Daniel Levitin

American psychologist

Daniel Joseph Levitin, PhD, FRSC, (born December 27, 1957, San Francisco) is an American cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, best-selling author, musician and record producer. He is James McGill Professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, with additional appointments in music theory, computer science, and education; Director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill, and Dean of Arts and Humanities at The Minerva Schools at KGI. He is an elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Psychological Science and the Royal Society of Canada.

Anyone who wants to understand human nature, the interaction between brain and culture, between evolution and society, has to take a close look at the role that music has held in the lives of humans. ~ The World in Six Songs (2008)

Quotes edit

  • One hundred years from now Beatles songs may be so well known that every child will learn them as nursery rhymes, and most people will have forgotten who wrote them. They will have become sufficiently entrenched in popular culture that it will seem as if they've always existed, like Oh Susannah, This Land Is Your Land, and Frère Jacques.
  • Music changed more between 1963 and 1969 than it has in the 37 years since, with the Beatles among the architects of that change.
  • Paul McCartney may be the closest thing our generation has produced to Franz Schubert -- a master of melody, writing tunes anyone can sing, songs that seem to have been there all along. Most people don't realize that "Ave Maria" and "Serenade" were written by Schubert (or that his "Moment Musical in F" so resembles "Martha My Dear"). McCartney writes with similar universality. His "Yesterday" has been recorded by more musicians than any other song in history. Its stepwise melody is deceptively complex, drawing from outside the diatonic scale so smoothly that anyone can sing it, yet few theorists can agree on exactly what it is that McCartney has done.
  • Music moves us because it serves as a metaphor for emotional life. It has peaks and valleys of tension and release. It mimics the dynamics of our emotional life.

