Valproic Acid for Perfect Pitch? Steady, Now…

FDA_seizure_drug_DepakoteFor the past few days, the internet has been abuzz with the announcement of the “perfect pitch miracle drug.” Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

Valproic acid has been used alone or in addition to other medications for nearly fifty years to treat epilepsy, and is the active ingredient in drugs such as Valproate and Depakon. It is also used in the prevention of migraines, mania in bipolar disorder and for the treatment of aggression exhibited in children with ADHD. It is in the class of anticonvulsants. To talk a little bit about how it works, our brain is made up of thousands of nerve cells that communicate back and forth via electrical signal, a very intricate and delicate process that need maintain a steady and stable balance for normative functioning. When repetitive and abnormally rapid electrical signals are released, this process becomes disturbed and over stimulated. Anticonvulsants such as Valproate function as a stabilizer by increasing the amount of the natural nerve-calming chemical GABA, (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), as an HDAC (histone deacetlyase) inhibitor (Monti et al., 2009). GABA is one of the brain’s chief inhibitory neurotransmitters, which many researchers believe to regulate anxiety. When the amount of GABA in the brain falls too low, Valproate prevents the breakdown of the chemical and works to stabilize the amount of electrical activity, which explains why the drug has been found effective as a treatment for periods of mania and epileptic seizures.

Unfortunately, valproic acid is far from the ideal end-all. Valproate has been known to potentially cause serious or life threatening damage to the liver, pancreas, and blood cells, and holds an alarmingly high statistic for weight gain. It is not approved for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and has recently been the target of a lawsuit due to unforeseen birth defects. It is also known to cause ataxia, thrombocytopenia and leucopenia, so before we all go rushing off to “increase our brain function,” it might be wise to spend a moment thinking critically.

This morning, Tom Ashbrook of On Point, NPR stated “Imagine a pill that could rewire your brain. Would make your brain young again. Able to learn and absorb like a five-year old. Music. Languages. Would you take it?”  Neuroplasticity has risen to near-celebrity status over the past few months, and recent study by Frontiers of Systems Neuroscience is certainly fanning the flame. Carried out by researchers from France, Canada, Maryland, Australia, Massachusetts and England, the study set out to discover whether such periods when enzymes “impose ‘brakes’ on neuroplasticity, might be able to “reopen critical periods of neuroplasticity” via a drug that blocks productions of those enzymes. Absolute pitch was thought to be a solid assessment of this possibility because there are “no known cases of an adult acquiring absolute pitch.”

Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a musical sound without any reference point. Individuals who possess AP, constituting about 0.01% of the general population, are able to identify the pitch class, i.e., one of the 12 notes of the Western musical system, e.g., C, D, G#, of a sound with great accuracy (varying between 70–99%, depending on the task, as compared to 10–40% for non-AP individuals, Takeuchi and Hulse, 1993). The study explains:

“Importantly, acquiring AP has a critical period (Levitin and Zatorre, 2003; Russo et al., 2003). A critical period is a fixed window of time, usually early in an organism’s lifespan, during which experience has lasting effects on the development of brain function and behavior. The principles of critical period phenomena and neural plasticity are increasingly well understood both at the behavioral/experiential (Kleim and Jones, 2008) and at the molecular/cellular level (Hensch, 2005). Specifically, behaviorally induced plasticity in the healthy brain, typically after the end of the relevant critical period, can lead to improvement beyond normal or average performance levels. However, for many tasks, this requires targeted training—simple routine use is often insufficient. The factors known to influence the efficiency of such targeted training include the number of repetitions involved, the intensity of the training as well as the relevance or saliency of the stimuli or task trained. Importantly, such training-induced learning is quite specific to the trained task and to the underlying brain networks, although some transfer to other, related domains of knowledge or skills is sometimes possible. At the cellular level, critical periods close when maturational processes and experiential events converge to cause neuoro-physiological and molecular changes that dampen or eliminate the potential for further change (Hensch, 2005Bavelier et al., 2010), thus imposing “brakes” on neuroplasticity. One of the epigenetic changes leading to decreased plasticity after the critical period involves the action of HDAC, an enzyme that acts as an epigenetic “brake” on critical-period learning (Morishita and Hensch, 2008Qing et al., 2008). Research has shown that inhibition of HDAC can reopen critical-period neuroplasticity in adult mice to enable recovery from amblyopia (Putignano et al., 2007Silingardi et al., 2010), and to facilitate new forms of auditory learning (Yang et al., 2012).” ( ).

The randomized, double blind study was conducted on twenty four men, half of which received Valproate and the other half, a placebo. The men who received Valproate showed advantage in pitch class identification. To come to the conclusion, it is imperative that we acknowledge the fact that these powerful pharmaceuticals were in no way developed for something so “trivial” of the acquisition of perfect pitch – the diagnostic simply was appropriate for a brief and extremely small study and subject pool. The researchers conclude:

If confirmed by future replications, our study will provide a behavioral paradigm for the assessment of the potential of psychiatric drugs to induce plasticity. In particular, the AP task may be useful as a behavioral correlate. If further studies continue to reveal specificity of VPA to the AP task (or to tasks on which training or intervention is provided), critical information will have been garnered concerning when systemic drug treatments may safely be used to reopen neural plasticity in a specific, targeted way.”

It is vital during this time of exponential and rapid advances in the realm of neuroscience that we keep the grounding measures of ethics and morality at the forefront of our minds. There is a reason performance enhancing drugs are strictly forbidden in competitive sports. While it is truly of great interest to deliberate over the implications of a drug altered to target neuroplasticity, with great power (all together now) comes great responsibility. 

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Ground-breaking study shows music capable of evoking memories in patients with acquired brain injuries

Music has long been shown to aid in the recollection of autobiographical memories in the general population. In recent years, it’s also been proven beneficial to those with Alzheimer’s, or those who have suffered a stroke. However, a recent study proves this process valuable for patients with acquired brain injuries (ABIs). This study is the very first of its kind to examine the possibility of triggering music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) in patients of this nature.

In the recent issue of Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, Amee Baird and Séverine Samson explain how they have used popular music to help patients with severe brain injuries recall personal memories. The study began with playing extracts from “Billboard Hot 100” number-one songs in random order to five patients taken from the entirety of the patient’s lifespan (commencing age five). These songs were also played to five control participants with no brain injuries. Following the procedure, all subjects were ask to record their familiarity with the given songs, whether or not they was pleasing to hear, and what memories they evoked. The following findings were provided by the Taylor & Francis group:

Doctors Baird and Samson found that the frequency of recorded MEAMs was similar for patients (38%–71%) and controls (48%–71%). Only one of the four ABI patients recorded no MEAMs. In fact, the highest number of MEAMs in the whole group was recorded by one of the ABI patients. In all those studied, the majority of MEAMs were of a person, people or a life period and were typically positive. Songs that evoked a memory were noted as more familiar and more liked than those that did not.

