In the eternal search for understanding what makes us human, scientists found that our brains are more sensitive to pitch, the harmonic sounds we hear when listening to music, than our evolutionary relative the macaque monkey. The study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, highlights the promise of Sound Health, a joint project between the NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts that aims to understand the role of music in health.
“We found that a certain region of our brains has a stronger preference for sounds with pitch than macaque monkey brains,” said Bevil Conway, Ph.D., investigator in the NIH’s Intramural Research Program and a senior author of the study published in Nature Neuroscience. “The results raise the possibility that these sounds, which are embedded in speech and music, may have shaped the basic organization of the human brain.”
The study started with a friendly bet between Dr. Conway and Sam Norman-Haignere, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute for Mind, Brain, and Behavior and the first author of the paper.
At the time, both were working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Conway’s team had been searching for differences between how human and monkey brains control vision only to discover that there are very few. Their brain mapping studies suggested that humans and monkeys see the world in very similar ways. But then, Dr. Conway heard about some studies on hearing being done by Dr. Norman-Haignere, who, at the time, was a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Josh H. McDermott, Ph.D., associate professor at MIT.
“I told Bevil that we had a method for reliably identifying a region in the human brain that selectively responds to sounds with pitch,” said Dr. Norman-Haignere,