The Neuroscience of the Blues

The Neuroscience of the Blues

A few nights ago, I enjoyed blues guitarist Dana Hubbard’s performance at a great house concert hosted by Mike and Wendy. Might I suggest listening and watching Dana playing on YouTube before going on with my writing? Music’s dynamic, not static – pay attention to Dana’s movements. Of course, the hands interact with the guitar. But, his entire body is involved. He’s also singing and speaking – which are two different actions. A lot is going on, and I will try to explain some neuroscience related to blues guitar.

So, I’ve got a front-row seat by happenstance. Mike announced that there was a great seat in front. We are all reluctant to sit in the front row, just like in elementary school! Mike called a few of us by name, and up we went to the best seat in the house. Dana is about five feet away. The first set is excellent, with some original, creative music. Dana has more than a trace of Robert Johnson in his music. So glad to be hearing some live music again.

I talked to Dana during the break; I got a couple of CDs. This whole evening has been great. Saw old friends from years ago. Some stories were joyful, others sad. A lot was swirling through my head as I sat down for the second set. I started thinking about what was going on in Dana’s brain to produce this wonderful music? What is the neuroscience of the blues? I was in a trance; someone asked me if I was falling asleep. I was in the opposite of a sleep state, trying to recall what was going on in Dana’s brain to produce this music. Let me step you through some of the details. It’s been a few years since I studied this; I’m sure I will make a few mistakes, but I will try to give you some idea of what’s involved in playing the blues guitar.

Here’s an image of Dana playing the guitar. I notice Dana’s complicated finger and hand movements; the complex dance between human and guitar. A neuroscientist calls this volitional (voluntary) motor control. Dana also was singing and speaking – a whole different set of neural processes. As he plays and sings, Dana listens and applies feedback. Dana’s using his auditory pathway to hear the music, and so is his audience. Finally, notice the smile on Dana’s face – emotions are also in play.

I’m self-taught in neuroscience. One of my favorite classes was Medical Neuroscience, taught by Professor Leonard White of Duke University. Here’s my textbook and my black notebook from the class. I spent four good months in 2013 studying Professor White’s lectures, the text, and my research notes. My notes attempt to capture a systems engineering view of the brain.

So, let me see what I can explain about the neuroscience of the blues. First, let’s consider how Dana plays the guitar – motor control. Check out the block diagram on the upper page of my notebook. Dana’s motor cortex is planning, initiating, and directing his hands and fingers to play the music. The Basal Ganglia is an input that helps figure out when to start moves. By the way, the Basal Ganglia is also a vital component of emotional response. See that sly smile on Dana’s face: Basal Ganglia feeding another part of the motor cortex, another set of separate but linked movements. The pathways are descending via efferent motor neurons; this means the information flow is from the brain to the body via nerve cells that control skeletal muscles. The Cerebellum provides a coordinated sense of movement; it feeds into the motor neuron network. Meanwhile, Dana’s brainstem keeps Dana’s posture upright on the stool.

There’s another essential piece to Dana’s music-making: Sensory-Motor Integration. Have a look at the diagram on the bottom page. We can start at the green box on the lower left; Internal & External Environment. Dana must hear what he’s playing; he wore a single earbud to listen to what he’s playing. Maybe his guitar is out of tune; perhaps he needs to adjust the equalizer, these call for some form of adapting to the external environment. Similarly, maybe Dana feels chilly; he would sense a change in his internal environment.

Dana’s senses pick up this information and send it up via ascending paths using afferent sensory neurons. The sensory info feeds to various areas of his brain. Sensory data is then coordinated and integrated across the brain. After all the information is combined, the motor components take action. For example, if his guitar needs tuning, then somatic motor control will fire various skeletal muscles. As a result, Dana adjusts his guitar. Dana’s body may make automatic visceral adjustments if the room is chilly, such as constricting blood vessels near the skin.

Let’s get back to volitional control; in other words, movements that we will our body to make. These movements arise in the primary motor cortex. A neuroscientist would express the activity of Dana’s fingers playing the guitar as fine control of his distal extremities. On the left side of the diagram, playing guitar stems from the primary motor cortex down the lateral corticospinal tract to motor neurons that control the fingers. Meanwhile, the medial pathway governs movements such as sitting. On the other side of the diagram, different types of activity are nonvolitional, for example, Dana’s genuine smile. Guess what; a whole separate pathway. I’ll skip those details except to say that these two sides get linked together in the little purple box – the Brainstem Reticular formation. Some speculate this is the area where consciousness arises. For entertainment, ask two neuroscientists to explain consciousness; sit back and watch the sparks fly.