As a potential tool for helping patients regain their memories, Baird and Samson conclude that: “Music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than verbal prompts of the Autobiographical Memory Interview (AMI) across each life period, with a higher percentage of MEAMs for each life period compared with AMI scores.”

The full study may be found here.

The implications of these findings, in terms of neurological rehabilitation through music, memory, and emotion, are simply enormous. I look very forward to learning more of what the inimitable effects of music may have for those whose hope relies in neurological and psychological resilience.

What Dreams May Come : Neural Substrates in Resilience

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

-Shakespeare, Hamlet

On December 5, 2013, Neuron published case study “The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Cingulate Gyrus.” Although researchers at Stanford University came across these intriguing results by accident, the implications may prove in the future to be of some consequence. In order to gain knowledge in the neurological source of seizures, study co-author Vinitha Rangarajan explains they were in the process of delivering an electrical charge to the anterior midcingulate cortex region (involved in emotion, pain and cognitive processing) of two persons with epilepsy when the finding occurred. When the charge was delivered, both individuals experienced increase in heart rate, and various sensations in their chest and neck. These physiological sensations were accompanied by a psychological expectation of challenge, and the desire to surmount it.

When, in following, the patients only thought their brains were being stimulated (but were not), they did not experience any of the prior symptoms. This process of assumed stimulation was repeated 5mm away, with the same result – an absence of any or the previous physical or psychological effects. In a press release, lead author Dr. Parvizi explains “Our study pinpoints the precise anatomical coordinates of neuronal populations, and their associated network, that support complex psychological and behavioral states associated with perseverance.” Dissimilarities in this neuronal structure may be tied to innate differences in our capacity to cope and endure amid trying circumstances.

The study highlights dictate:[i]

  • Electrical stimulation of the anterior cingulate region performed in two subjects
  • A stereotyped set of cognitive and autonomic changes was elicited in both subjects
  • This included feeling of anticipated challenge and strong motivation to overcome it
  • Site of stimulation in both subjects was a core node of the brain’s salience network


Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is known to be involved in functions such as emotion, pain, and cognitive control. While studies in humans and nonhuman mammals have advanced our understanding of ACC function, the subjective correlates of ACC activity have remained largely unexplored. In the current study, we show that electrical charge delivery in the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC) elicits autonomic changes and the expectation of an imminent challenge coupled with a determined attitude to overcome it. Seed-based, resting-state connectivity analysis revealed that the site of stimulation in both patients was at the core of a large-scale distributed network linking aMCC to the frontoinsular and frontopolar as well as some subcortical regions. This report provides compelling, first-person accounts of electrical stimulation of this brain network and suggests its possible involvement in psychopathological conditions that are characterized by a reduced capacity to endure psychological or physical distress.

In brief departure, I am reminded of William James’ thoughts on the notion of the “threshhold.”

Recent psychology has found great use for the word ‘threshold’ as a symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into another. Thus we speak of the threshold of a man’s consciousness in general, to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold would be immediately waked. Similarly, when one is sensitive to small differences in any order of sensation we say he has a low ‘difference-threshold’- his mind easily steps over it into the consciousness of the differences in question. And just so we might speak of a ‘pain-threshold,’ a ‘fear-threshold,’ a ‘misery-threshold,’ and find it quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too high in others to be often reached by their consciousness.[ii]

What is it that allows some individuals to fall off the horse fifty times, only to get back up fifty one? To attend one hundred grueling auditions whilst retaining the hope and inertia to continue showing up? To find love and then betrayal, and yet continue to open one’s heart to the vulnerabilities of emotion? Findings such as these in neuroscience are critical to the understanding of pain, fear, and crisis thresholds, and leave many open pathways for discovery in the realm of physical and psychological resilience.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.


[i] Parvizi J, Rangarajan V, Shirer W, et al. The Will to Persevere Induced by Electrical Stimulation of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Neuron. 2013.

[ii] The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Longmans, Green, 1916. Originally published in 1902.

Damasio on The Origins of Creativity (A Philosophy of Art, Part II).


On Saturday, the Society for Neuroscience presented the Fred Kavli Public Symposium on Creativity. Chaired by Antonio Damasio, presenters included composer Bruce Adolphe, clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison (An Unquiet Mind) and Damasio himself. Each speaker depicted a unique portrait in examples of creations, collaborations and the psyche behind it – Jamison through beautiful insight into the correlation of madness to creativity; Adolphe via imagination in his portrayal of a musical composition in alliance to mental illness.

It was Damasio, however, that really caught my attention in the vein he chose to depict what it is to create. He began, “Creativity is largely human – it is entirely a product of the mind, a product of mind-making brains. It assists life regulation (homeostasis).”[i] Long before there was even the option of achieving a balance of survival, there were simply eukaryotic cells, operating unconsciously. From there came the brain, then the mind, and from there, the self. For Damasio, to construct consciousness, the brain uses the mind (the basic component) and the self (where consciousness comes to light). “Creations are original products of the mind. Creativity is the engendering of such projects – ideas, objects, activities, etc. The self engenders a concern for the life proceedings, and it allows individuals to seek well-being, a state far more complex and difficult to obtain than mere survival. It is only then that the game of life changes radically, and we move from blind biology to the rebellious determination that brings on complex social behavior and eventually culture and civilizations…Art can only emerge then, and it becomes a critical component of that cultural evolution.”[ii]

Before creating a discourse in cultural necessity, let us briefly consider the biological. The cognitive and neural substrates shown between the processes of existing on the creating end, and those on the end of perceiving the created, reveal undeniable similarities. Although the means and neural activations certainly reveal a contrast (for example, portrait painting might activate the fusiform gyrus behind facial recognition, while recognizing expression in the portrait may illuminate the occipital lobe or the amygdala). Much of their motive and affect illustrate many parallels. In creating art, one basic but essential component is being able to utilize skills drawn from learning and memory recall. The creator need use their procedural memory, such as memories storing unconscious learnt skills (such as riding a bike or laying one’s fingers to the piano keys), and declarative memory, in the means of episodic memories (evoked from personal experiences) or semantic (the recall of facts, such as adhering to the accidentals of F minor).

