October 1, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Music Is Noise to Monkeys

Experiments show that monkeys prefer noise over music, even though they have brain similarities with humans.

A neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health wondered if monkeys could relate to music like humans do. After all, their eyes probably see like ours; do their ears hear like ours? Katarina Zimmer at The Scientist tells the story of experiments that Bevil Conway undertook to try to answer the question. In short, as the title of the article states, “When Humans Hear Music, Monkeys May Hear Noise.”

Using functional MRI machines (fMRI), Conway and colleagues watched what brain areas lit up when humans and macaques listened to musical tones and then to noise.

Three macaques and four people took their turn in an fMRI machine as the scientists played the sounds inside the scanner and monitored each participant’s auditory cortex. As observed in the earlier experiments, the human auditory cortex showed significantly greater activity in response to the harmonic stimuli than to the noise. But to Conway’s surprise, the same brain region in macaques showed no significant differences in response to the two sets of sounds. In fact, if anything, the monkeys’ brains often had a greater response to noise than to harmonic tones.

To the extent that the experiments accurately assess what a monkey experiences with sound, monkeys don’t seem to have an ear for music. It’s just noise to them. This seemed odd to Conway, since monkeys do vocalize to one another. Zimmer reasons that humans appreciate music because we use language to communicate, while monkeys do not. Language is replete with harmonic sounds in vowels. But there is much more to language than vocalization in harmonic tones: there’s semantics, syntax, and aesthetics. In a monkey’s brain, no comprendo. Sounds are meaningless signals that trigger certain behaviors.

Update 10/01/19: Now hear this! Dennis Prager argues that the Left ruins everything. Music is no exception; Samson Young took a musical masterpiece, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, and ruined it by making the string players cover their strings with tape. Playing it with all seriousness, the orchestra produces an incoherent scratching sound. Ten seconds is about all a human can take of this noise (try listening in the video clip).  The Scientist does give it one redeeming aspect, though: “Hear the muted symphony that one researcher thinks might be a close approximation to how macaques perceive the performance.

Think About Thinking

This was one of the stories in a special issue of The Scientist about neuroscience. Another article also touched on human uniqueness. In “The Human Brain: Blessing and Curse,” Editor-in-Chief Bob Grant begins, “Our brains are mysterious, fragile, and mischievous. That’s what makes them fascinating.”

Most scientists and science enthusiasts I’ve met are intellectually inflamed by the fact that there is so much out there (and in here) that we don’t know—a passion that transcends disciplines. And is there any mystery more fascinating than the functioning of the human brain itself? After all, we carry our brains around with us every day and use them to ferret out the patterns and meanings that throng around us. Neuroscientists, even more than the rest of us, use theirs to think about thinking.

Yet, after millennia of intimate interactions with our own brains and decades of formal study of the organ, “how the brain works was and still is a complete mystery,” in the words of Albert Einstein College of Medicine neuroscientist Kamran Khodakhah, this month’s profilee.

How in the name of Ramón y Cajal can cells, amassed in tangled networks and swapping ions across their membranes to propagate waves of electrical potential, result in a thought? How does this sequence of physical events form moving pictures, symphonies, emotions, and inspiration? It truly boggles . . . well, the brain.

Grant began by considering how the human mind probes all the mysteries of science, from the stars to the ocean floor to the cells of which we are composed. He worries about how our brains can deceive us, why they degenerate, and how we might find ways to delay the ravages of time.

But even with the downsides of limitless curiosity, the frailty of the organ from which it emanates, and the evolutionary compromises that come with growing such complex and knowledge-thirsty biological computers, I for one wouldn’t trade my brain for the world. There are too many things left to learn.

One thing scientists will never stop learning is how much they don’t know. But if the brain is merely a computer made of meat, that resulted from millions of years of evolutionary compromises, how can Grant know anything to be true?

Let’s summarize the two articles. Evolutionists have failed to understand why only humans have language and comprehend music. They admit the brain is a complete mystery to them. They believe human brains evolved from ape brains, but they marvel at the unique traits humans achieve with their brains, including science. They know far less than they know. But they know one thing for absolute, dead-on certainty: Non-atheists are not allowed to enter the conversation!

Let the dead bury their dead.

Think Outdoors

To end on a subject all can agree with, read “Time Spent in Nature Is Good for You” by Jef Akst at The Scientist. It’s the latest in a long trend we’ve reported on about the benefits of outdoor exercise, exposure and experience. One doesn’t even have to live in an area with ideal green space, or keep to a rigid schedule of outdoor walks, as long as they get about two hours per week. For those who get outdoors, the benefits start rolling in: “when people spend time in natural environments: blood pressure drops, heart rate decreases, immune function improves, and the parasympathetic nervous system directs the body to rest and digest.” De-stress and see the natural world.

Creation Safaris and other outdoor ministries help people escape to reality.

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