On Thursday, May 31, 2018, we visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Huge mausoleums were seen surrounding the entrance as we walked in. Some of the mausoleums were over one hundred years old and still standing beautifully. Stained glass windows were illuminated as the sun shined through these antique structures. This cemetery had much more to offer than its serene appearance; it would contain the bodies of many noteworthy individuals such as Frédéric Chopin.
I remembered playing piano as a kid and Chopin was an influential composer and pianist when I started learning to play. I immediately started to think of neuroscience and how his brain differed from mine. In my NBB 301 course last year, I learned about topographical maps in the somatosensory and motor cortices which are cortical representations of the human body devoted to processing motor and sensory functions. In this course, we talked about how musicians had topographical maps that were different from non-musicians. Musicians, pianists specifically, had larger representations for their hands than non-musicians. These professionals also showed less activation in the primary and secondary motor areas which allows them to recruit less neurons when playing their instrument, ultimately saving energy (Bangert and Altenmuller 2003). These more specific connections allow messages to be sent quicker and allows the musician, such as Chopin, to be a better pianist.
When I was researching this topic, I came across an article describing how this cortical remapping can sometimes have negative effects as well for the musicians. The negative effects were a new topic that I had never learned about before. The intensive training by musicians can cause plasticity in the brain that can be maladaptive (Watson 2006). Recent studies have shown this type of training can lead to the formation of obscurities of the hand representation in the cortical somatosensory areas. These ambiguities relate to the development of focal dystonia. Focal dystonia is a movement disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions. I never realized that the cortical changes that allowed a musician to perform better and perfect their art could also have negative consequences that could affect their overall quality of life. This could have very well affected Chopin; however, he passed away in 1849 and unfortunately the identification of dystonia was yet to be discovered.
I think it is so fascinating how neuroscience can be related to an abundance of people, places, and experiences. Looking at this famous pianist’s tombstone allowed me to connect information I had previously learned regarding the brains of musicians and to discover additional information on the possible side effects of being too musically gifted. I guess there are risks and benefits to everything. I can’t wait to explore more of Paris and to be able to incorporate neuroscience into my experiences!!
Bangert, M., & Altenmüller, E. O. (2003). Mapping perception to action in piano practice: a longitudinal DC-EEG study. BMC Neuroscience, 4, 26. http://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2202-4-26
Watson, A. H. D. (2006). What can studying musicians tell us about motor control of the hand? Journal of Anatomy, 208(4), 527–542. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7580.2006.00545.x