors I used in these maps correspond to a larger, more complex mind map which summarizes the various processes involved in listening to or performing music, and which brain parts are involved:
(Also, I couldn't resist retrospectively color-coding my linear notes to match these mind maps. My brain responds to and remembers colors.)

Both kinds of notes are helpful to me. The linear notes are good for review. I can repeatedly read over the sections I want to master and the words eventually stick. The mind maps help the visual part of my brain remember the spatial stuff, and they serve as a brief review of concepts. Once the details are mastered from reading and linear note review, the mind maps will prompt the concepts and their relationships and provide the framework for future writing and speaking. Simply from taking the notes, creating the mind maps (and assigning colors), this process has already started to occur.