06/15/2011 11:01 am ET | Updated Aug 15, 2011

Why is Music a Religious Experience?

As a neuroscientist, I have often wondered -- what is the source of my relationship to music? A great deal is known about how sounds are processed in the brain, and at least a little is known about how the syntax of music is perceived. But what about reverence for music? Many people, myself included, experience a religious-type awe when listening to certain pieces of music. What exactly is the relationship between music and religion and where in the brain does that commonality emerge?

As I've written before in books and blogs, I am an atheist and yet I have an empathy for religion. Intellectually, I do not think there is a literal God. Emotionally, I am not anti-religious. One of the reasons why I feel an emotional empathy for religion is that it reminds me of my attitude toward music.

Many of the moral generalizations that have been applied to religion apply just as well to music. Music is a cultural phenomenon. It intensifies emotions. It helps cement communities. It can range from the terroristic to the sublime. The Nazis after all had nationalistic Nazi music to fire up their citizens, and in more recent decades we've seen cop killer music. On the other end of the spectrum, the rousing music of the civil rights movement advocated for equality, and Beethoven's Ninth was a politically and socially radical statement about the joy of human solidarity.

Yet something else harder to put into words, something that goes beyond cultural impact, unites music and religion. When I am listening to certain pieces of music I feel a reverence creeping over me, an awe that has a spiritual quality. For myself, classical music does it. For others, of course, different styles of music trigger the same reverential reaction.

I do not see any contradiction between my scientific atheism and my emotional reverence. I am a biological being subject to the same emotions and affinities as others. I am, however, scientifically curious about the phenomenon. At least one aspect of the phenomenon may have a surprising basis in the social machinery of the human brain.

In complexity, the human brain tends to see intentionality. We are after all social animals. We evolved to be social beings -- to look at the complex pattern of behavior of others and infer a mind state, a personality, a persona. When we encounter complexity, the social machinery in the brain is engaged. It generates hypothetical mind states and intentions and attributes them to the complex entity. It is an automatic reaction. We can't help the impulse.

This type of social perception has been studied extensively. Social neuroscience, as it is called, is now one of the hottest topics in the science of the brain. I've written about it myself in academic articles and also in my book, "God, Soul, Mind, Brain." The general region of the brain that appears to be particularly involved in inferring mental states in others is more or less above the ear and about an inch in. It is adjacent to and probably densely connected with the auditory cortex.

When I listen to Mozart, I believe what is happening could be described as follows.

Certainly, I admire the man. Any person who could create great music has my admiration. I also admire the music. But that intellectual admiration, an admiration of the craftsmanship, is not the same as spiritual awe. Something else happens.

In the deep logic of the music, I sense a presence. My brain generates a mind state, a persona, and attributes it to the music. Not the mind of Mozart the man, but a kind of soul that invests that particular piece. The piece has a persona. It has a palpable spirit, and I feel as though I can have a personal relationship to that spirit. The social, interpersonal, emotional machinery of my brain has been recruited.

My brain is treating the music like a universe of complexity and investing that universe with its own deity, for whom I feel some measure of awe and reverence. My relationship to the music is, in the most fundamental sense, the same as a religious relationship to the real world.

I do not know if other people react to music in the same way. I would be curious to hear from my readers.