When Alessandro Brustenghi emerged from the elevator in a Midtown Manhattan office building, he looked like any other young rock star: just over 5 feet tall, tanned skin and a touch of scruff. The only difference was that he was also dressed in a friar’s habit.
Friar Alessandro kept his aviators on indoors. His eyes were weary, he explained, from a weeklong media blitz for his first record for Decca, Voice From Assisi. This was the farthest distance and the longest time the 34-year-old friar had ever been away from his Perugia homeland. We sat in a sleek room with floor-to-ceiling glass paneling that made it feel as if we were dangling in an ornament over Central Park. The friar’s publicist explained to him that the park was entirely manmade, information Brustenghi accepted with a cautious nod.
In 2011, Brustenghi became the first religious brother to land an exclusive record contract with a major label. Producer Mike Hedges (U2, the Cure) heard the Italian tenor sing and invited him to record at Abbey Road Studios (“It is not possible to explain the importance of the Beatles,” Brustenghi said). He had little hope that his Assisi brotherhood would give him the green light. But they did, under the conditions that Brustenghi take a vow of poverty — meaning that any money he earned went to the Order of Friars Minor for charitable work — along with vows of obedience and chastity. As far as Brustenghi was concerned, he was living the rock star life.
When the young friar speaks, he is in sermon mode. His pauses are measured, his intonation even. He comes across as sweet and modest. I asked him if he had a favorite pop artist. Without hesitation, he answered, “Michael Jackson.” His favorite MJ album? Dangerous. “Michael Jackson, like Bach, recognized that the well of music is God. Bach used to sign his compositions with ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ (‘for the glory of God’) and Michael Jackson used to say that his music was from Heaven.”
“Music is like a key,” he continued. “We can open the door and we can enter in Heaven. And in Heaven, we are enriched by the music, and we can give this gift to all people.” You don’t have to be religious to understand where Brustenghi is coming from — the sense of wonder that accompanies the best music is universal. Still, every time Brustenghi brought up God, I cringed, thinking, “Can’t we leave Him out of it?” Combining music and religion, attributing one to the other, struck me as hokey — a view that I would expect coming from a member of the brotherhood, but not from many other people. But as he spoke, I realized what Brustenghi was really talking about was a sense of awe.
What does it mean to feel awe? It’s more palpable than feeling impressed. It’s a physical, prickling sensation. It has a spiritual quality. Try describing what it feels like to be in awe of something, and it’s easy to slip into religious terminology. Music history abounds with so-called “rock gods” and “rock goddesses.” Music fans of all ilk love to canonize their favorite artists. Stages become altars. Punks preach and divas testify. When people talk about the “miracle” of music, only higher realms will do, because feeling “awe” is spiritual. But there is also a physical aspect to it. Hearing a favorite song again and again can literally feel different each time. As Brustenghi suggested, music isn’t Heaven itself, rather, it is the act of entering in Heaven. The movement signifies the physical element of “awe.”
As it turns out, the awe we experience for both music and spirituality comes from the same place. Neuroscientists are beginning to understand more about the connection. When the brain is faced with complex patterns, as it is in music and religion, it engages in the same way it would with a fellow human being. Dr. Michael Graziano, of the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, studied the connection between the human brain and spirituality in his book God Soul Mind Brain. “We’ve evolved to become social animals,” Dr. Graziano said over the phone, “and part of that means we have this incredibly fine-tuned intuition about what might be going on in someone’s mind.”
The human brain is perpetually socializing. When we are faced with inanimate stimuli — like music, religion, nature and technology — the brain scrambles to figure out how to react. That’s partially why the solitary acts of praying to God or listening to music make us feel less alone. “We attribute mind states [to inanimate objects] at the drop of a hat,” Dr. Graziano said. “You get mad at your coffee machine when it doesn’t work. Children attribute minds to stuffed animals. If you turned down the volume on our tendency to [do that], we would be less attuned to each other socially.”
