Aniruddh Patel talks nature, culture and musicality in CHAT speaker series

The building of the Tufts Psychology department is pictured on Dec. 3, 2020. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily
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The Center for Humanities at Tufts presented “Musical Minds: Beyond Nature vs. Nurture” on Wednesday night. In the talk given by Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts, he explored how biology and culture impact human musicality. 

Patel has dedicated a portion of his career to studying the cognitive neuroscience of music, or the mental processes involved in musical processing, as well as its impact on language. 

“We are thrilled to have our second CHAT faculty fellow presentation,” said Heather Curtis, CHAT director. “His work focuses on music, cognition, the mental processes involved in making, receiving and responding to music.” 

Patel started by talking about the origins of human music. He pointed to an approximately 40,000-year-old bone flute as an early example of our collective attempts to make music, noting that it was created in the days of wooly mammoths, Neanderthals and other prehistoric beings. 

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“For over 150 years, scholars have debated whether we’re an inherently musical species,” he said, explaining how Charles Darwin argued that all humans do hold that trait. “He argued that … our human ancestors actually sang before they spoke.”

However, William James, a foundational figure in American psychology, disagreed with Darwin’s assessment of the innate musical instinct of humans.

 “He thought that music was not something we specifically evolved to do, it was a fortuitous byproduct of how our brain works,” Patel said. “It’s something that we invented, but nothing that we evolved into.” 

Patel then presented his own research on the subject. 

“‘Inherently musical’ to a biologist means over time, biological evolution specialized certain aspects of our brain to support the acquisition of basic musical abilities and behaviors.” 

To illustrate his point, he shared a number of other examples of processes that are biologically inherent to humans, such as learning how to speak. 

Patel then went on to explain gene-culture coevolution, the theory that human behavior is a product of both biological and cultural evolution. 

‘Things that humans create culturally, out of their creativity and ingenuity, can actually ultimately lead to biological changes in our species,’ he said.

Patel shared a video from a study by a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to demonstrate how a group of children in a hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania have the ability to perceive beat and rhythm without formally being taught these concepts. 

Explaining the video from a biological standpoint Patel said, “[The ability to process beats] involves very strong connections between the auditory system and the motor system. … Even if you’re just listening to a beat and you’re not moving, you’re not intending to move, we see very strong activity in motor planning regions of the brain.” 

To connect the processing of beats with gene-culture coevolution, Patel examined which cultural inventions could have caused humans to experience genetic changes. He hypothesizes that the cultural invention that scientists have been trying to uncover is vocal learning, or “the ability to imitate complex sounds.” 

Patel was able to test this hypothesis of vocal learning in 2009 with a parrot named Snowball. Snowball first surfaced in a video where he seemed to be dancing to the beat of the music, moving his head in tempo with the song playing. Patel visited Snowball in person to conduct an experiment where he played music at 11 different speeds to test Snowball’s ability to synchronize.

“It turns out he did in short bouts,” said Patel. “He could hold onto it for a few seconds …  By doing statistics we showed that it was much more synchronated than we’d expected.”

Lastly, Professor Patel discussed a study conducted by Professor Reyna Gordon of Vanderbilt University, who worked with the DNA testing company 23andMe to determine whether there are genetic factors that cause humans to perceive a beat. 

“She found across the genome, [there are] 67 significant points of the genome with genetic variants. The heritability is 15%, which means it is mostly influenced by the environment and culture, not by genes, and there is no single gene for rhythm because it’s very polygenic, [or] spread across many parts of the genome,” Patel explained. “So it means that genetic beat-based synchronization abilities are genetically influenced, but very far from genetically determined, which is what you might expect from a gene culture coevolution kind of story.”

Patel ended his talk by returning to the question of whether music is a part of our evolved human nature.

“I think some new lines of evidence are emerging that are pretty exciting in that regard to helping us answer that 150-year-old question,” Patel said. “Maybe I am wildly optimistic, but I actually think we can answer this question in the coming few decades, and maybe we’ll reach a consensus.” 

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