Aniruddh Patel talks about nature, culture and musicality in CHAT talk series

Tufts’ Center for Humanities presented “Musical Minds: Beyond Nature vs. Nurture” on Wednesday night. In the lecture given by Aniruddh Patel, Professor of Psychology at Tufts, he explored the impact of biology and culture on human musicality.

Patel has devoted part of his career to studying the cognitive neuroscience of music, or the mental processes involved in processing music, and its impact on language.

“We’re thrilled to have our second CHAT faculty mate presentation,” said CHAT Director Heather Curtis. “His work focuses on music, cognition, the mental processes involved in creating, receiving and responding to music.”

Patel started by talking about the origins of human music. He cited a roughly 40,000-year-old bone flute as an early example of our collective attempts to make music, noting that it was created during the time of woolly mammoths, Neanderthals and others. prehistoric beings.

“For more than 150 years, researchers debated whether we were an inherently musical species,” he said, explaining how Charles Darwin argued that all humans possess the trait. “He argued that…our human ancestors sang before they spoke.”

However, William James, a seminal figure in American psychology, disagreed with Darwin’s assessment of humans’ innate musical instinct.

“He thought music wasn’t something we were specifically evolved to be, it was a chance by-product of how our brains work,” Patel said. “It’s something we invented, but nothing we evolved into.”

Patel then presented his own research on the subject.

“‘Intrinsically musical’ to a biologist means that over time, biological evolution has specialized certain aspects of our brains to support the acquisition of basic musical abilities and behaviors.”

To illustrate his point, he shared a number of other examples of biologically inherent human processes, such as learning to speak.

Patel then explained gene-culture coevolution, the theory that human behavior is the product of biological and cultural evolution.

“Things that humans culturally create, through their creativity and ingenuity, may actually ultimately lead to biological changes in our species,” he said.

Patel shared a video of a study by a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor to demonstrate how a group of children from a hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania have the ability to perceive rhythm and rhythm without having formally learned these concepts.

Explaining the video from a biological perspective, Patel said: “[The ability to process beats] involves very strong connections between the auditory system and the motor system. … Even if you’re just listening to a beat and not moving, not intending to move, we see very strong activity in the motor planning regions of the brain.

To link beat processing to gene-culture coevolution, Patel examined what cultural inventions might have caused humans to undergo genetic changes. He hypothesizes that the cultural invention scientists are trying to uncover is vocal learning, or “the ability to imitate complex sounds.”

Patel was able to test this vocal learning hypothesis in 2009 with a parrot named Snowball. Snowball first surfaced in a video where he appeared to be dancing to the music, bobbing his head in time with the song. Patel visited Snowball in person to conduct an experiment where he played music at 11 different speeds to test Snowball’s ability to sync.

“Turns out he did it in short fights,” Patel said. “He could hold it for a few seconds… Doing the stats we showed he was much more in sync than expected.”

Finally, Professor Patel discussed a study led by Professor Reyna Gordon of Vanderbilt University, who worked with DNA testing company 23andMe to determine if there are genetic factors that cause humans to perceive a heartbeat. .

“She found through the genome, [there are] 67 significant points of the genome with genetic variants. The heritability is 15%, which means it is mainly influenced by environment and culture, not genes, and there is no single gene for rhythm because it is very polygenic, [or] distributed in many parts of the genome,” Patel explained. “So that means beat-based genetic synchronization abilities are genetically influenced, but very far from genetically determined, which is what you might expect from a coevolution-like story of genetic cultivation.”

Patel ended his speech by returning to the question of whether music is part of our evolved human nature.

“I think new data sources are emerging that are quite exciting in this regard to help us answer this 150-year-old question,” Patel said. “I may be extremely optimistic, but I actually think we can answer that question in the next few decades, and maybe we’ll come to a consensus.”

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