Harvard University’s Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone demonstrated the strength of the brain’s social machinery in what I will call the “Does the Mind Rule the Body or Does the Body Rule the Mind?” experiment. Dr. Pascual-Leone monitored a group of volunteers that practiced a one-handed piano exercise for two hours a day for five days. After the fifth day of practicing, he saw that there were significant changes in the area of the brain that controlled the practicing hand. Then, he split the volunteers into two groups. The first group continued to practice the piano exercise for four weeks, while the second group stopped. After the four weeks, the group that stopped practicing lost nearly all of the brain growth they’d gained.
But there was a third group of volunteers who only mentally practiced the piano exercise. They didn’t use their hand at all. By merely thinking about the piano exercise for four weeks, this group showed nearly the same brain growth as the group that had actually practiced the piano. In other words, the brain is equally influenced by what is real and what is imagined.
The brain’s social machinery works by imitation. We perceive people and things by creating a model of their brains. Obviously, we can’t create an exact model, so our models are simplified. But they suffice. Creating a model of another person’s mind allows us to intuit the thoughts, intentions and motivations of others even when they aren’t expressly stated. Model-making is an automatic function. It occurs in the region of the brain above the ear, roughly two inches in, an area that’s next to — and likely connected with — the auditory cortex. Dr. Graziano theorizes the brain evolved like this because socialization is “the key to our survival — to be able to work with other people and solve problems individuals can’t solve.”
The human brain treats music like an intelligent, complex being. “Regions of that brain that are known to be involved in really high-level social processing light up during rich, complicated music,” said Dr. Graziano, “Anyone who has listened to the music of Beethoven, for example, knows that it has a distinct personality. The music has the kind of emotional range and complexity that we would normally associate with a human personality.” The emotional states we attribute are largely computed unconsciously.
Belief in the spiritual world heightens that internal sense of awe. To believe requires an acknowledgment of non-human forces — angels, devils, ghosts, gods, spirits — and a belief that they can impact the world without a human body. “Awe is part of religion, because people attribute that kind of a giant, impressive deistic mind to the space around them and feel a great deal of awe for that being. That’s straight-up social emotion,” said Dr. Graziano.
To take it out of the specifically religious realm: If you are predisposed to believing in ghosts, and you hear an inexplicable noise — a creaky floorboard or a scratching on the door — your sense of awe becomes heightened. The person who believes in ghosts will perceive those noises as more complex than someone who doesn’t. The believer will therefore respond emotionally — their heart might race or they might get chills. The emotions and the physical responses are real. People frequently describe sitting next to an angry person and being able to “feel the heat” radiating from the person’s body, or walking into a quiet room and feeling the weight of others’ stares. The social machinery of the brain is constantly responding to stimuli, both real and imagined, and the result is a sensation of awe.
Coincidentally, Friar Alessandro’s “Dangerous” is all about awe, and the ways that imagined pain feels all too real. Jackson describes a woman as “Divinity in motion.” He can “feel the aura of her presence” when she walks into the room; it’s a pull so strong, Jackson prays to God to save him from her “web of sin.” Jackson begs himself to choose reason over passion. But this dangerous woman can paralyze him — only him — with a single stare. The pain is so real; he can’t walk away.
That kind of spiritual awe — even coming from a dangerous place — is essential to, of all things, hymn writing. “The beauty of finely turned verse set to beautiful music is a way of engaging another mode of existence,” said Dr. Thomas Troeger, a professor at Yale University School of Divinity and one of the most celebrated hymn composers in the world. “There is a dimension to life that is not fully knowable simply by our rational capacities. I love reason, I love science, but reason doesn’t explain to me what it feels like to kiss my wife.”
Hymn-writers like Dr. Troeger are concerned about worshipers remaining intellectually engaged while feeling “awe.” The hymns he writes reflect modern ideas, science, and social movements, a development that began in the 1960s and ’70s. “All of a sudden there was this massive explosion of ideas — theologically, scientifically, socially, politically — that were going on. Churches wanted to sing about them,” says Troeger. “So myself and others started supplying new hymns.”