Now, you might wonder what a cerebral cortex is? The word cortex derives from the Latin word for an outer layer, such as the bark of a tree. The outer layer folds up in our brain. It would be like a thin, medium-size pizza crust if we spread it out on a table. The cerebral cortex contains most of our higher-order functions that compose conscious thinking: movement, speech, singing, and vision come to mind (yes, the pun was intentional). In the upper left corner of the diagram, you can see a cartoon of the motor cortex. The motor cortex is a strip of the brain about the dimensions of your finger. The upper extremity (arm) is in the middle of the motor cortex. The motor cortex is contralateral; the left motor cortex controls the right side of the body. Since Dana uses both hands to play the guitar, he’s using both sides (hemispheres) of his brain to play.

Another critical point in the diagram, a single neuron can cause multiple muscles in the arm to either flex or relax (extend). Translated to neuro speak: A single action potential (AP) in a corticospinal neuron activates four muscles in a forelimb. We learn all this complex behavior over time. We can acquire new motor skills because our brain is dynamic, flexible, and plastic.

I covered just a few highlights of what’s happening when Dana plays the blues on this guitar. I want to discuss how the audience (and Dana) listen and react to the blues in a future piece. Meanwhile, I need to get up and use my motor cortex to get some exercise!

Day 4 Hiking PCT Section A SoCal April, 2022

Day 4 Hiking PCT Section A SoCal April, 2022

We set off from our base near Julian on a cold, clear morning. The temperature when we left was a brisk 27 degrees. We did our usual car shuttle machinations and launched from Sunrise Trailhead; bound for Scissors Crossing. As you can see, we are wearing warm clothes as we launched north.

We are hiking 18 miles today. The start and the end of the hike are within the boundaries of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. In the middle section, we will be walking in an area controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. A quick tip to other hikers, to leave a car at Sunrise trailhead in the state park requires a day use fee. Fortunately, there was an app that let you pay online. Unfortunately, I had no cellphone service. Fortunately, Mike did have service and was able to get this taken care off.

We saw some interesting plants as we made our way up the trail. The photos below show a plant that we became familiar with: Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei). It throws up a tall flower stalk (the botanical term is a scape) and is covered with flowers. I added an observation of Chaparral Yucca on iNaturalist ; another naturalist confirmed my identification. I have oodles of nature photos to work through. My methodology is to first put them on iNaturalist and then (hopefully) write about the flora and fauna of this section of the PCT

Well, back to hiking. The trail was more down than up today. As we pressed on, we crossed a few roads and encountered just a few other hikers; mainly thru hikers. We started to see signs of civilization; the middle photo below shows a homestead. The mountains beyond are the San Felipe Hills, we were to know them much better tomorrow, We were heading into the valley, our car was near the base of the hills.

I’m still learning about the ecology of the area but my guess is that we transitioned from chaparral to desert at some point. One delight was seeing the cactus start to bloom. My favorite cactus of the day was flowering Engelmann’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) The photo’s show one example, look closely at the flower and you’ll see a bee working the bloom over. There’s pollen scattered around the flower; it was good to see a pollinator at work.

I had an internal transition; from feeling decent to quite nauseous. I’m sure that my churning guts didn’t improve my personality. I let Mike know and he paced me out. (Mike – thanks for putting up with me) When we got to Julian, I bought a six pack of diet ginger ale. I had one and felt better. A bit later I drank another. The next morning I still wasn’t 100%. Mike had great advice, bring ginger ale along in my pack. That was sage advice, it helped get my guts settled. On the way out, at Scissors Crossing, we investigated the water cache, It was large and well-organized. (We had seen an unmaintained water cache the previous day; the insects and other small critters would have made for an interesting nature study).

After getting to town and obtaining ginger ale, I spotted the Julian library. Those who know me can guess that I had to pay a visit; I am active with two Friends of the Library groups in Lake Forest Park, WA and Shoreline, WA. The Friends of the Julian Library had an entire room of books for sale. Yes, a few books went home with me. I had a great time chatting with Caroline about books and hiking.