In addition to memories summoned on behalf of the creator, Damasio further explains many of the same tools used in processing and affect are utilized on the opposing end. For the observer, the fluid interplay of remembrance, recalled emotions and feelings oft lead to analysis and reflection (be it superficial or profound). Prior experience with the particular art form (connoisseurship) shapes the observer’s ability to evaluate and enjoy what they have either sought or been presented. Individual preference determines distinctions in imagination and the breakdown/composition of elements in much the same way the creator embarks in posing the question “How novel is it, and how much does it fit the original goal defined?” As Damasio states, “On the mind-brain side of it, you have the importance for imagination, and of memory recall (the ability to display working memory’s faces and realize what it imagined). All of this needs to be modulated by affective experience. The moment you think about this in pure, non-affective cognitive terms, you very simply throw away the baby with the bathwater. It is the guidance that comes from the affective process from the emotional drive and the feeling that is going to make it work, or not.”[iii]

In circling back to the evolutionary underpinnings and origins of art in the physical, musical or visual realms, we retain that both the creator and receiver’s pursuit of art responding to their conscious (or unconscious) recognition of problems and needs. Humanity requires a method of processing, reasoning and making decisions, which the object theoretically should fulfill in its obligation of response. One could easily draw the conclusion that there existed a need (and therefore objective) to communicate with others. Damasio describes threats and opportunities, varying social behaviors, or conveying one’s own sorrow or joy as the probable key intents of communiqué. When these conversations were successful, and were found to be of positive effect, there came to being a compensatory balance. He arrives at a notable point in the seemingly obvious: How would the arts have prevailed otherwise?

Art responds to a need. Art fulfills the wont for intellectual enrichment, satisfies an otherwise empty void for many social contexts and institutions, lends much to the progress of science and technology, and realizes the desire for a more purposeful life existentially. The epic poems of Homer or Ovid are a significant example of a transaction for interaction of information. Prior to the enormous maturity and proliferation of science, literature was a vital method of imparting knowledge and fundamental means of exploration. We observed this heavily is the rise of psychoanalysis at the turn of the century, later by film, and now by neuroscience.

In addition to the evolutionary value of being able to communicate general information, Damasio posits the second largest catalyst for creativity was not only a mechanism of bonding and attachment (i.e. parent to offspring or in reproduction, male to female) but a means to induce nourishing emotions and feelings of varied kinds and importance, such as fear, anger, joy, sadness, indignation, revenge, pride, contempt, shame, loyalty and love. Damasio submits that music does this most of all-most importantly and most universally. The discovery of pleasure in reaction to varying timbres, pitches, rhythms and their relationship to each other surely contributed to the indispensable invention and persistence of this art form – relationships which were discovered in a setting of play, and of repetition.

The foundations of creativity and constructions of art were crucial to the formation of society and to the evolution of humanity in not only the aesthetic sense, but also one of ethics. They promoted a sense of communal organization, and directly provided a mode of exercising moral judgment and moral action. The arts had a candid survival value in forming communication for calls of alarm or opportunity, and they contributed to the notion of well-being. The arts fortified social groups, and social groups in turn fortified creativity. The impulse to create and as a result embrace new and adaptive behaviors possibly even helped humans transcend the Paleolithic era.[iv] They contributed to an exchange of ideas and compensated for emotional imbalances caused by fear, anger, desire, sadness and loss, and catalyzed the sustained process of establishing social and cultural institutions. Because art is so heavily founded in biology, thus homeostasis, and can take us to the highest realms of thought and of feeling, art is an authentic means into the refinement humanity most desires.

 Three years later, much has changed in my life. Three years ago, my father, a singer and profound example of an artist’s command of control and heavenly motive, was still alive. So was a dear friend, who gave me my first book on Jackson Pollock to “stretch my artistic enjoyment.” Much has changed. Much has been found, and lost. Through all the things I have learned and gained, what propels me the most in intellectual, academic and moral pursuits remain: the search for beauty, knowledge, hope, and resilience. I have more than one jealous muse – neuroscience, poetry, dance, psychology, affection, seeking the coveted childlike wonder of the sky’s blanket before dawn – and music most of all. These things are all meaningless, all futile, however, devoid of passion for the refinement and rediscovery of buoyancy, integrity, compassion and love. There are a great many things in art and life that I do not understand, and will never understand. It is the greatest comedy, the most schizophrenic irony of all to be human, in a constant pursuit of perfection that will never be obtained. The alternative is contentment, dormant satisfaction, apathy. This, I reject. If time will not pause while I find my way, it stands to reason that by inertia I will keep going, keep attempting, regardless. If I am to undergo this fallen, fleeting existence of tragic loss and immeasurable joy in the means most true to my human nature, I will do so with art.

After all, in the words of Damasio, when we undergo art, we change for the better.

cupid and psyche

[i] Damasio, Antonio. (November 9, 2013). Fred Kavli Public Symposium on Creativity. Neuroscience 2013. Society for Neuroscience, San Diego.

[ii] Damasio, Antonio. (June 11, 2009).Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics: Art and Emotions. CARTA (Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny). Salk Institute, La Jolla.

[iii] Damasio, Antonio. (November 9, 2013). Fred Kavli Public Symposium on Creativity. Neuroscience 2013. Society for Neuroscience, San Diego.

[iv] ibid

what should we do with our brain – a metaphorical critique

“The brain has always been described by means of technological metaphors.” [1]  neural pathways

One of the first handlings of this idiom occurred in Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics: “Metaphor is the transference of a name from the object to which it has a natural application…” (Aristotle, Poetics, 21). More recently, individuals such as I.A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and Max Black have made consequential advances in the field of metaphorical criticism, enabling its use to aid heavily in ornamentation and decoration, as structuring principle and discovery and description of the truth.[2]

According to Richards, all thought is metaphoric because when individuals attribute meaning, they are “simply seeing in one context an aspect similar to one [they] encountered in an earlier context.”[3] Though the work of theorists including Michael Osborn and Robert L. Ivie, we have a better understanding of how language relates us to reality, and how we as humans constitute reality through our use of symbols. When we process symbols to better understand reality, we are often using the metaphor. Phenomenological anomalies become accessible to us through the development of a physical materialism that often comes to life via symbols. When we attribute names or symbols to these phenomena, we are using the metaphor.

Along with the above, a number of others have stressed the importance of the metaphor. Nietzsche argued that it is simply the way in which we encounter the world: “A nerve-stimulus, first transformed into percept! First metaphor! The percept again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one.”[4] In these viewpoints, metaphor occurs prior to and generates the discovery of ideas.

