New Research Supports Existence of a Music Center in the Brain

Natalie Angier’s article New Ways Into the Brain’s ‘Music Room’ discusses new findings from Dr. Nancy Kanwisher and Dr. Josh H. McDermott that suggest that there are neural pathways that react almost exclusively to music. Unlike previous studies that failed to find a distinct, anatomical music center in the brain, Kanwisher and McDermott’s study showed that music circuits occupy a different region of the brain’s auditory cortex than speech.

When I proposed the theory of multiple intelligences many years ago, one of the most important criteria for the identification of an intelligence was its localization in the brain. To be sure, this was not the only criterion:  some abilities (e.g. face recognition) that are localized are insufficiently broad to qualify as an intelligence;  and some intelligences have a broad or varied representation in the brain.

It’s long been known that musical abilities have a cortical representation that differs from language abilities:  that is why one can have aphasia without amusia, or amusia without aphasia.  But the new approach to brain imaging developed at MI has made a notable discovery; there are distinct neural pathways in the auditory cortex which respond preferentially to the sound of music, and those pathways are clearly different from those that respond to preferentially  to linguistic sounds.  Notable is the testimony of Elizabeth Margulis of the University of Arkansas. She points out that proponents of musical intelligence used to have to claim that music’s specialness derives from its integration of parts of the nervous system that had evolved for other purposes.  But now, says Margulis, “when you peer below the cruder level seen with some methodologies, you find very specific circuitry that responds to music over speech”.

I have always maintained that no single line of evidence can prove or disprove MI theory; there are no decisive experiments. Rather, what determine the validity of the theory is the steady accumulation of empirical evidence from a variety of sources and a variety of sciences.  This research, from the laboratory of distinguished MIT research Nancy Kanwisher, is one more brick of evidence in favor of the edifice of multiple intelligences.