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8Nov 2012

The Beatles' contribution to neuroscience? What about the Stones!

The Beatles' contribution to neuroscience? What about the Stones!

Listen to an album that you played 1,325,462 times as a 14-year-old, and you'll probably find that when one track ends, you know which one is coming up next.

Simple memorization? Apparently not. Jon Hamilton of NPR reports on a finding by a Georgetown University researcher that the memory comes not from the part of the brain relevant for hearing, but from the motor areas. Apparently, areas involved in hearing can remember small chunks of notes, but the motor system is what stores the sequence.

The researcher, Josef Rauschecker, who presented his findings at the recent meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, says this experiment occurred to him because he listened obsessively to The Beatles as a kid. And when he puts those old albums on now, he knows which song is coming next when the current song ends. He can't tell you if you ask him, he says, but he can do it while listening.

A few brain scans later, Rauschecker found that the ability to do that was, surprisingly, coming from the motor areas of the brain. I wasn't terribly impressed with Rauschecker's speculation about why that is so. But what really disturbed me was this: 

Would the same thing have happened if he'd listened to the Stones?

The failure to include the Stones here, not to mention Zeppelin or AC/DC, is a major lacuna in this study. Or at least that's what my motor neurons tell me. Overcome your resistance, though, and give it a listen. Hamilton tells a nice little tale.

-Paul Raeburn

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