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Cupid’s arrow to the brain: The neuroscience of music and love

The Reser hosted a nearly sold-out multimedia Valentine’s Day presentation with scientist Larry Sherman, singer Naomi LaViolette, and Portland Chamber Orchestra.

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Neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine’s Day.


STORY by ANGELA ALLEN

PHOTOGRAPHS by JOE CANTRELL


The Gershwin brothers had a gift for telling the truth in their music:

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In time the Rockies may crumble

Gibraltar may tumble

They’re only made of clay.

But our love is here to stay.

Our Love is Here To Stay,” George and Ira Gershwin.

Yep, love isn’t going anywhere, said Larry Sherman, an Oregon Health & Science University neuroscientist and a specialist in pleasure. He joined with Portland Chamber Orchestra and singer/composer Naomi LaViolette for a spirited lecture on love matched with music at Beaverton’s Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, on guess which day? Valentine’s, Feb. 14.

“How your Brain Responds to Music, Love and Chocolate” was Sherman’s original and approachable multi-media presentation in front of 527 ticket-holders (the Reser has 550 seats). Most stayed for the duration of the scientifically unstuffy presentation about brain pathways that light up and hormones and chemicals that surface when we feel pleasure. With music always residing on the top-ten list of pleasure hits, it’s no surprise that ideas about love and love songs danced cheek-to-cheek in this hour-and-a-half program. At the end of the show, if kisses and handholding were clues, people realized they were more in love, more committed, or adored chocolate more fervently than when they walked in. And, unlike many classical-music concerts, the audience represented a diverse spectrum of gender and orientation.

Neuroscientist Larry Sherman, singer Naomi LaViolette, and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Naomi LaViolette, and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine’s Day.

Or maybe someone just understood the stages of love better than she did a few hours before the show, such as why her brother had obsessively texted his girlfriend nonstop for months when they first took the lust plunge. It’s no surprise, Sherman said, that love is sometimes called a disease.

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If anyone can bring the science of love and pleasure down to earth—how we get it and experience it– based on heady brain research, it’s Sherman. He can explain how we sometimes lose touch with pleasure and love, and how such conditions as addiction, depression or unrequited love occur when brain paths and chemicals go awry.

Neuroscientist Larry Sherman at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Neuroscientist Larry Sherman at The Reser on Valentine’s Day.

Sherman is a 57-year-old neuroscience professor and author, with Portland musician Dennis Plies, of the just published Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music (Columbia University Press). He was noted in 2012 by OMSI and Portland Monthly magazine as one of Oregon’s most innovative citizens, he is a member of a number of national scientific boards and committees, and he works as a volunteer coach for Portland’s Southwest Little League. “I like to stay busy,” he said in an interview this month.

He’s also a witty emcee and plays piano. He accompanied singer LaViolette, a Portland musician and composer, and a star in Valentine’s crimson on this stage, in the familiar “Do Re Mi” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music. Sherman and LaViolette, who joined forces with ever-innovative and collaboration-minded PCO maestro Yaacov Bergman, convinced the audience to stand up and sing along. Why did we do it with open hearts and loud voices? Because, according to Sherman’s research, choral singing is pleasurable, the brain lights up, and singing with others increases acceptance of others and of oneself. “If only we could get Congress to sing together,” Sherman joked.

Neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine’s Day.

The music aligned with the stages of love, including breakup and commitment. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, illustrating a sadness when love goes wrong or pleasure becomes unpleasurable, contrasted with Puccini’s unabashedly heart-stirring “O Mio Babino Caro.” And then, when a relationship is more secure, it was time for Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s lush “At Last.”  A popular contemporary song commemorating true love (“I found a thrill to rest my cheek to. … for you are mine at last”), LaViolette gave it her sultry spin. A favorite song of Sherman’s and made famous by Etta James and others, “At Last” should be a standard in any program sorting out love.

The multi-talented LaViolette sang most of the songs, including Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” (love can go wrong and leave one in the sky and another on the ground). LaViolette’s composition, “Walk with Me,” was her best rendition of the evening, delivered in her rich alto, despite the hint of a cold. The only  instrumental after Barber’s Adagio for Strings was Leonard Bernstein and Sondheim’s “One Hand, One Heart.” Bergman let PCO musicians soar alone, singer-less.

LaViolette sang Steve Goodwin’s “Pour Me a Dream” at the beginning of the night. She helped Goodwin, suffering from Alzheimer’s, remember and catalog his songs in a project ultimately called Saving His Music, which received enormous local and national press in 2017.

Naomi LaViolette sang with Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
Naomi LaViolette sang with Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine’s Day.

Speaking of hearts, Valentine’s and cliches: that Cupid thing, where the chubby little angel shoots an arrow into the heart to make people fall in love? According to Sherman, the arrow zings into the brain. That’s where all the action is.

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Sure, in this concert, the songs were familiar, and some close to corny, but the science wasn’t, and when combined, the pleasure doubled. PCO, the oldest chamber orchestra in the country at 76 years old, has a way of trying new things, staying alert to social justice, collaborating with other arts-makers and thinkers, and in this case, it hit the mark—and the heart—or is it the brain?

Photographer Joe Cantrell was there, taking the above pictures, and captured a pair of audience members dancing and singing along. He describes these two as “cute as an Easter chick.”

The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.
The audience dancing with neuroscientist Larry Sherman and Portland Chamber Orchestra at The Reser on Valentine's Day. Photo by Joe Cantrell.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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