I have for a while been toying with the idea that music was prior to language.* I imagine cavemen sitting round the campfire humming away; then someone adds a few grunted flourishes; then the whole group is joining in the grunted tune; and eventually they are figuring out that they can sing meaningful grunts to one another. And pretty soon Homer was packing them in. Well maybe that’s just unscientific fantasy.

Here’s a piece from Brain’s Idea looking at research into whether music and language share brain resources. The conclusion is that they appear to share some brain resources. This piece from The Atlantic reports on studies of the conversation that is jazz improvisation. “The brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language and syntax.” Charles Limb suggests “If the brain evolved for the purpose of speech, it’s odd that it evolved to a capacity way beyond speech . . . So a brain that evolved to handle musical communication — there has to be a relationship between the two. I have reason to suspect that the auditory brain may have been designed to hear music and speech is a happy byproduct.” So maybe I’m not utterly alone in my grunt theory.

Of course we aren’t sure what (if any) adaptations to the brain took place consequent upon the invention of reading. Serious, rigorous science hasn’t turned up the facts yet; if indeed there are any facts to be found relating to such a recent adaptation. This is what makes Maryanne Wolf so annoying: she claims to have evidence that our brains are changing from reading e-mails, Twitter and other brief rapid-fire digital communications. She claims we are all finding it harder to pay attention. Her main evidence for this appears to be her difficulty in re-reading Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, a book she had loved when she read it years ago. Sorry Professor Wolf, anecdotal evidence from a neuroscientist is not neuroscientific evidence: it’s still just anecdote. Manoush Zomorodi’s program There’s Just Something About Paper in the series Note to Self, gave space to Professor Wolf again. Manoush’s support for paper over e-book is not to be sneezed at, but to the extent that she’s basing it on brain changes caused by e-reading, I cannot agree.

Here’s another baseless (to me) claim from Quartz that googling is destroying our memories. I like to think the vast resources on the internet are in the same relationship to our brains as a backup hard drive is to your desktop computer. Our brains are now immense and growing. It’s rather inspiring.


* Turns out Jean Jacques Rousseau had the same idea.