Neural systems for speech and song in autism

In commencement of the administration of my pilot study (as well as my primary investigator’s full experiments) in working memory, autism and music, here is an interesting article I came across today. The idea simply drives forward what we already know: where subjects who suffer from aphasia and other language difficulties falter in normative speech patterns, music provides a far higher stimulation in areas of the brain (this study concentrating on the left inferior frontal gyrus in particular) and thus lends to speech development which ordinarily may not have been possible.

Abstract:

Despite language disabilities in autism, music abilities are frequently preserved. Paradoxically, brain regions associated with these functions typically overlap, enabling investigation of neural organization supporting speech and song in autism. Neural systems sensitive to speech and song were compared in low-functioning autistic and age-matched control children using passive auditory stimulation during functional magnetic resonance and diffusion tensor imaging. Activation in left inferior frontal gyrus was reduced in autistic children relative to controls during speech stimulation, but was greater than controls during song stimulation. Functional connectivity for song relative to speech was also increased between left inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal gyrus in autism, and large-scale connectivity showed increased frontal–posterior connections. Although fractional anisotropy of the left arcuate fasciculus was decreased in autistic children relative to controls, structural terminations of the arcuate fasciculus in inferior frontal gyrus were indistinguishable between autistic and control groups. Fractional anisotropy correlated with activity in left inferior frontal gyrus for both speech and song conditions. Together, these findings indicate that in autism, functional systems that process speech and song were more effectively engaged for song than for speech and projections of structural pathways associated with these functions were not distinguishable from controls.

The open access html doc may be found here and for those interested:

DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr335

As I begin my very first experimental session, I’ll do my best to keep a log here, simply because I very much enjoy the feedback, and it helps to keep my thoughts aligned.

Musical training proven again to enhance P3a and P3b plasticity

The following is an excerpt from a recent project done in Finland regarding plasticity of the P300 ERP for infrequent target sounds, and whether or not the short-term plasticity of the P3a and P3b responses are enhanced in musicians. What did they find? Musicians were better than nonmusicians at discriminating target deviants. Not only this, but regardless of musical training, a higher working memory function also produced better discrimination.

Why this is important: This means, in line with our current knowledge of musical training, short-term plasticity, and working memory, this is just one more study to concrete the fact that musical training enhances P3a and P3b plasticity.I find this interesting largely due to my current research at the university regarding ASD, working memory models and music.

 

Music training enhances the rapid plasticity of P3a/P3b event-related brain potentials for unattended and attended target sounds (Seppänen, Pesonen, and Tervaniemi, 2012) 

Institute of Behavioural Sciences/Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 9 (Siltavuorenpenger 1 B), FI-00014, Helsinki, Finland.

Neurocognitive studies have shown that extensive musical training enhances P3a and P3b event-related potentials for infrequent target sounds, which reflects stronger attention switching and stimulus evaluation in musicians than in nonmusicians. However, it is unknown whether the short-term plasticity of P3a and P3b responses is also enhanced in musicians. We compared the short-term plasticity of P3a and P3b responses to infrequent target sounds in musicians and nonmusicians during auditory perceptual learning tasks. Target sounds, deviating in location, pitch, and duration with three difficulty levels, were interspersed among frequently presented standard sounds in an oddball paradigm. We found that during passive exposure to sounds, musicians had habituation of the P3a, while nonmusicians showed enhancement of the P3a between blocks. Between active tasks, P3b amplitudes for duration deviants were reduced (habituated) in musicians only, and showed a more posterior scalp topography for habituation when compared to P3bs of nonmusicians. In both groups, the P3a and P3b latencies were shortened for deviating sounds. Also, musicians were better than nonmusicians at discriminating target deviants. Regardless of musical training, better discrimination was associated with higher working memory capacity. We concluded that music training enhances short-term P3a/P3b plasticity, indicating training-induced changes in attentional skills.