This is Your Brain on Music (2006) edit

: The Science of a Human Obsession
  • The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography... between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. ...it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times of our lives. Your brain on music is all about... connections.
  • Studies of violin players by Thomas Elbert have shown that the region of the brain responsible for moving the left hand... increases in size as a result of practice.
  • The emerging picture from... studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of master associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.
  • Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience. ...If I'm playing an instrument I like, and whose sound pleases me in and of itself... caring leads to attention, and together they lead to measurable neurochemical changes. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with emotional regulation, alertness, and mood, is released, and the dopaminergic system aids in encoding the memory trace.
  • Mozart had extensive training from his father, who was widely considered the greatest living music teacher in all of Europe at the time.
  • We can say that speaking French "runs in families," but I don't know anyone who would claim that speaking French is genetic.
  • On average, successful people have had many more failures that unsuccessful people.
  • So much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of the fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion.
  • Joni uses a lot of alternate tunings; that is, instead of tuning the guitar in the customary way, she tunes the strings to pitches of her own choosing. ...Joni will talk compellingly and passionately about alternate tunings for hours, comparing them to different colors that van Gogh used in his paintings.
  • Joni's genius is that she creates chords that are ambiguous, chords that have two or more different roots. ...Joni's music is as close to impressionist visual art as anything I've heard. ...harmonic complexity born out of her strict insistence that the music not be anchored in a single harmonic interpretation.
  • Memory for playing a musical piece... involves a process very much like that for music listening... through establishing standard schemas and expectation. In addition, musicians use chunking... tying information together into groups, and remembering the group as a whole rather than individual pieces.
  • The Harvard neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum is significantly larger in musicians than in nonmusicians, and particularly for musicians who began their training early. ...Schlaug found that musicians tended to have larger cerebellums than nonmusicians, and an increased concentration of gray matter... responsible for information processing, as opposed to white matter, which is responsible for information transmission.
  • Consonant intervals and dissonant intervals are processed via separate mechanisms in the auditory cortex.
  • Contour refers to the pattern of musical pitch in a melody—the sequence of ups or downs that the melody takes—regardless of the size of the interval.
  • Myelin is a fatty substance that coats the axons, speeding up synaptic transmission. Myelanation... is generally completed by age twenty. Multiple sclerosis is one of several degenerative diseases that can affect the myelin sheath...
  • The brain's synapses are programmed to grow for a number of years, making new connections. After that time, there is a shift toward pruning, to get rid of unneeded connections. ...Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself. ...the amount of reorganization that can occur in most adults is vastly less than can occur in children and adolescents.
  • When a musical piece is too simple we tend not to like it, finding it trivial. When it is too complex, we tend not to like it, finding it unpredictable—we don't perceive it to be grounded in anything familiar. Music, or any art form... has to strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity...
  • The power of art is that it can connect us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.
  • I think we will see personalized music stations in the next few years... controlled by computer algorithms... I think it will be important that... listeners have an "adventuresomeness" knob that will control the mix of old and new, or the mix of how far out the new music is from what they usually listen to.
  • A gene that promotes nurturing behavior postcopulation could... spread throughout the population, to the extent that the offspring of people with the nurturing gene fare better, as a group, in the competition for resources and mates.
  • Miller and his colleague Marty Haselton at UCLA have shown that creativity trumps wealth, at least in human females.
  • Musical instruments are among the oldest human-made artifacts we have found. ...Music predates agriculture in the history of our species.
  • The best estimates are that it takes a minimum of fifty thousand years for an adaptation to show up in the human genome. This is called evolutionary lag... Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had a very different lifestyle...
  • It is only in the last five hundred years that music has become a spectator activity—the thought of a musical concert in which a class of "experts" performed for an appreciative audience was virtually unknown throughout our history as a species. And it has only been in the last hundred years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized.
  • Collective music making... may have historically served to promote feelings of group togetherness and synchrony, and may have been an exercise for other social acts...
  • The argument is that there may be a cluster of genes that influences both outgoingness and musicality. If this were true, we would expect to find that deviations in one ability co-occur with deviations in the other, as we do in WS and ASD.
  • Music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.
  • For language to be generative, children must not be learning by rote. Music is also generative. For every musical phrase I hear, I can always add a note... to generate a new musical phrase.
  • Cosmides and Tooby argue that music's function in the developing child is to help prepare its mind for a number of complex cognitive and social activities, exercising the brain so that it will be ready for the demands placed on it by language and social interaction. ...Mother-infant interactions involving music almost always entail both singing and rhythmic movement...
  • During the first six months or so of life... the infant brain is unable to clearly distinguish the source of sensory inputs; vision, hearing, and touch meld into a unitary perceptual representation. ...inputs from the various sensory receptors may connect to many different parts of the brain, pending pruning that will occur later in life. As Simon Baron-Cohen has described it, with all this sensory cross talk, the infant lives in a state of complete psychodelic splendor (without the aid of drugs).
  • In songbirds, it is generally the male of the species that sings, and for some species, the larger the repertoire, the more likely it is to attract a mate.
  • Music's evolutionary origin is established because it is present across all humans; it has been around for a long time; it involves specialized brain structures... and it is analogous to music making in other species.
  • Musical novelty attracts attention and overcomes boredom, increasing memorability.
  • Primates, some birds, and humans have mirror neurons... that fire both when performing an action and when observing someone else performing... We've found mirror neurons in Broca's area, a part... involved in speaking, and learning to speak. ...our mirror neurons may be firing when we see or hear musicians perform ... in preparation for being able to mirror or echo them back as part of a signaling system.
  • The multiple reinforcing cues of a good song—rhythm, melody, contour—cause music to stick in our heads. That is the reason why many ancient myths, epics, and even the Old Testament were set to music in preparation for being passed down by oral tradition across generations.
  • As a tool for the activation of specific thoughts, music is as good as language. The combination of the two—as best exemplified in the love song—is the best courtship of all.