Foss explains a great example of this usage in Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice via the metaphor that “time is money.” By using terminology such as “I’ve invested a lot of time in someone,” “You need to budget your time” and “this gadget will save you time” we begin to equate time through a financial viewpoint; it now shares its level of worth with money. In metaphoric criticism, Max Black has developed an influential method known as interaction theory which juxtaposes two terms in the metaphor generally regarded to belong to two differing classes of experience. The first term is called the tenor, principal subject, or focus, while the second term is called the vehicle, secondary subject, or frame. For example, “The brain is a machine” is a metaphor for which brain is the tenor, and machine is the frame. The process from there then is to discriminate what traits are commonplace by the tenor and vehicle, and form a type of discerning argument. As the associated characteristics of the tenor and vehicle interact, some are accentuated while others are contained. As one goes through this progression of deconstructing tenor and vehicle of the metaphor, it becomes apparent that the metaphor serves an argumentative purpose: metaphor constitutes argument.[5]

To choose a common metaphor and artifact to further describe this process, the human brain has been the target of metaphoric assignments for quite some time: mirror, projector, computer, economy. (Tabbi, 1998) Others have termed the brain central telephone exchange, machine, and even government. While some illustrations appear more accurate than others, there are those who feel as a society that we’ve sorely missed the mark. In Catherine Malabou’s innovative work What Should We Do with Our Brain? (2008) she issues the challenge of deconstructing what we’ve always thought of our brains, and bestows an even greater one: what should we use it for?

Malabou begins the work by repetitiously stating “Our brain is plastic, and we do not know it.” The concept of consciousness is paramount to her: she not only calls attention to the many cities at work neurologically, but the fact that we do not know it. From “know thyself” forward, awareness has been the crux of academic and technological progress. Malabou’s critique of our neuronal dogma is an attempt not only to break away from the ideological presuppositions the field of neuroscience currently includes, but a call to become conscious of them-and of ourselves.

The first method of metaphoric criticism we may employ includes simply dissecting the metaphor. How does it function? In which way is Malabou trying to shake the current opinion of its role? Previously (as mentioned above) common symbols used for the brain include computer, central telephone exchange and machine. However, with Malabou’s concept of plasticity, the rigidity of these allegories will no longer suffice. Machines, computers and central telephone exchanges have a control center; an unyielding and stiff method of prescribing action and processing information. Plasticity is rigidity’s direct anonym, and as we have seen that metaphor not only tells a story but constitutes an argument, new metaphors must come into play. Our brains are no longer known to be entirely genetically determined, static or even simply flexible. “Plasticity, in effect, is not flexibility. Let us not forget that plasticity is a mechanism for adapting, while flexibility is a mechanism for submitting.”[6]  We must ascertain a new meaning, and this is Malabou’s challenge. She must use a metaphoric criticism to tear down the current views and instill the new.

We have now seen how the tenor and vehicle of “brain as machine” will no longer suffice. Let’s take a look at what Malabou uses as alternative: brain as plastic. Taken from the Greek plassein, to mold, plasticity has two basic definitions: one is to receive form, and one is to give form. “Plasticity in the nervous system means an alteration in structure or function brought about by development, experience or injury.”[7]Instead of mindlessly accumulating new metaphors for our brain, Malabou relies on the fact that we are the minds who make the metaphors, and sets out to explain just why the old metaphoric arguments won’t work. She offers perspective and a choice to the audience, just as Foss speaks of in Rhetorical Criticism, “If the audience finds the associated characteristics acceptable and sees the appropriateness of linking the two systems of characteristics, the audience accepts the argument.” In the context of modern day capitalism, Malabou creates a fantastic charge and call to consciousness, taking aide from European metaphysics, political engagement and neuroscience. By changing the terms (linguistically, semantically and literally) of the game, Malabou effectively provides a metaphoric critique to the prevailing comprehension of the function of the human brain.

In conclusion, a metaphoric criticism is best employed here simply because it is what the author employs herself. As Foss further states in Rhetorical Criticism, “Whatever metaphor is used to label and experience a phenomenon, then, suggests evaluations of it and appropriate behavior in response.” The old metaphors used suggest a worldview of a time passed, before the age of functional and real-time neurological imaging. The new formation of the model of our brain must be in line with the modern self: dynamic, transforming and revolutionary. We can no longer think of our brains, our neuronal selves, as but flexible and anonymous; as machine. We must affirm our capacity for change and confess our plasticity: evolutionary, adaptive, explosive. We must no longer consent to depression via disaffiliation; to be “blind to our own cinema.” Our brains tell us a story-whether we choose to listen or not. Karl Marx once stated “Humans make their own history, but they do not know that they make it.” As Malabou so eloquently proves throughout her work that a simple metaphor does not suffice and thus hinders a proper understanding for the plastic brain, she relies on concepts such as ecological, self-creating and emancipatory instead. Plasticity cannot be domesticated. The brain is ever-changing; so then must our conception of it be also.

“…At bottom, neuronal man has not known how to speak of himself. It is time to free his speech.”

-Catherine Malabou

[1] (Jeannerod, 2004).

[2] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 359

[3] Ibid, p. 359

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense,” in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy, trans. Maximilian A. Mugge, II. New York: Macmillan, 1911., p. 178

[5] Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice, 2nd Ed. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1996., p. 361

[6] Marc Jeannerod, 2004.

[7] See the entry “Plasticity in the Nervous System,” in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, ed. Richard L. Gregory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 623.

CASBS Stanford Welcomes 2013-2014 Fellows and Visiting Scholars



Stanford, CA: September 12, 2013 – The Center for the Advanced Study of
Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University today welcomed the 35
Fellows and eight visiting scholars who make up the Class of 2014.

Chosen through a rigorous selection process, the group represents some of
academia’s most innovative scholarship across these behavioral sciences:
anthropology, communication, economics, education, history, law, linguistics,
philosophy, political science, public health, psychiatry, psychology, science &
technology, and sociology. The scholars hail from 21 universities in the United
States, as well as from universities in Canada, England, and Sweden.
Fellows pursue their own research for the full academic year while contributing
to the CASBS community through weekly seminars, occasional public lectures,
and informal conversations over daily lunch.

Informal interaction, in particular, fosters the cross-pollination of ideas across

disparate fields of study, said CASBS Director Iris Litt, MD, herself a Fellow
(1985). “Fellows typically report an expansion in their thinking, and sometimes
even a new approach to their research,” she said. “The launch of the field of
behavioral economics, attributed in large measure to our own Daniel
Kahneman, is an excellent example of this.” Kahneman, a Fellow in psychology
(1978) received the Nobel prize in economic science in 2002.