 

And for my Italian friends:

Gli studi neurocognitivi hanno mostrato che una estensiva istruzione musicale aumenta le risposte dei potenziali evocati evento-correlati P3a e P3b per suoni non frequenti, riflettendo una maggiore capacità di attenzione e di valutazione nei confronti dello stimolo musicale nei musicisti, piuttosto che nei non musicisti. Non si conosce ancora in ogni caso se anche le risposte a breve termine siano aumentate nei musicisti, per questo gli Autori hanno comparato le risposte P3a e P3b durante un test di apprendimento percettivo nei musicisti e non. I suoni target, differenti per localizzazione, toni e durata secondo tre differenti livelli di difficoltà, sono stati mischiati con suoni frequenti in un paradigma oddball (con uno stimolo deviante inserito in una serie di stimoli uguali). Gli Autori hanno rilevato che durante l’esposizione passiva ai suoni i musicisti presentavano un certo grado di adattamento (diminuzione) nel potenziale P3a, mentre i non musicisti mostravano un aumento della risposta tra i vari blocchi di suoni. Tra un test e l’altro, le ampiezze di P3b per le deviazioni di durata sono state ridotte in conseguenza dell’adattamento solo nei musicisti, e mostravano una topografia posteriore nello scalpo se comparate alle risposte dei non musicisti. In entrambi i gruppi, le latenze P3a e P3b erano ridotte nei confronti dei suoni devianti, ma i musicisti avevano una migliore capacità di discriminare i target devianti. Indipendentemente dal training musicale, una migliore discriminazione era associata a una più alta capacità di memoria di lavoro. Gli Autori hanno concluso che il training musicale aumenta la plasticità a breve termine P3a/P3b, indicando che esistono dei cambiamenti attentivi indotti dal training musicale.

On the origin of my PhD topic, Music Intervention as Psychotherapeutic Approach

Thanks to Pravin Jeya for his inquiry as to the origin of my PhD topic.                      Many of you have asked, and without going too in depth into my  passionate affair with fight or flight and the amygdala, I have tried to explain where it began. The post may be found here, and I would encourage you to check it out in conjunction with Pravin’s work.

If one were to ask for my academic or intellectual rationale for choosing music psychology, I would most likely rattle off something matter-of-factly about how I’ve grown up around music and psychology. My parents were psychologists; my mother has two doctorates so academic achievement was always very important. Yet they always stressed the cultural and intellectual importance of music. Music is what I do, and I have a lazy passion for the more philosophical side of things, so it simply ‘made sense,’ as it were.

As to my intellectual rationale for music psychology, it started exactly a year ago. From the time I discovered Dr. Victoria Williamson’s research in the applied neuroscience of music, I’ve been completely enamored with the field. Since I was a young child, I’ve been devoted to the pursuit of music in any way possible. I’ve been involved in music theatre, music video production and engineering, music composition, and music marketing in radio and television. As my emotional intelligence developed, however, I found I also had an intense desire to understand people and their motives. In high school and college, I took classes in philosophy, psychology and ethics. My first emphasis in college was music and psychology. But as I was strongly discouraged from pursuing majors with such ‘different focuses,’ I chose music alone. In line with this, I never resolved to solely do one or the other, and eventually it was cause for a year break before enrolling in a graduate programme. I found I simply could not be happy studying only music or only psychology. Enter my absolute elation upon discovering the Music, Mind and Brain programme at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I believe that their programme’s careful integration of music perception, neuroscience and statistical methods combined with a faculty of such encouragement and expertise will be just the training I seek in preparation of a PhD and a career in the field.

If someone were to ask to explain or justify my ‘non-academic’ journey into exactly what I have chosen to pursue, I still find myself needing to pause and really think it through. One catalyst for this is that my rationale is not static but dynamic, changing and evolving daily into something slightly new and adjusted. I suppose that that should say something in and of itself – the pursuit of music psychology has become my life blood – it’s what I think about most moments of every day. The more I’ve reflected on my own listening habits over the years, the more I realize there are few times I am without music. I use it advantageously in every possible situation. As an ENFJ (extroverted, intuitive, feeling, judging) Jungian personality type, being able to calm and put people at ease is one of my greatest joys, and strengths. Music can turn a moment of happiness into a moment of memorable bliss that stays with you always. It can also turn a slightly vague and uncomfortable memory into a transparent lake of psychoanalytical outpouring. Music is in everything, and it has the power to heal people.

