A few months ago I wrote several posts about the importance of mirror neurons in the study and performance of music. Mirror neurons, as you recall, are the cells that fire both when we act and when we see someone else making the same action, and multiple studies have been conducted that specifically explore mirror neurons in musicians. But some scientists have called mirror neurons the most hyped concept in neuroscience. So are mirror neurons myth – or reality. And what difference does this controversy make to practicing musicians? Continue reading
Pianists seem to be used as research subjects more often than any other musicians – perhaps because there are so many of us, both amateur and professional. I once met a well-known singer who, upon finding out that I was a pianist, remarked that pianists “are a dime a dozen.” Not the most gracious comment when meeting someone. On the other hand, our numbers guarantee a ready supply of subjects for neuroscience research, including research on mirror neurons. And speaking of lots of pianists, I couldn’t resist this photo of fifty-two pianos with, I believe, two pianists at each piano, taken at Royal Festival Hall in London in May 2011 on a “massed piano day,” held during a five-day mini festival, “Lang Lang Inspires.” This photo illustrates an aspect of mirror neurons that I hope will become clear over the next few posts.
I know. You’re waiting to hear about mirror neurons and music and we’ll get to that. But the story of the discovery of mirror neurons is really too good to pass up because it was one of those serendipitous discoveries that has sometimes happened in the history of science. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is probably the best-known, but other revolutionary discoveries that happened quite by chance include insulin, quinine, the smallpox vaccine, nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics, and the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). In case you don’t know about PCR, it’s sometimes called “molecular photocopying,” and it is used to amplify a single strand of DNA, generating the significant amounts of a sample DNA that are necessary for molecular and genetic analysis, for detection of viruses and bacteria, and of course, for matching criminals to crime scenes as we regularly see on television and in movies.