The World in Six Songs (2008) edit

: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
  • Anyone who wants to understand human nature, the interaction between brain and culture, between evolution and society, has to take a close look at the role that music has held in the lives of humans.
  • Music has been a shaping force... music has been there to guide the development of human nature.
  • Music... is... a core element of our species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language, large-scale cooperative undertakings, and the passing down of important information from one generation to the next.
  • The six types of song that have shaped human nature—friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love songs—I've come to think are obvious...
  • We may have had music before we had a word for it.
  • Human process music using both absolute and relational processing... we attend to the actual pitches and duration we hear in music, as well as their relative values. This dual mode of processing is rare among species... These modes of processing and the brain mechanisms that gave rise to them were necessary for the development of language, music, poetry, and art.
  • The point of art is to emphasize some elements at the expense of others.
  • Music combines the temporal aspects of film and dance with the spatial aspects of painting and sculpture, where pitch space (or frequency space) takes the place of three-dimensional physical space... frequency maps in the auditory cortex... function much the way that spatial maps do in the visual cortex.
  • Creative brains became more attractive during centuries of sexual selection because they could solve a wider range of unanticipatable problems. ...Humans who just happened to find creativity attractive may have hitched their reproductive wagons to musicians and artists, and... conferred a survival advantage on their offspring.
  • The spiritual and emotional aspects of art are perhaps their most important qualities.
  • Both poetry and lyrics and all visual arts draw their power from their ability to express abstractions of reality. ...that is a feature of the musical brain.

The Organized Mind (2014) edit

: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
  • Prior to the invention of writing, our ancestors had to rely on memory, sketches, or music to encode and preserve important information.
  • Memory is fallible... not because of storage limitations so much as retrieval limitations.
  • Fondness for stories is just one of many artifacts, side effects of the way our brains work.
  • It's not just that we remember things wrongly, but we don't even know we're remembering them wrongly, doggedly insisting that the inaccuracies are in fact true.
  • Thinking about one memory tends to activate other memories. ...If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of memories can cause competition... leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes... leaving you with nothing.
  • Evolution doesn't design things... The brain is... like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.
  • The information age has off-loaded a great deal of work previously done by people we could call information specialists onto all of the rest of us.
  • An organized mind leads effortlessly to good decision-making.
  • Most of us have adopted a strategy to get along called satisficing, a term coined by... Herbert Simon... to describe not getting the very best option but one that was good enough. ...Satisficing is one of the foundations of productive human behavior ...we don't waste time trying to find improvements that are not going to make a significant difference in our happiness or satisfaction.
  • Recent research in social psychology has shown that happy people are not people who have more; rather, they are people who are happy with what they already have. Happy people engage in satisficing all of the time, even if they don’t know it.
  • In 1976, the average supermarket stocked 9,000 unique products; today that number has ballooned to 40,000 of them, yet the average person gets 80%–85% of their needs in only 150 different supermarket items. That means that we need to ignore 39,850 items in the store.
  • The most fundamental principle of the organized mind, the one most critical to keeping us from forgetting or losing things, is to shift the burden of organizing from our brains to the external world.
  • You’d think people would realize they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great.
  • Out of 30,000 edible plants thought to exist on earth, just eleven account for 93% of all that humans eat: oats, corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, yucca (also called tapioca or cassava), sorghum, millet, beans, barley, and rye.
  • Former secretary of state George Shultz, reflecting on forty years of United States foreign policy from 1970 to the present, said, “When I think about all the money we spent on bombs and munitions, and our failures in Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world . . . Instead of advancing our agenda using force, we should have instead built schools and hospitals in these countries, improving the lives of their children. By now, those children would have grown into positions of influence, and they would be grateful to us instead of hating us.

Talks at Google (Oct 28, 2014) edit

Daniel Levitin: "The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload" Talks at Google @YouTube

  • Multitasking is a myth. ...What's actually happening in the brain is sequential tasking. ...the brain is rapidly shifting ...so quickly and seamlessly that you don't really notice... What you end up with is attention that's been fractionated into little... bits and you're not able to actually sustain attention on any one thing. ...You're not saving time. You're wasting time.
  • The brain is very good at self-delusion.
  • A good rule of thumb is every couple of hours take fifteen minutes off. Naps are also very helpful, short naps. Even a ten or fifteen minute nap in the middle of the day can be the equivalent of an hour and a half of extra sleep the night before, and it can raise your effective IQ by ten points.
  • This mind wandering mode turns out to be very different from the task engagement mode, because it's where thoughts that are loosely connected seamlessly flow into one another like in a dream. ...And you begin to see connections between things that you didn't see as connected before. ...non-linear kinds of thinking ...This is the mode of thinking where your most creative acts are likely to occur and where problem solving is apt to occur.

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