If one were to ask the truly cementing factor in my life that secured music psychology, however, it is most of all the following. Last summer, I lost my step-sister, my father, and my best friend within two weeks of each other. Though I’d dealt with a fair share of hardship in adolescence, I’d never gone through anything of this magnitude. Through the process of witnessing my family’s grief (and my own) in spending time in hospitals and hospice, I felt more than ever an acute desire to help people through their pain. I never cease to be amazed at music’s capacity to bring about a mental resilience. I know music to be a healing tool, because I am a living attestation. There are many who would disagree with my personal ethic, but I continued to teach my private music lessons to children in the morning after I lost my father, and missed not a single lesson until several months later. I’m finding my time now to be alone and to grieve, but I honestly believe that the joy of working with kids in music sustained me through the more terrible moments, and as I said, I’ve kept in reserve the strength to maintain my lessons and lead a research project at the university. I wish to practice music psychology because I know it works. I now desire to delve further into the why, and the how.

My long-term goal is to complete a PhD in using music as a therapeutic tool in those who struggle with self-harm. From there exist many options I’d like to pursue, such as research and music therapy in a clinical setting. Though I have many different interests in listening behavior, emotional intelligence and applied neuroscience, the concept of psychological resilience remains of the most consequence to me, and I’ve many ideas how to pair this with music.

Diana Hereld holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music and Communication. She works currently as a psychology researcher at California State University, music tutor in piano and voice, and teacher for an early childhood music company. When she is not working, she spends her time independently researching all things music psychology and neuroscience, and theology/philosophy when it pertains to the former. Her interest is particularly in the way varied personality types respond emotionally to music, whether that can change over time in consequence of plasticity, and the implications for psychological resilience. She has just been accepted into the Music, Mind and Brain MSc programme at Goldsmiths College University of London for Fall 2012. You can follow her on Twitter @christypaffgen and subscribe to her blog, As the Spirit Wanes: The Form Appears.

Autism, Gabrielle Giffords, and the Neuroscience Behind “The Singing Therapy”

As many of you know, I recently attended the Second World Congress of Clinical Neuromusicology in Vienna. Though there were many intriguing presentations, one presentation in particular stood out. In 1996, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug (Boston, Harvard Medical School) performed an experiment to test the shared neural correlation of singing and speech. A portion of the abstract follows:

Using a modified sparse temporal sampling fMRI technique, we examined both shared and distinct neural correlates of singing and speaking. In the experimental conditions, 10 right-handed subjects were asked to repeat intoned (“sung”) and non-intoned (“spoken”) bisyllabic words/phrases that were contrasted with conditions controlling for pitch (“humming”) and the basic motor processes associated with vocalization (“vowel production”) (Özdemir, Norton, and Schlaug, 2006).

The remainder of the paper may be found here, but I will try to summarize the result. Basically, 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.

That was in 2006. In a few short years, music therapy and the applied neuroscience of music have all but exploded-the question is, why? As many publications have noted, the idea that music can be used in rehabilitation has been around for a century or more. So what has caused such media coverage in the last few years? My simple theory is because through the popularization of these techniques’ success via persons in the public eye, everyone is beginning to understand that it just works.

Speaking of the public eye, a friend sent me this article from NPR this morning. Though I was vaguely familiar with this success story, it really surprised me to see it mentioned in national media. For those unaware, a current hot topic in science journalism is the method of therapy Gabrielle Giffords has chosen after she suffered massive brain trauma. I’ve run into cases similar to this one before, but it was what kind of music therapy that really caught my attention: Melodic Intonation Therapy. The reason this really caught my attention is because this is precisely the groundbreaking (and very successful) research Dr. Schlaug presented at the conference in Vienna, only his use was with nonverbal Autistic children. Though Schlaug’s research largely pertains to other faculties, he set out in this case to test AMMT (Auditory Motor Mapping Therapy, a kind of specifically targeted ASD therapy akin to Melodic Intonation Therapy used for stroke patients with aphasia) against normative Controlled Speech Therapy.