During their CASBS year, Fellows address some of the most pressing problems

of our day, seeking insight and innovation that will advance humanity at all
levels – whether on the international stage, the workplace, or within the
individual psyche. Among planned areas of study for members of this year’s
class:• the notion of peoplehood and its implications in the Israel/Palestine conflict;

• the manufacture of rayon – a textile marketed as ‘green,’ yet highly
dangerous to the people who make it and the environment;
• the economics of sexual orientation;
• psychobiological triggers of mania in an individual;
• the development of creativity in adolescence;
• implications of copyright law and emerging technologies;
• where data and behavior intersect.
About the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences
Since its founding in 1954, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral
Sciences at Stanford University has brought together distinguished scholars in
the behavioral sciences to confront societal problems worldwide. The Center is
honored to count among its Fellows 22 Nobel laureates, 14 Pulitzer Prize
winners, and 44 MacArthur Fellows, in addition to hundreds of members of the
National Academies.
Fellows have helped develop new policies and practices in fields as diverse as
medicine, education, electoral politics, crime prevention, and international
development. And they’ve played key roles in starting new interdisciplinary
fields such as behavioral economics.
For ongoing news and events about CASBS, please visit and follow on Twitter, @CASBSStanford .


Here are the 2013-2014 Fellows, listed by field of study:
• Ilana Gershon, Indiana University
During her time at the Center, cultural anthropologist Ilana Gershon is
studying how people agree upon ethical standards when using new
media in the course of hiring and firing. Her previous work explored why
Samoan migrants experience different ways of being culture-bearers in
New Zealand and the United States.
• Lawrence Rosen, Princeton University
Anthropology Fellow Lawrence Rosen will work on his latest book, Drawn
From Memory: Arab Lives Unremembered, a study of the intellectual lives
of four ordinary Moroccans he has known many years. It analyzes the
concept of memory in settings of the history, rural and urban
development, religious, and ethnic relationships of the country.Communication
• Byron Reeves, Stanford University
In his scholarship, Byron Reeves balances academic pursuit and
business entrepreneurship. One area of focus is psychological processing
of media in the areas of attention, emotions, learning, and physiological
responses. He is working on the application of multi-player game
technology to behavior change and the conduct of serious work.
• Natalia Roudakova, University of California, San Diego
Natalia Roudakova’s work bridges cultural anthropology to political
communication and comparative media studies. She notes, “Although
there is some tradition of ethnography in journalism studies,
anthropologists have not played much of a role in the field of political
communication.” Her research addresses that gap.

• Ali Ahmed, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study
During his fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral
Sciences, economist Ali Ahmed will focus on addressing research
questions related to economics of sexual orientation. While most of his
research is in the field of economics of discrimination, he also studies
behavioral economics, labor economics, and economics of religion.
• Petra Moser, Stanford University
Returning Fellow Petra Moser’s research at CASBS will examine the
effects of copyright policies: Do stronger copyright terms increase the
price of books? And how do stronger copyright terms influence diffusion?

• Sarah Freedman, University of California, Berkeley
Returning Fellow Sarah Freedman will conduct data analysis and write
about a five-year research project, The Development of Ethical Civic Actors
in Divided Societies: Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the United States.
Of her work she says, “I am interested in linguistic analyses that provide
windows into how varied students think about civic participation.”

• Ethan M. Pollock, Brown University
Ethan Pollock’s current research project tells the history of the Russian
bathhouse to gain new perspectives on Russian identity, traditional and
modern notions of health & hygiene, and the evolution of ideas about
community and sociability. (Under contract, Oxford University Press.)• Bruce J. Schulman, Boston University
Bruce J. Schulman’s CASBS project, “‘Are We A Nation?’: The Birth of
the Modern United States,” explores the transformation of American
nationhood between 1896 and 1929–the era in which the United States
emerged as a world power, international economic leader, and reservoir
for displaced persons from around the globe.
• Peter Stansky, Stanford University
Peter Stansky’s scholarly aim is to better understand Britain, mostly in
the areas where culture, literature, art, and politics meet, as in his
collection of essays, From William Morris to Sergeant Pepper. His current
project is a study of Edward Upward, the least-known member of the
group who gathered around W. H. Auden.

• Molly S. Van Houweling, University of California, Berkeley
Molly Van Houweling’s research focuses on copyright law’s implications
for new information technologies, and vice versa. One strand of her
research explores how legal rules, designed to regulate sophisticated
commercial interests, affect unsophisticated individuals empowered by
information technology. She is currently working on a book, tentatively
entitled Property’s Intellect.

• Roger Levy, University of California, San Diego
Through study at the intersection of linguistics, cognitive science, and
game theory, Roger Levy hopes his work will help us better understand
how speakers and listeners are able to reason about each other to
achieve effective communication. He will also study the language of
children to better understand how language learning takes place.
• Judith Tonhauser, Ohio State University
Judith Tonhauser’s project, Content and context in the study of meaning
variation, is based on the idea that human languages may differ in their
morphological inventories and syntactic structures, but nevertheless
convey comparable meanings.

• John M. Doris, Washington University
John M. Doris works at the intersection of psychology, cognitive science,
and philosophical ethics. He is finishing work on a new book, Talking to
Our Selves: Reflection, Skepticism, and Agency, and beginning work on a collection of his papers, Character Trouble: Undisciplined Essays on
Persons and Circumstance, both to appear with Oxford University Press.
• Sam Fleischacker, University of Illinois at Chicago
Sam Fleischacker plans to use his time at CASBS to examine a series of
philosophical issues raised by the Israel/Palestine conflict. He’s
particularly interested in the notion of peoplehood, the link (if any)
between peoplehood and territory, and the question of whether states
should represent or foster a people’s identity.

Political Science
• Alison Renteln, University of Southern California
Alison Renteln’s research project focuses on various public policy
incentives for civic engagement. “As part of this study, I will undertake
comparative analyses of Good and Bad Samaritan laws and mandatory
voting systems,” she says. “I am particularly interested in crossdisciplinary scholarship on empathy as it relates to political participation
and humanitarian assistance.”
• Robert Van Houweling, University of California, Berkeley
Robert Van Houweling plans to complete a book about political
repositioning. It focuses on how voters react when politicians change
their policy positions, and in turn, considers the impact voters’ reactions
have on candidate strategies. He has on-the-ground experience as well,
having served as a legislative assistant to Senator Thomas Daschle.
• Michael D. Ward, Duke University
Political scientist Michael D. Ward’s primary interests are in
international relations (spanning democratization, globalization,
international commerce, military spending, as well as international
conflict and cooperation), political geography, as well as mathematical
and statistical methods.
• Erik Wibbels, Duke University
Political scientist Erik Wibbels’s CASBS project aims to develop
innovative approaches to understand why the quality of governance
varies across the geography of countries—why, for instance, central
authorities in places like Afghanistan and Mexico are able to govern some
parts of their countries but not others.

