Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Was Steven Pinker right after all?

At the end of the 1990s, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker infamously characterized music as “auditory cheesecake”: a delightful dessert but, from an evolutionary perspective, no more than a by-product of language. But Pinker was probably right when he wrote: “I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of...our mental faculties.” Or, to express his idea less graphically: music affects our brains at specific places, thereby stimulating the production of unique substances that have a pleasurable effect on our mood. This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgHowever, rather than a by-product of evolution, music or more precisely musicality is likely to be a characteristic that survived natural selection in order to stimulate and develop our mental faculties (cf. Honing, 2011).

Pinker’s idea may actually be a very fruitful hypothesis whose significance has wrongfully gone unacknowledged because of all the criticism it elicited. After all, the purely evolutionary explanations for the origins of music largely overlook the experience of music we all share: the pleasure we derive from it, not only from the acrobatics of making it but also from the act of listening to it.

In a recent study Canadian researchers were able to show precisely that: Music can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. They were able to show that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. And, more importantly, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself.

ResearchBlogging.orgSalimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2726

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (in press, 2011) Musical Cognition. A Science of Listening. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

How musical are you?

The BBC just launched a new experiment which aims to discover more about the science of musicality. How Musical Are You? was designed by BBC Lab UK in collaboration with academics from the Music, Mind and Brain group at Goldsmiths, University of London. The scientific data will be analyzed to establish whether people who are untrained but passionate about music can be just as musical as people who have been formally trained. The experiment includes questionnaires and musical tests that evaluate your ability to categorize musical styles, memorize tunes, and recognize the beat in pieces of music. The tests aim to assess general musical ability.

The initiative was recently covered on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme.
The actual website can be found here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Interested in doing a PhD at the UvA?

The Institute for Logic, Language and Computation at the University of Amsterdam currently has two four-year PhD positions available at the Faculty of Humanities (FGw) and one at the Faculty of Science (FNWI) all starting September 2011. Applications from excellent candidates wishing to conduct research in any of the areas in which ILLC is active are now invited (see description and example projects). N.B. Deadline: 1 February 2011.

See for more information on how to apply here.