After that, pizza and salad, shower, gear check for tomorrow’s long day and sleep.

Day 3 Hiking PCT Section A SoCal April, 2022

Day 3 Hiking PCT Section A SoCal April, 2022

Our third day on the PCT. Today is going to be an easy 17 miles. We have the morning rituals figured out; we’re up at Mount Laguna recreation area. Today, we will cross into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park; a natural area that I’ve wanted to explore for years.

Mike leading the way out of Mount Laguna

You might be curious why Mike’s often in the lead. The answer is pretty simple; I take a lot of nature photos, So, it’s a lot easier for me to get some images and catch up rather than slow both of us down. Plus, Mike sets a good pace; we average about a 2.5 mile per hour (4 km per hour) pace. Not too bad for a couple of senior citizens – we are both young at heart. We are up high, about 5700 feet (1740 m.), walking through a low oak forest.

After a couple of miles, we break into open terrain and pass the PCT 50 mile mark. We are walking on some gentle ridges, very pleasant terrain. I feel like I could walk all day – in fact, I did walk all day.

We walked up to the Pioneer Mail Picnic site (mile 53) and then proceeded on a closed section of the old Sunset highway and then back onto trail. There were some elaborate memorials up here. The views down to the desert floor several thousand feet below us are stunning. We were passing through here around noon, we tended to eat and hike rather than tale long breaks.

We hiked on north along the edge of a ridge, it was some great walking. The geology was also interesting. In the area of the memorial (see photos above) the rock looked metamorphic, perhaps schist? (PS – stop now if you don’t give a schist…) A bit further north we were walking through weathered granitic rock. Gosh, wish I knew a bit more geology. So much science, so little time. I did find a nice website about the flora of the PCT in this area: The Flora of the PCT A7 Pioneer Mail Picnic Area to Sunrise parking area My next endeavor once I finish writng about the hiking is to record my observations on iNaturalist. After that, I hope to write up what I saw each day in some detail – stand by for more….

As we made our way north, we entered Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I would describe the terrain we hiked through as chaparral rather than desert. You can get a look at this via my rather poor attempt at a selfie. Another comment, I am well protected from the sun. I tried out a Black Diamond Sun Hoodie on this trip, it seemed to live up to its advertised UPF 50 protection. I’m of Irish ancestry I can (and have) got sunburn in the shade. I have SPF50 sunscreen along with SPF 30 lip balm and my trusty RayBan shades. I also wear OR sun gloves. All this worked well for me during the six days of hiking.

After a few more miles of fairly flat tramping, we made it to the car we left at Sunrise Trailhead. We backtracked to Mount Laguna to get the other car and then headed over some twisty roads to the town of Julian, which was our new base for the next 3 days of adventure. We stayed a few miles out of town at the Apple Tree Inn. The room was quite nice. A great feature to me was proximity to good food, here’s a review of Wynola Pizza that I wrote:

“For 3 days, I was hiking the PCT 8 to 10 hours a day and got to my hotel hungry. I’d stroll over to Wynola Pizza and eat an entire vegan pizza every evening. It was delicious. Usually had a slice of apple pie as well. Great service and there was live music one night. Highly recommended.”

Mike also enjoyed this place but not quite as much as I did. I think it might be an engineering trait; once you find optimal food then there’s no need to change! After eating, we headed into Julian for a quick resupply. It’s a good hiker town, the staff at the store were very nice and the prices were reasonable. We also did a quick recon of Scissors Crossing, which was our starting point for tomorrow, Day 4 of Section A

Book Review

On Hollow Ground by Donald Gavron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If it seems clear, you haven’t understood this book. The author weaves a tale that revolves around the protagonist Troy Fox and a mysterious book of knowledge. There’s a lot of ambiguity as Troy proceeds in an underworld odyssey through the world. Does whoever controls the book control the world? Or, is the book just a string of self-help aphorisms worthy of a late night infomercial? The author takes us on a journey where we may find this out (or not). It’s a short fast read; more a novella length than a novel. There are four short stories included at the end; they are pretty good, One is horror and a couple seem autobiographical.

View all my reviews