Without going too in-depth, what he and his team discovered was that patients who engaged in singing (as opposed to merely speaking or humming) showed additional right lateralized activation of the superior temporal gyrus, inferior central operculum, and inferior frontal gyrus. Due to this, a strong case can be made as to why aphasic patients with left-hemisphere brain lesions are able to sing the text of a song whilst being incapable of speaking the same words. What this means for the whole of this ‘Singing Therapy’ is that by being able to work with brain regions such as Broca’s area which may facilitate the mapping of sound to action, all kinds of different strides may be made linguistically in patients with left-hemisphere brain damage. People who suffer from neurological impairments or disorders that would otherwise be completely unable to communicate verbally may now have that chance. In the words of Dr. Schlaug, “When there is no left hemisphere, you need the right hemisphere to work.”

To get back to congresswoman Giffords, I’d like to take a moment to talk about what is so important and unique with her situation by looking at her case from point of impact to recovery. Nearly one year ago, Giffords sustained a massive head trauma via a bullet that went directly through her brain. Unfortunately, when the bullet entered in this way, it didn’t stop at destroying the tissue in its path (which was for her in the left hemisphere); it also damaged the surrounding neurons, causing the brain to quickly swell and put her in immediate fatal danger of hematomas and other complications. Because of this, surgery was necessary right away to remove a portion of her skull in order for the swelling to, as it were, breathe. The surgery Giffords took part in was the once risky decompressive hemicraniectomy. For more information on this procedure, there’s a fantastic post by Bradley Voytek over at Oscillatory Thoughts including some great data, analysis and images on the process. If the congresswoman’s circumstances are ringing any bells for anyone, it’s because it bears some resemblance to arguably one of the most famous head trauma cases in neuroscience and psychology as a whole-Phineas Gage. I shall soon share some thoughts on Gage, and why he remains so near and dear to my heart (and certainly to the heart of Antonio Damasio) in terms of emotional intelligence and neuroscience, but until then, some parting thoughts on Giffords.

In the beginning of this road to recovery, most were skeptical that Giffords would ever be able to speak again, in any vein. However, through the process of working in Melodic Intonation Therapy with her music therapist, she has gone from singing short words and phrases (in minor thirds, the prominently used interval in this therapy) to singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star to more structurally complex and well-known jazz and rock standards such as I Can’t Give You Anything But Love and American Pie. She has made massive strides in her recovery process, and continues to make more every day. This is only one example of the effectiveness and hope this “Singing Therapy” is bringing to the medical field. Even after speaking to Dr. Schlaug inVienna and finding he has “absolutely no interest whatsoever” in psychological disorders, I continue to be enthusiastic in the strides he and his team are making in the applied neuroscience of music.

A note: I continue to be amused by what a small world the pragmatic combining of music and neuroscience remains. Upon reaching the end of the NPR article, I now know why it was already so familiar to me, and why I immediately thought of Schlaug’s work at Harvard and Beth Israel-it is because that’s precisely the team NPR is taking their data from! Brilliant.

 

Damasio: Prophetic Tones in Descartes’ Error

The postcriptum of Descartes’ Error contained an idea which pointed to the future of neurobiological research: the mechanisms of basic homeostasis constitute a blueprint for the cultural development of the human values which permit us to judge actions as good or evil, and classify objects as beautiful or ugly. At the time, writing about this idea gave me hope that a two-way bridge could be established between neurobiology and the humanities, thus providing the way for a better understanding of human conflict and for a more comprehensive account of creativity. I am pleased to report that some progress has been made toward building that sort of bridge. For example, some of us are actively investigating the brain states associated with moral reasoning while others are trying to discover what the brain does during aesthetic experiences. The intent is not ethics or aesthetics to brain circuitry but rather explore the threads that interconnect neurobiology to culture. I am even more hopeful today that such a seemingly utopian bridge can become reality and optimistic that we will enjoy its benefits without having to wait another century.

-Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (preface, 2005)

The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain, and the Necessity of Perceived Control

Two nights ago, I read what I believe to be the most personally relevant and  meaningful article I’ve come in contact with in nearly a year. I do not say this lightly,  because I remember the last moment in time I felt this way. I read Halden’s post  entitled Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love  not when it was originally  posted in 2008, but a couple of days after New Year’s Day, 2011. It came at the  perfect time-as does the one I’ve just read-because it is about love and loss; rejection and isolation. What  isn’t, after all? Love and death are the strongest of motivators and ordeals, and death  would seem sterile and void of strife were it not for love.

Unfortunately, great as the ups may be, so great are the downs. Having a fair bit of  recent exposure to both tribulations, I would like to share some insight I’ve found in  direct correlation to the more neuroscientific side of things.

At UCLA in 2003, a study was done explicitly on the neural correlates of social  rejection entitled Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Obviously,  anyone with access to the internet and a free subscription to a science mag online  could tell you that these have been done before; it’s nothing new to observe the psychological underpinnings of pain when a child is picked last (or not at all) for a game of sport after school. It is new information to me, however, that the physiological aspects in the pain of rejection have now proven quite similar to any other type of physical pain: when we lose someone we love, for whatever reason it may be, it literally hurts. The abstract of this article below may better explain the premise:

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.[1]

In the aforementioned, we see that this test was administered to children whilst playing in a ‘virtual ball tossing game’ where they were eventually excluded. If the ACC activity is ‘disrupted’ by such a common and (what many might view as childish experience) what can we say of the potential for anguish of those who lose a spouse? A parent? A child? Of those not only excluded, but abandoned? This brings me to the article in question. Though I’ve found the writing and vocal stylings to stem from a slightly more youthful (and charmingly so!) perspective than I’ve become accustomed in my daily journal fix, pain is pain is pain. We don’t need sappy (and wonderful) song lyrics from Blindside  to tell us that ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re in this together. All of us are searching for an open arm. I could go on forever in tangent about why I can’t wrap my head around referring to God as ‘big other’ or humanity as at last to be but cold, selfish and detached. There is something else at work here, when one experiences pain beyond a certain magnitude. Christie Wilcox does a fine job of breaking this process down for us:

 Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Christie goes on to state the unfortunate obvious: sometimes understanding the evolutionary biology or even rationale behind it all is simply not enough. We may now see the possibly the main hook for me in her article: she turns to music. We all know the studies on how exercise/having sex/listening to music/interacting with art, etc. are proven to release dopamine, arousing feelings of happiness and positive valence. The thing that really caught my attention is something I’m shocked I had not let sink in previously: music stimulates and creates a feeling of control. I cannot begin to list the litany of mental illnesses that include negative outcomes which seemingly stem directly from a perceived lack of impulse control, but just for effect, I will name a few:

A)    ASD (Autism, Asperger’s)

B)    Attention Deficit Disorder

C)    Manic Depression

D)    Paranoid Schizophrenia

E)    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

F)     Borderline Personality Disorder

G)    The paraphilias (exhibitionism and pedophilia)

H)    Various disorders advocating self-harming behaviors

The list plainly goes on and on. From the little I’ve observed in various interpersonal encounters in various stages of life, very few of us enjoy a major lack of control; those suffering from preconceived abandonment/loss apprehensions, even less. Here we have the ultimate tie-in that I seem to be making quite a lot lately: Chalk one more up for music psychology. I would be telling a blatant untruth if I refrained from admitting I too have found listening to music to be all of the above: exhilarating, liberating, calming, but more importantly creating the massive sensation of immediate…not necessarily peace, or ease, but control.

As I draw near to the day when I must nail down my precise research proposal for graduate school, I’ll again briefly show how this relates to what I want to do, and feel can be done. In that exact moment of conflict (commonly the amygdale hijack) our mental, emotional and physical actions are crucial. Countless sufferers of self-destructive behaviors including those who engage in self-inflicted physical pain, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence, and kleptomania suffer from a perceived lack of control-and will do anything to reclaim it. If one is in control, there is a (even if false) sense that everything will be okay; that everything’s not lost. I very simply believe that like many other (‘healthy’) activities that people engage in, music can be an instantaneous way for the patient to achieve, even if for a moment, control. 