• Albert Rothenberg, Harvard University
Returning Fellow Albert Rothenberg is studying the development of
creativity and creative thinking during adolescence. It’s an extension of

Studies in the Creative Process, a project where he serves as principal
investigator and which has carried out research on creativity in
literature, art, psychotherapy, and science.

• David Dunning, Cornell University
While at CASBS, experimental psychologist David Dunning plans to work
on a book examining the personal to societal implications of
ignorance. He says he is particularly interested in “the fact that people
largely fail to know where their knowledge and expertise end – and their
ignorance begins.”
• Sheri L. Johnson, University of California, Berkeley
Sheri Johnson’s research focus during her CASBS year is
psychobiological triggers of mania. “I like that my work bridges many
different paradigms to help understand why people with bipolar disorder
develop symptoms on a given day,” she says. “I also really love the
process of working with collaborators and with students to develop
• Lee Jussim, Rutgers University
Lee Jussim’s research looks at the relationships between social
perception and social reality. His primary interests are interpersonal
processes, judgment and decision-making, prejudice and stereotyping,
self and identity, and social cognition.
• Jon A. Krosnick, Stanford University
Returning Fellow and social psychologist Jon Krosnick’s top priority for
his Fellowship year is to finish his book reviewing 100 years of research
on how to design questionnaires optimally. He researches attitude
formation, change, and survey research methods. For 15 years, he has
researched the American public’s views of global warming.
• Nilam Ram, Penn State University
Nilam Ram plans to write about how real-time assessments and analytics
can empower people to use data about their own behavioral patterns in
order to make changes that will help them have a better life. These
“personalized interventions … can be deployed at population scale,” he
• Simine Vazire, Washington University
While at CASBS, Simine Vazire will work on research related to selfknowledge, exploring these questions: How well do we know ourselves?
How can we improve self-knowledge? And what are the consequences of
poor self-knowledge? She will also be working on research methodology:

Public Health
• Paul Blanc, University of California, San Francisco
Paul Blanc continues his research on the viscose rayon industry
and occupational disease. He says the material is linked to widespread,
often lethal disease among workers and environmental degradation.
Yet, “Rayon is even marketed as a renewable green product,” he says,
“because carbon disulfide is mixed with cellulose, a renewable resource.”
• Merwyn (Mitch) Greenlick, Oregon Health and Science
Returning Fellow Mitch Greenlick will work on a book on the Oregon
Legislature. From the time of his swearing-in, he recorded his reactions
to the Legislature, forming a body of work spanning six legislative
sessions; over time, perspective emerges from that of a minority
freshman to that of a senior committee chair in the majority.
• Heather Munroe-Blum, McGill University
Heather Munroe-Blum will focus on how public policy in science and
education contribute to a nation’s social and economic success within
the larger global context – with particular attention to young people. It’s
a natural extension of her work advising governments on the role that
progressive, evidence-based public policy plays in enriching society and
international competitiveness.
Science and Technology Studies
• Steve Woolgar, Oxford University
Sociologist Steve Woolgar’s main current research projects include
mundane governance, the social dynamics of provocation, and the utility
of radical academic ideas for business and management. He is interested
in technology and organizational change, branding and brand
development, the rise of ethics, and visualization and evidence in

• Elizabeth Bruch, University of MichiganElizabeth Bruch plans to explore mate search strategies and mate choice
behavior on online dating sites. She writes, “One central focus for me is
how search strategies and contact behavior differs across dating markets
… and also how people learn who is in their ‘league’ based on their
interactions on the site.”
• Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein returns to the Center for a third fellowship to
work on the upcoming book, The Difficulty of Doing Good: Law Students’
Commitment to Careers in the Public Interest. Her work looks at the use of
categories and distinctions in social life, with a focus on their impact on
women and minorities.
• Barbara Heyns, New York University
Returning Fellow Barbara Heyns studies the sociology of education,
social stratification, sociology of childhood, social policy, adolescence and
the life cycle, and quantitative methodology.
• Ching Kwan Lee, University of California, Los Angeles
In research for her upcoming book, Ching Kwan Lee poses the question,
“what is the peculiarity of Chinese capital in Africa?” In order to identify
what is Chinese (not just capitalist), she compares Chinese and nonChinese foreign investors in two core economic sectors in Zambia:
copper mining and construction.
• Elaine Wethington, Cornell University
Medical sociologist Elaine Wethington plans to work on a book about the
potential for translational sociology, focusing on the sociology of mental
health and illness and the life course. Her research interests are in the
areas of stress, protective mechanisms of social support, aging and the
life course, and translational research methods.

Complete bios of each Fellow, along with links to their work, may be viewed
Visiting scholars and practitioners in the Class of 2013-2014 include
• Physicist, applied mathematician and computer scientist Eric Bonabeau
of Icosystem Corporation,
• Retired publisher, author, and journalist Howard M. Epstein, is working
on Death or Survival: The Battle for the Lives of French Jewish Children in
World War II.
• Poet, political consultant, and computer scientist Tung-Hui Hu is a
scholar of new media.
• Ellen Konar is a social organizational psychologist-turnedentrepreneurial data scientist and industry executive.

Literary agent and retired publisher Donald Lamm serves as editorial
consultant to this year’s class. He is particularly interested in the
survival of the book in an age of information overload.
• Arnold Milstein, MD will focus on formulating testable methods to
increase the psychological nuance of innovations in care delivery
designed to lower healthcare spending.
• Professor and artist Julia Rothenberg looks forward to pursuing her art
“in the gorgeous and haunting landscapes of Stanford and the hills and
meadows of CASBS.”
• Jane A. Shaw, the dean of Grace Cathedral, is writing about renewed
interest in mysticism in the US and UK; separately she is working on a
collaboration with actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
• Sociologist Anna Sparrman is researching the intertwinement of children,
childhood, material culture, sexuality, and consumption from a
contemporary, everyday perspective.
• Paul Wise, MD, is investigating U.S. and international child health policy,
particularly the provision of technical innovation in resource-poor areas of the world.

The State of Music Psychology

The State of Music Psychology

By Diana C. Hereld | @pathwaysinmusic

The psychological conversation surrounding music has boomed.

In a few short years, the studies of music therapy and the applied neuroscience of music have hugely invaded the mainstream — the question is, why? As many publications have noted, the initiative that music may be used in rehabilitation has been around for a century or more. What then has catalyzed the influx of media coverage in the last few years? One reason may simply be that as the success of these techniques become popularized via persons in the public eye, many of us are beginning to understand that music may be used for far more than we had ever imagined.

During the 2nd World Congress of Clinical Neuromusicology in Vienna last November, research was presented by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug (Harvard Medical School), who had performed an experiment to test the shared neural correlation of singing and speech. It was found that by actually singing the words or phrase, and not simply speaking or humming (referred to as ‘intoned speaking’), there occurred additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. What this means for the rest of us?  This activation is now more than ever believed to be reason that while patients suffering from aphasia due to stroke or other varying brain damage may be unable to speak, they are able to sing.

