virus: Re: neurophysiology: music and The Dragons of Eden (cross-posted)

Date: Wed Sep 11 2002 - 14:21:22 MDT

On 11 Sep 2002 at 12:20, Douglas P. Wilson wrote:

> The subject line of this message (posted on the new Function of Music
> list, see below) refers to Carl Sagan's book "The Dragons of Eden --
> Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence" (Random House,
> 1977). If this message had a subtitle it might be something like
> "Speculations on the Evolution of Musical Intelligence".
> To briefly summarise the book, the late Dr. Sagan divided up the human
> brain into three evolutionary layers: the reptilian or R-complex that
> we share with reptiles, the Limbic System that we share with other
> mammals, and the Neocortex -- the cerebral cortex that we share with
> higher mammals but have most uniquely developed into the centre of
> rational cognition. Now, though this mailing list is aimed more at a
> functionalist sociology of music ("What is music for?"), I shall
> address the function and structure of the human brain with regards to
> music.
> We should also consider another important distinction, that between
> right and left brain. (Actually it is only the neocortex which is so
> divided). Carl Sagan addressed this also, in a chapter called "Lovers
> and Madmen". (I am only one of the latter, I regret to say).
> As most educated people know, there seems to be an important
> distinction between the left and right sides of the brain, with the
> left neocortex specialised for cognitive and verbal tasks, while the
> right hand side is involved in non-verbal thought, including artistic
> activities and love (cerebral love, that is -- animal sex is a
> function of the reptilian complex [and almost all living structures
> from the cell up], of course, otherwise lower animals would not
> succeed so well in sexual reproduction).
> When I am sitting and writing a message on the computer, as I am now,
> I often get restless and feel a need to get up and do something else.
> But this restless urge is often quelled by putting on a piece of
> instrumental music (Respighi's Church Windows at the moment) and
> listening to it while I work. I think -- my left-brain thinks -- that
> the restlessness I feel while writing or performing other cognitive
> tasks on the computer, without the music playing, is because my right
> brain gets very bored with all this left brain activity).
> So we might now look at the (structural, not functional) "Evolution of
> Musical Intelligence". What parts of the brain are involved in
> listening to, creating, and enjoying music? It seems to me that more
> of the brain is involved in musical appreciation and creation than in
> the cognitive left-brain activity we are both performing now.
> The American philosopher Suzanne Langer suggested that music is a
> language for conveying our "knowledge of feeling", by which she meant
> feeling emotions not touching surfaces. But emotions, as Dr. Sagan
> pointed out, are largely a function of the limbic system, even if our
> knowledge or understanding of those emotions is a higher function.
> So the limbic system is almost certainly involved in feeling and
> emotion and especially love. But the right brain is also the side
> most involved in feeling and emotion of all kinds, including love. So
> in feeling -- experiencing emotions -- and in our knowledge of
> feeling, both the right side of the brain AND the limbic system are
> involved. If there is any truth at all in Suzanne Langer's theory of
> music, then music also involves the limbic system as well as the right
> brain.
> But love, at least some kind of love, is closely tied to (and often
> confused with) sexual feelings and sexual activity, which is most
> properly the province of the R-complex, the part of the brain we share
> with reptiles and all higher sexually reproducing animals. So love
> and other emotions felt by the limbic system are almost certainly
> closely tied to some kind of deep animal sexuality and sensuality
> based in the reptilian complex. If that is true, then it is probably
> also true that music is closely tied to activities of that lowest part
> of the brain. Anyone who has seen couples dancing to music and
> reflected on what many of those couples will be doing after they go
> home from the dance will recognise the truth in this argument.
> So it seems that the parts of the brain involved in music are not only
> the right side of the neocortex but also the limbic system and the
> reptilian (dinosaurian) complex. On the other hand while I am writing
> and you are reading this message only the left brain is involved
> (except for the cerebellum where motor control of the fingers on
> keyboard and mouse is active).
> But of course the above argument, that music involves three distinct
> parts of the brain: right-neocortex, limbic-system, and
> reptilian-complex, applies only to instrumental music. Vocal music,
> and most especially the popular songs which those couples on the dance
> floor are almost always listening to, involves words, language and
> verbal activity -- song. So for this popular vocal music all parts
> of the brain seem to be active, and essentially active, not only the
> three parts used in instrumental music but also the linguistic
> functions of the left brain. Whereas, to repeat myself, my writing
> and your reading are essentially left brain functions. As would be
> thinking about what I have said, if anybody bothers to do that.
> Please permit me to suggest that you forward this message to anybody
> else you think might be interested in it, since it was written in part
> to help promote the new Function of Music online discussion group. I
> have appended below information about how to join this group and where
> its web pages are located. Forwarding this message to other discussion
> groups or mailing lists would be especially effective in promoting
> this group since the kind of people who sign up for such mailing lists
> are in fact the kind of people who sign up for mailing lists. My
> apologies to anyone who receives more than one copy of this message
> because of such forwarding or cross-posting activities.
> dpw http://www.SocialTechnology.Org/dpwilson.html
> Please note: the new Function of Music mailing list homepage is at:
>, and you can join this
> discussion group by sending a blank e-mail message to:
> A temporary home page for the new FunctionOfMusic.Org domain can be
> seen at: www.SocialTechnology.Org/FunctionOfMusic.html but it doesn't
> have any significant content yet -- just a copy of the first message
> posted to the mailing list. Please note that this mailing list and
> these web pages owe their existence to decades of discussion on this
> topic between two current group members, both of whom can be expected
> to post messages to the list. You might also note my avowed
> intention to be moderate and sensible in my own messages.
> dpw http://www.SocialTechnology.Org/dpwilson.html
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