Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Music and Evolution

The Economist reviews thoughts on why we make and love music. Sexual selection and group binding are very dubious explanations to me - enjoyment of music seems very unlikely to be an evolutionary adaptation. Steven Pinker's contention that music is something like auditory cheesecake - our brains, exquisitely wired to interpret sound, rejoice in the abundances of music - is more appealing. Whatever its evolution, human love of music is clearly wired. The enjoyment of rhythms comes early - rhythmically patting an infant to simulate a mother's heartbeat works like a charm.

Neuroscientist Peter Cariani made a great comment on the article, discussing music's pleasing neural stimulation as the result of neural activity mimicking. I like this explanation best and Pinker's explanation seems consistent with or part of this explanation. Cariani draws a nice comparison between the tension building and relief in music and that in playing catch (uncertainty, relief, repeat) and to sports and drama generally. I've often thought of sports in this way. Most people are familiar with the cognitive calm and pleasure found in the monotonies of catch or ping pong or basketball. And there's no doubt that, in general, sports evoke our evolutionary instincts. The comparison with music nicely frames the strange synchronies often experienced in sports as "the zone".

(image credit: economist.com)