Infant brain responds with error signal when beat is disturbed, study finds
by Robin Nixon Jan 26 09
The finding, published in the Jan. 26 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to growing evidence that the newborn brain is not the blank slate it was once thought to be.
Rather, scientists have shown, at birth we already have sophisticated methods for interpreting the world. Discrimination may be crude, explained lead researcher István Winkler of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, but "the basic algorithms are in place already."
This may be particularly true when it comes to sound. Infants as young as 2 days old can process pitch and tell if a series of notes are rising or falling in scale. And it is now known they have rhythm, too. Newborns can't exactly swing their hips to prove they can jive, so Winkler and his colleague Henkjan Honing of the University of Amsterdam monitored the brains of 14 infants listening to variations of a rock rhythm — complete with drum, snare and high hat cymbal.
When "metrically-unimportant portions" of the beat were silenced, nothing much changed among the auditory-related activity in the brain, Honing said. But when the rhythm was disturbed, particularly by omitting the downbeat, the infant brain responded with an error signal: An expectation for a rhythmic pattern was not met.
"A baby's auditory system is working the same way as an adult's, in that it is always making predictions," Winkler said. If the prediction is incorrect, an error signal helps gauge "how much you are off the actual target," he said.
Perceiving emotion While spoken language can take more than a year to develop, "music is one of the earliest things parents have with their children," Honing said.
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