It was less than a year ago that NPR released the news story on the effectiveness and use of singing therapy on stroke patients. You may recall the Gabrielle Giffords story with regard to her suffering major brain trauma and later a surprising recovery. This story immediately caught my attention as this was precisely the groundbreaking research Dr. Schlaug presented at the conference in Vienna (originally tested and performed on nonverbal autistic children). It is through the sharing of success stories such as this via the media that the infusion of music, psychology, and neuroscience are coming to light.

Medical resilience, however, is only one facet of this field. In addition to all of the rehabilitative functions music is being found to support, there exist many others. For the music industry, it may prove profitable to look toward music psychology as a potential market sector. Companies such as Prescriptive Music develop “branded-music” programming which they believe can increase sales.

Marketing through music is a relatively new advertising theme. That being said, experts in neuroscience and emotion studies are being called upon more and more as sales consultants in a variety of venues including hotels, restaurants, and major retailers. Previous studies have shown increases in sales in resultants when the right music is carefully selected; one test conducted by marketing professor Ronald E. Milliman exhibited an 11.6% sales increase when up-tempo music was played during the lunch hour.

What does this mean for the music industry? Is it possible that via the study of our decision making, analysts will be able to discern the types of music that affect consumer behavior in a wide variety of markets? Diana Hereld for has asked Dr. Victoria Williamson, a music psychology lecturer and course co-director on the “Music, Mind, and Brain” program at Goldsmiths, University of London, for her take on these questions.

* * *

Fifty years ago, people might appear at a loss if you mentioned “music psychology,” or simply the act of synthesizing music and neuroscience, or music and psychology. What exactly is this field, and how has it become a mainstream topic in recent years?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: People are still often a little lost when you mention music and psychology/neuroscience together although it is of course more well-known now than it was fifty years ago. I come from a psychological interest and I wrote an article called “Thank You for the Music” a few years ago that outlined the kind of things that are studied in this field and why. Essentially, music is a universal human activity whether we chose to play or to listen. Therefore, as a psychologist, music is my chosen tool for learning more about the human mind and behavior. Studying the way we perceive, process, generate, and respond to music can therefore tell us something unique about what it means to be human.

What are some of the field’s most impacting accomplishments?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: Tricky one. I like to think that using music in psychological paradigms has taught us a great deal about how we learn both as babies and adults, how our memories work (or don’t work sometimes!) and how our emotions can impact on cognition. Using music in brain imaging has revealed a lot about the activity of the mind both when we are listening to sounds and when we are simply thinking about them. And there are a number of cases, such as with autism, where studying music psychology has given us new insights into different people’s worlds. The new horizon for music psychology, which is just beginning to be touched upon, is the power of music to help us deal with both everyday and extraordinary life situations.

Along with all of the neurological and therapeutic implications of the field, knowledge is become wider spread of the power of music to influence the minds and behavior of consumers. These behaviors can obviously affect their purchasing decisions, inside and outside of the music industry. Who is driving this research? Is there market incentive from large corporations?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: I can only answer for the UK, but this is actually a relatively small field of research with few published papers. It is hard to do genuine consumer research because it requires long-term and effective collaboration between academia and industry, which can be tricky to manage from both sides. The situation may change in the future but in most cases commercial interests are happy to learn from the music psychology that has been conducted in more controlled conditions and extrapolate the findings to their own environments.

One important point I want to make here is that when you talk about the influence of music it should be clear that there is no evidence that I know of that music can make people want to do something they do not want to do. Music has a subtle influence that works in combination with all the other factors in the environment. It is no magic bullet.

As a leading researcher in the field, what are some of the long-term goals this field hopes to accomplish? Do you think music psychology has the potential to become a major sector in the music industry?

Dr. Victoria Williamson: My long term aim is to learn more about the human mind and behavior by studying how we interact with music. From this level of understanding will come the tools for improved communication, wellbeing, and happiness. I think the music industry could learn a lot from interacting with music psychologists and of course vice versa. Most music psychologists (including me) know very little about the process by which music is produced as a commercial product and it would be really interesting to know more about how decisions are made, artists are chosen, and end products compiled. I think the potential is there for many exciting collaborations that will reveal more about how and why we are such a musical animal.

(Photo Credit: Flickr)

Diana Hereld (@christypaffgen) is a Los Angeles based singer-songwriter and music psychology/neuroscience researcher. She blogs at As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears.

Neuroscientist David Sulzer turns brain waves into music

Thanks so much to Vicky Williamson for bringing this to my attention. More and more these days are professors of neuroscience and music finding ways to tap into the unknown capabilities of what we can accomplish not just psychologically, but neurologically with music. Like so many other projects happening at present, I found this fascinating:

Columbia neurophysiologist David Sulzer took his first piano lessons at the age of 11 and was playing his violin and guitar in bars by age 15. Later he gained a national following as a founder of the Soldier String Quartet and the Thai Elephant Orchestra—an actual orchestra of elephants in northern Thailand—and for playing with the likes of Bo Diddley, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and the jazz great Tony Williams.

It was only after arriving at Columbia, however, that the musician-turned-research-scientist embarked on perhaps his most exotic musical venture—using a computer to translate the spontaneous patterns of his brain waves into music.

With the help of Brad Garton, director of Columbia’s Computer Music Center, Sulzer has performed his avant-garde brain wave music in solo recitals and with musical ensembles.

Last spring, Sulzer presented a piece entitled Reading Stephen Colbert at a conference in New York City sponsored by Columbia and the Paris-based IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a global center of musical research.

Sulzer, a professor in the departments of Psychiatry, Neurology and Pharmacology, wore electrodes attached to his scalp to measure voltage fluctuations in his brain as he sat in a chair reading a book by the comedian. Those fluctuations were fed into a computer program created by Garton, which transformed them into musical notes. “I tried to forget I was in front of people and they could see my brain waves on a screen and listen to the music as I read the book,” says Sulzer. “Luckily, the book was funny and I laughed, which changed the music.”

The Brainwave Music Project grew out of an invitation in 2008 from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York to lecture on how the brain interprets rhythm. Sulzer, whose main research focus is the chemical transmission of brain signals and the neuroscience of neurological and psychiatric disorders, had heard about measurement of brain waves of drummers playing together using electroencephalography (EEG), a technique that measures electrical activity in the brain. The longer the drummers jammed, the more their brain waves began to synch up. Why not see if the musicians could use their own brain waves to make new music together?