I certainly here digress, but will continue this thought process further in future posts.


[1] Science 10 October 2003:
Vol. 302 no. 5643 pp. 290-292
DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134

Why Beauty Exists: The Neuroscience of Curiosity

I’ve come across a wonderful post over at Lapidarium Notes this morning and cannot help but share. Originally written by Jonah Lehrer in his blog (The Frontal Cortex) Jonah puts forth an speculative (albeit intriguing) theory as to the literal faculty of why beauty exists.

Upon initial reading, I’m taken back to working through my introductory thought process on Hegel’s Philosophy of Art. At first glance, to be completely honest, not only does it seem a bit of a narcissistically beaten-horse, I’ve simply come so near to believing (more than once) that the whole discussion is better left to Kantian scholars of aesthetics; and for the good of the academy, I simply best stay out of it. Au contraire, enter the reason I love plasticity and neuroscience in the first place: with a little dissection, a lot of faith and a very open mind-the potential of our neuronal comprehension is, at this point at least, limitless.

It also brings into play a fundamental reason why I become giddy at the overlap of philosophy, psychology and neuroscience: pragmatism! “Speculative” as Jonah’s theory may be, the minute you bring in data from fMRI and PET scanners, things become a bit more serious. Neuroscience (for me) is a way of turning  highly theoretical abstracts (philosophy) into possibly more practical endeavors (clinical psychology).  Now, before I am the target of hate emails, I am not saying philosophy is not practical, by all means, I find it very much so. I’m speaking in the context more in the arena of bettering the all-encompassing, easily accessible acculturation of society by means we may find in a clinical (or neurologically educational) setting. Jonah has done (as per usual) a splendid job of combining the concepts of arousal, the ‘mental itch’ that is the curiosity of an inquisitive mind, and the usefulness of beauty as learning signal, emotional reminder, and motivational force.

Before I go on and let Jonah explain the study far better than myself, I will say one thing more. Ironically enough, I pin the very moment I knew I wanted to study music and neuroscience concurrently to him. I remember so clearly-a friend had sent me a blank email, except for the link to the post. I often ignore such things, but the respect I had for them academically prompted me to do otherwise. I’ll never forget that evening sitting at my laptop at the local pizza joint reading that article and knowing this is what I had to do. The post, entitled The Neuroscience of Music, can be found here.

The following is taken directly from Jonah’s blog post Why Does Beauty Exist?

Curiosity

“Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

Let’s begin with the neuroscience of curiosity, that weak form of beauty. There’s an interesting recent study from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, led by Min Jeong Kang. (…)

The first thing the scientists discovered is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer). This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway.) The lesson is that our desire for more information – the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

I see beauty as a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation, and not just information. It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way. (Italics mine)

Beautiful music and the brain

The best way to reveal the link between curiosity and beauty is with music. Why do we perceive certain musical sounds as beautiful? On the one hand, music is a purely abstract art form, devoid of language or explicit ideas. The stories it tells are all subtlety and subtext; there is no content to get curious about. And yet, even though music says little, it still manages to touch us deep, to tittilate some universal dorsal hairs.

We can now begin to understand where these feelings come from, why a mass of vibrating air hurtling through space can trigger such intense perceptions of beauty. Consider this recent paper in Nature Neuroscience by a team ofMontreal researchers. (…)

Because the scientists were combining methodologies (PET and fMRI) they were able to obtain a precise portrait of music in the brain. The first thing they discovered (using ligand-based PET) is that beautiful music triggers the release of dopamine in both the dorsal and ventral striatum. This isn’t particularly surprising: these regions have long been associated with the response to pleasurable stimuli. The more interesting finding emerged from a close study of the timing of this response, as the scientists looked to see what was happening in the seconds before the subjects got the chills.
I won’t go into the precise neural correlates – let’s just say that you should thank your right nucleus accumbens the next time you listen to your favorite song – but want to instead focus on an interesting distinction observed in the experiment:

fMRI and PET results,

In essence, the scientists found that our favorite moments in the music – those sublimely beautiful bits that give us the chills – were preceeded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate, the same brain area involved in curiosity. They call this the “anticipatory phase,” as we await the arrival of our favorite part:

Immediately before the climax of emotional responses there was evidence for relatively greater dopamine activity in the caudate. This subregion of the striatum is interconnected with sensory, motor and associative regions of the brain and has been typically implicated in learning of stimulus-response associations and in mediating the reinforcing qualities of rewarding stimuli such as food.

