Last night we had a nearly 3-hour lecture from Petr Janata, from UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, on the science of music and the brain. My take-home messages from it were that (a) academics spend a whole lot of time building cool, complex models to illustrate things and gather evidence for things that no one really knows will be significant or not; (b) science really has not even begun to scratch the surface of “understanding” how the brain works; (c) even the things that science has established models for don’t necessarily shed light on the significant issues facing a real human being trying to get through real life in the real world.

It has been a long time since I’ve sat in a science lecture. Let me think. There was medical school, of course. And then there were a few talks here and there that I attended at various medical conferences I went to as an investor. These talks, though, at medical conferences largely sponsored by medical device and pharmaceutical industry players, always had to have a bent toward applications. Solving problems. Addressing billion dollar markets. Improving outcomes or quality of life. Something along those lines. Even medical school lectures were focused on the science related to therapies and interventions that doctors could offer. There was some End Game involved.

But last night was pure academia. It was a window into a professor’s playground, which is his mind. We looked at images of the brain, mapped with dots indicating regions that had been determined by individual studies to be associated with certain brain functions – motor, memory, emotion, sensory – in response to music. My take-home message from his very detailed studies – many, many years of work by many people – was that “Music has an effect on several different parts of the brain, depending on how the person is listening  and what they are paying attention to.” Period. Everything seemed to localize to the so-called “Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex” (MPFC), which is located in the front and center of the brain – the area right between the eyes and slightly above them.

Now, that’s great to know and everything. I enjoy a nice colored picture of the brain lighting up just as much as the next person. But so what?

What I mean is, what does all the “evidence” tell us, really? Brain science has always amused me, because it seems wrong for humans to believe that we can completely decode the way our thoughts, actions, and emotions really operate. I once briefly dated someone (I’ll call him “Harvard Boy”) who adamantly believed that human beings are simply “bags of chemical reactions”, and it was only a matter of time and computational horsepower before scientists and/or engineers would be able to simulate everything about the human mind. This scared me to death, actually. Harvard Boy was shocked that I, as a “medical doctor” who went to “medical school”, didn’t have the same view of the human body. I tried to explain to him that after dealing with real patients even for a very short time during my medical school training, I had more appreciation for the mystery and complexity of human health and illness than ever before. I never believed that a computer algorithm would be able to replace the art of the great “old-school” clinicians I saw in action. There was a sixty-plus year old cardiologist at Michigan who taught us the art of listening to the heart sounds through the stethoscope (called “auscultation”). As students, some of us yawned and rolled our eyes at his “old-fashioned” technique – he actually listened to the patient, and looked at the patient while talking to them – but we had no choice but to respect him when his diagnoses matched the results of more sophisticated imaging tests. It made me think that with all of the layers of technology between us and the patients, doctors might be getting lazy with their five senses and human intuition – perhaps the most vital and valuable tools in healing.

We have very few science lectures scheduled during our yearlong certificate in sound voice and music healing. But maybe last night’s lecture made a powerful meta point: whether you are a scientist or a deeply spiritual person, the human mind – consciousness – is a mystery that we cannot expect to fully know. We can only remain curious, keeping our eyes and ears open to the beauty of what is.

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