Sulzer asked Garton, who had spent his younger years in New York’s downtown music scene and had followed the neuroscientist’s previous career with the Soldier String Quartet, if he knew a graduate student who might be interested in helping him develop software for his lecture. Garton volunteered to do it himself.  “I knew the digital synthesis and audio side of things, he had the knowledge of neurotechnology and brain waves—it was the perfect match,” Garton says.

When brain cells are active, they communicate with the cells around them by emitting electrical spikes that vary in frequency and amplitude. A single sensory stimulus will cause a series of brain cells to fire, which will excite the cells around them and lead to a chain reaction of cell firings that ripple through the brain like the waves that ripple out from a pebble tossed into a pond.

“I take the signals, digitize them and then turn them into signals in the computer that control the sound,” Garton says. “A project where you can make sound just by thinking about it is pretty cool. It’s great fun.”

Garton and Sulzer have tried a number of ways to make music from these waves. Sometimes they program specific musical notes to play every time the EEG sensors detect brain cells firing at specific frequencies or amplitudes. Other times, they assign an array of prerecorded sounds or notes to specific neural patterns.

Sulzer cautions against taking the project too seriously. It’s more of a “didactic tool,” he says, that he usually pairs with his pop science lectures on brainwaves and brain function or with Garton’s on computerized music.

“Part of it is didactic, part of it is satirical,” Sulzer says. “Sometimes I’m making fun of attitudes towards music. For instance, I’ll say ‘this shows you can be a conscious composer’ because you can try to manipulate brain waves. Or you can be an unconscious composer. Reading Stephen Colbert is an example of that.” Sulzer is skeptical the technique will ever result in better music than that which the brain is already capable of producing through the tongue and fingers.

“Trying to play music using brain waves is like trying to play the piano using boxing gloves,” he says. “The level of detail that the current brain scanning technology can pick up is simply too crude.”

The full article may be found at:

Music training for the development of speech segmentation

The latest from my friends at Neuromusic News (ed. by Fondazione Mariani).

Contributors: Luisa Lopez, Giuliano Avanzini, Maria Majno and Barbara Bernardini.

This week’s digest regarding music and speech includes much of the same of what we already know: the implications of musical exposure in children with speech perception issues grow greater by the day. This study specifically compares the use of music as opposed to the use of art in 8 year old children.

Cereb Cortex 2012 Jul 10

Music training for the development of speech segmentation

François C, Chobert J, Besson M, Schön D
Institut de neurosciences des systèmes, INSERM and Aix-Marseille University, Marseille, France

The role of music training in fostering brain plasticity and developing high cognitive skills, notably linguistic abilities, is of great interest from both a scientific and a societal perspective. Here, we report results of a longitudinal study over 2 years using both behavioral and electrophysiological measures and a test-training-retest procedure to examine the influence of music training on speech segmentation in 8-year-old children. Children were pseudo-randomly assigned to either music or painting training and were tested on their ability to extract meaningless words from a continuous flow of nonsense syllables. While no between-group differences were found before training, both behavioral and electrophysiological measures showed improved speech segmentation skills across testing sessions for the music group only. These results show that music training directly causes facilitation in speech segmentation, thereby pointing to the importance of music for speech perception and more generally for children’s language development. Finally these results have strong implications for promoting the development of music-based remediation strategies for children with language-based learning impairments.

And for our Italian friends:

Il ruolo del training musicale nel promuovere la plasticità cerebrale e lo sviluppo di capacità cognitive linguistiche è di grande interesse sia dal punto di vista scientifico sia sociale. In questo studio, gli Autori riportano i risultati di uno studio longitudinale, durato oltre due anni, effettuato usando sia misure elettrofisiologiche sia comportamentali per verificare l’influenza del training musicale sulla segmentazione del linguaggio in bambini di 8 anni. I bambini sono stati assegnati con pseudo-randomizzazione a due gruppi di studio, uno sottoposto a training musicale, l’altro a lezioni di pittura, e testati periodicamente sulla capacità di estrarre parole senza significato da un flusso continuo di sillabe di un linguaggio artificiale. Le valutazioni dimostrano che solo i bambini esposti a training musicale aumentano la capacità di segmentazione del linguaggio, suggerendo l’importanza fondamentale del training musicale per lo sviluppo linguistico. Questi risultati hanno forti implicazioni nel promuovere l’elaborazione di strategie basate sul training musicale per aiutare i bambini con disturbi di apprendimento su base

The “Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker” and my cover of Adele

In futile effort of keeping up with the Joneses of pop culture and music psychology, consider this my token post on Adele. Why?

 A) She’s fabulous

B) She just won big at the Grammys

C) WSJ Online has just released a major post largely on her hit Someone Like You entitled Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker 

D) I have covered her countless times, and her piano songs are a part of my teaching repertoire

In terms of the post WSJ released, I strongly recommend giving it a good read. The research was originally conducted at McGill, a university widely celebrated for their Music Perception and Cognition program, and home to celebrity writer Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music. In light of Adele’s recent superstardom and the widening knowledge and appreciation of music psychology as a whole, I’d wager this article is going to get some serious attention. While I wholeheartedly agree with it’s main premise, I find something deeply awry here, and it is found the in subtitle itself:

Why does Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ make everyone cry? Science has found the formula.

As a twenty-something young woman who has not only sung since age three, composed angsty love ballads on the piano for years but also been left by a lover in the worst way, I love Adele. Let me be clear on this: I love Adele. Someone Like You and Hometown Glory (as well as Rollin’ In The Deep, which I will teach tomorrow) are also favorites of my young vocal and piano students. However, I think if we look at that tag line again of this post-‘science has found the formula’- we will see that something is very wrong. I may be alone in my feeling here, but I doubt it. With the way EEG, MRI, fMRI and now even rtfMRI are developing, we know more about the human brain and it’s reactions to stimuli than ever before-more than we ever dreamed possible. I have a couple problems with the way the article glorifies grace notes and appoggiaturas-but most of all, how they glorify her. Yes, she and Dan Wilson have crafted a brilliant combination of soul, melodic intonation and dissonance in all the right suspended instances-but at the end of the day, I would be cautious in how objective we lean in quantifying beauty. There is a line to be drawn-there necessarily is. In saying “science has found the formula,” we have inadvertently taken the ‘magic’ (for lack of a better word) out of her song, and made it just that: a scientific formula. It should not be a commercial marketing scheme, however, and God forgive us should we ever make it one. It’s a great article, yes, and I hope everyone reads it. I only hope we can all take a step back from the science behind every mathematical placement of every ornamentation and remember why this lovely woman crafted the song in the first place.

And now, just for fun, a rough cover I did of Adele’s Hometown Glory in 2011.