In other words, the abstract pitches have become a primal reward cue, the cultural equivalent of a bell that makes us drool. Here is their summary:

The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome (for example, by inserting unexpected notes or slowing tempo) before the resolution to heighten the motivation for completion.

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like an intricate pattern of pitches – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. They want to make us curious, to create a beautiful gap between what we hear and what we want to hear.

To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains exceedingly curious for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.

According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s beauty. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty – that crack in the melody – makes the feeling.

Why the feeling of beauty is useful

What I like about this speculation is that it begins to explain why the feeling of beauty is useful. The aesthetic emotion might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony –the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”

 Jonah Lehrer, American journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience, and the relationship between science and the humanities, Why Does Beauty Exist?, Wired science, July 18, 2011

As The Spirit Wanes, or The Hope of Plasticity

“As the spirit wanes, the form appears.”

I first came across these words four years ago, in the art blog of a dear friend. I’ve been in love with Charles H. Bukowski ever since. Though his lifestyle was not one I’d recommend, I cannot convey the number of times I found him not only utterly poignant, but encouraging.

When I began this blog, I promised to explain why I chose those specific words as my title. I suppose the “form” is finally fighting its way to the surface. There is no decorative or esoteric way to say this: the past few months have been the most challenging of my life. I never imagined that so many diverse manifestations of loss and grief existed. During the two weeks leading to August, I lost three separate individuals, all whom I loved very deeply. My father’s death has been the most horrifying by far.

During his final weeks in the oncology ward, I witnessed quite a few examples of how people deal with fear, pain and grief: often to a paralyzing extent. I’ll always remember Kay, the beautiful old woman staying with her husband in the room next to my dad’s. I must have walked past her room twenty times before I found the courage to say hello, and offer her a hug and condolences. We spoke a few times during my stay-why is it so hard, we wondered, to just let go? Love and death are the two most naturally-occurring phenomena we can know, and yet they never fail to leave us cold and nearly unable to breathe.

So why Music psychology? Why neuroscience or philosophy? Why “as the spirit wanes?” Though I experienced a good deal of physical and mental pain in the last year, I feel as if I have almost been numb a vast portion of the time. A sort of desperate numbness, to be sure, but numbness nevertheless. I was unaware of the potential for evolution, development, and vitality all around me. I do not know what’s happened, but then I suppose I do. My spirit has never been so broken, so trampled, or terrifically damaged. I have not been myself the past year, and I’m ready for it to change. The concepts I have recently come to grasp not only allow but demand for revolution such as this.

I’ll never forget during my junior year of college, I was required to take a philosophy course. I dreaded it beyond all else. Though my mother had given me exposure to Jungian psychology from the cradle, in terms of philosophy, I felt my brain just might not “work” that way.

However, within a day of the class I was addicted and desperate for more. I had been re-exposed to the most basic form of existentialism: if we are responsible for our actions, we also then have the freedom not only to choose, but to transcend. As someone who’d grown up alongside the great crusade of mania and depression, this was news to me. What did they mean, I could choose? Though I’d eventually declined, I’d once been told I might benefit from medication to control depression and emotionally-destructive impulses. Medication or not: for the very first time in my life, I found a freedom to transcend my demons: psychical, neural and emotional. I certainly felt and digested emotion in much the same way, but with a unique freedom in my reaction to discord. I was no longer bound in paralyzation or fear. A couple of years later, I have once more found a like freedom, only infinitely more radical in the concept of Brain Plasticity.

