By JIM NICHOLS
It was a magical machine from my youth. Through the glass top one could see a hundred records lined up in parallel. Each 45-rpm disc was in a position that matched a number in a keyboard. Following the insertion of a dime (three plays for a quarter), you would push a letter and number combination (“A 8”) and the machine turned into an early robot. Immediately, things began to move behind the glass. A moveable arm started down the line of records searching for the one selected by the keyboard. Stopping, the arm reached and grabbed the vertical record, spun it around to a horizontal position, and placed it onto a rotating turntable. Another arm with the record needle then settled onto the disc and the music began. The whole activity was mesmerizing. It was as if there were a library of music memories, just there for the asking. A second generation of the activity involved a set of table remote selection boxes. Sitting in the restaurant, one could control the music selection at your booth without even walking over to the jukebox. Fancy.
Many of my past biology students have heard me suggest that, to me, the most complex of human body systems is the nervous system, particularly the brain. Compared to what we know about the anatomy and physiology of the heart, kidneys, liver, and any other organ, our understanding of the brain is primitive. There is certainly a good deal of understanding of how individual nerve cells function, or even small groups of cells, but that has required investigation of isolated (and usually quite large) neurons, the cells composing the nervous system.
There have been certain prime choices for this investigative work, including a large neuron running down the tail of lobsters. Doing research on lobster tails sounds odd, but it has been extremely helpful in understanding what a nerve impulse is and how it works. When I was a graduate student we did such work, and we had to guard the large lab tank containing the live lobsters because people kept trying to break into the lab at night to steal the lobsters for eating.
Despite understanding how a single nerve cell works, stretching to understand how a brain (in a lobster or a human) composed of hundreds of thousands of nerve cells operates is a daunting task. In this case, the cells are talking to one another, some taking the lead now and others taking it later. Our understanding of this is rudimentary at best.
Although it happens year-round, a particular experience is especially present during Advent. If you go to a worship service or music performance (either as an observer or participant) during this season, your brain will do something amazing. Upon hearing a song from your past, neural circuits will integrate in such a way that the song in the past will be called up to your present. This is like pushing certain selection buttons on a jukebox. Furthermore, that retrieval will include not only the song, but a whole context of place, people, light, and perhaps aromas that all mix together in a wonderful memory experience. You have encountered an old friend.
My illustration here is to suggest that our remarkable brains contain a collection of songs that just sit there for decades and then can be retrieved by some simple activity. If you bake Christmas cookies in your kitchen, you might be drawn to put on certain music. Taking a car trip to a holiday destination of your past may call for a serenade of holiday hymns. It is one of life’s most common yet enriching experiences. Although I would suggest something clearly spiritual is happening, even on a scientific level this is astonishing. We cannot sing Silent Night or Joy to the World without something indescribable occurring within us.
In weeks earlier here, I have pondered about the qualities and importance of Old Friends. They play roles to remind us, inspire us, console and comfort us, assure us. Clearly, Old Friends are not just people; some Old Friends are songs.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
On a special show talking about Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s friendship and his battle with Alzheimers, a doctor talks about memory and music. Tony can barely carry on a conversation now, but he can instantly sing an entire song if he hears the music. The doctor said something to the effect of music is one of our deepest memories. It was fascinating.
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Loved this—music and spiritual connection go hand in hand with me. Jim, thanks for the memory lane and all those 45s!
So true–music is the language of the soul.