Soon, the environmental crisis yielded hymns on ecology, feminism ushered in hymns of a genderless God, interreligious hymns followed 9/11, the rise of medical knowledge brought hymns about neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. One day, Dr. Troeger received a phone call from his collaborator, mourning the loss of her friend who died of AIDS. “She called me up. The minute she was on the phone, I could tell she was almost in tears. She said ‘I’m so heartbroken. The only thing I can do is write music.’” Dr. Troeger wrote the words to the music she composed and years later their hymn, “God Weeps With Us Who Weep and Mourn,” was used as the final hymn for the National AIDS Service.
Hymns and pop songs may be more effective at generating emotion because their simplicity and repetition invite participation. Whether you’re singing or moving your body, the physicality that happens both at concerts and at worship services strengthens and changes your perception, helping you remember the moment later, long after that last dance. Unfortunately for Robyn, dancing alone isn’t nearly as powerful as dancing with others. St. Augustine, the man who practically invented the term “web of sin,” said, “He who sings prays twice.” Once again, he was right.
Nearly 2,000 years later in the Los Angeles punk scene, Darby Crash had a similar idea: burning the inside of a person’s left wrist with a lit cigarette at his shows. People coveted the “Germs burn,” mostly because you couldn’t just do it to yourself. The burn had to be administered by Crash, or by someone who had been burned by Crash. So if you felt your left arm throbbing at a Germs show, you might have been experiencing more “awe” in the heat of that moment. You also probably weren’t drunk enough.
“We orient our beliefs through socialization. We believe what we observe others believing,” Dr. Graziano, wrote in God Soul Mind Brain. So when you are physically engaged with other people listening to music — whether you are singing, clapping, standing, kneeling, getting a Germs burn or waving your phone during a ballad — it means your motor system and your social machinery are revved up. The experience becomes social. Before long, that familiar feeling of “awe” comes creeping up your spine.
Music and religion are cultural phenomena people use to define themselves. We hang onto music and beliefs that we feel are true. The human brain is an advanced and adaptable organ, but the truth is that it doesn’t have a secret stash of universal truths to work from. There is no tiny god steering the ship, dodging right from wrong. According to Graziano, there is the amygdala, an almond-sized structure that projects words, thoughts and pictures onto a small ball of neurons called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls emotions like hunger, rage, lust, nurturing, and so on. Your amygdalae (there are two) sort out which stimuli affect which parts of the hypothalamus. The sound of a crying baby might cause one person to nurture and cause another person to insert earplugs. With practice, the amygdala can be trained to respond differently.
“We experience a consequence of a learned connection in the amygdala,” wrote Dr. Graziano. We make rationalizations after the fact.
Similarly, your taste in music — what you consider to be a “miracle” of sound or the stuff of elevator purgatory — is a reflection of what you’ve already heard. The more music you listen to, the more your tastes change. There is no roadmap for when you’ll experience awe. But the more your brain learns new patterns, the greater chance you have that something stops you and makes you think: “Whoa.”
When Brustenghi spoke about God, I heard that pronoun waving like a big red flag. It distracted me. Dr. Graziano explained how religion is disorienting because you don’t necessarily share the same convictions as another person. Our convictions are essentially habits. Convictions can change — the amygdala can learn a new stimulus. But Brustenghi wasn’t really talking about religion. He called listening to music the act of “entering” and he was right. We are entering into a conversation with music when we listen. It is an invisible exchange between the art and the brain. We try to know the music better. We apply our own quirks, backgrounds and moods to the music. In the process of trying to get to know a piece of music, we inevitably learn about ourselves. At best, we learn what our demons are and how to face them. And when we participate and watch others participating in music, the conversation only gets louder.
This is the same kind of conversation people have in their spiritual lives, which is partly why music and religion share so many intangible qualities. “Our relationship with music is fundamentally similar to our relationship with religion,” Graziano wrote. Everything we perceive in the world and in the spiritual world, that is real or imagined, is a model of our own creation.