As this dares reach too long a confession, I shall save the specifics of why I have found hope in Neuroscience, plasticity and its potential courtship with music for future posts. But what I have learned, and lived, is this: As the spirit wanes, the form appears. It is truly when we are beaten near beyond the point of recognition that we are then forced to give up, or forced to continue. Inertia demands not only motion, but action; consciousness. One may remain static for only so long. I choose to go forward. 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.” And why not? What type of fear or unknown is stopping us from this earth-shattering consciousness of what our brains can do?

I will continue soon in conjunction with a more formulated response to Catherine Malabou’s pioneering work, “What Should We Do with Our Brain?” in speculation of a metaphorical and ideological critique of plasticity.

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

WRAMTA Annual Conference

The American Music Therapy Association (Western Region Chapter) will be holding their annual conference in Long Beach this year. While many of the seminars look to be strictly music therapy (and less my cup of tea), the last CMTE course offered on the cognitive processing of music, emotions and pain looks to be grounded strongly in psychiatric studies and scientific research.

CMTE 6: Music, Pain, and the Brain: Research Developments and Music Therapy Applications Vanya Green, MA, MT-B

View conference program and information

2011 Annual Conference

Long Beach, CA Mar 31 – Apr 2

The Queen Mary Hotel

Institutes & CMTEs

Mar 29 – 31, Apr 3

Passages Conference Apr 3

The Queen Mary Hotel

Neural Differences Between Musicians and Non-Musicians

Nature or Nurture, the Chicken or the Egg? The following paper has certainly given me much to think about, and will be addressed in posts soon to come.

Excerpt taken from Enhanced brainstem encoding predicts musicians’ perceptual advantages with pitch.

Musicians have different brains – that fact we have known for a long time. The study of musician and non-musician brains is probably one of the first stories in the science of neural (brain) plasticity; the idea that our brains respond and become modified by the things we experience in everyday life. Nowadays the existence of neural plasticity is beyond doubt: We see regular, remarkable examples of how the human brain, at any age although particularly in childhood, is able to re-organise itself in response to circumstances. For example, we know the brain can adapt after stroke or serious injury, after the loss of any of the senses and even as a result of our career choices. As for the latter, my favourite example is that of London Taxi drivers. Dr. Eleanor Maguire and her team found that the drivers show enlarged posterior hippocampus structures (the memory centre of the brain) which correlate with their possession of ‘the knowledge’, the mental map of London streets that they use to navigate.  As a result of such evidence we take it as a given that our brains will adapt to the world around us and to the demands that we make of it every day. And it therefore makes sense that musicians’ brains would adapt as a result of their exposure to and engagement with music.

But the ease with which we today accept brain plasticity as a result of musical practice is a result of over a century of research, which at first did not have the benefits of the sophisticated brain imaging tools. In fact the evidence goes back to Victorian scientists. Sigmund Auerbach (1860-1923) was a very popular German surgeon and diagnostician who contributed numerous works on the operative treatment of tumours of the brain and spinal marrow/cord, nervous damages, and epilepsy. At the beginning of the twentieth century he conducted a series of post-mortem brain dissections and reported that parts of the temporal and parietal lobe (in particular the superior temporal gyrus) were larger than normal in the brains of 5 famous musicians of the time (1911). However, the problem with simply noting differences between musicians and nonmusicians brains in this way is that you have no evidence for causation – how do you know their musical practice caused these changes? Maybe their brains were different to start with and that is the reason they became successful musicians?

The only way to solve this kind of riddle is with longitudinal, developmental studies. You measure kids’ brains before they start music (or choose not to – that is your control group) and then you determine whether the changes that occur to their brains as they learn match those that we see in adult musicians. I know of only one group braving this kind of study. Gottfried Shlaug’s lab’s results are starting to confirm that the neural differences we see in adult musicians are not present when children start learning – so logic suggests they must be a response to their environment. It is not conclusive yet, but it is a good indicator that musician/non-musician brain differences are largely the result of neural plasticity.

So what are the neural differences between musicians and non-musicians ? Well there are quite a few of them and I want to focus on just one recent study in today’s blog. So you will forgive me, I hope, if I say that if you want to know more about differences in general then I can recommend an article by Dr. Lauren Stewart which gives a great summary of this subjectToday we are interested in the brainstem. This is the oldest part of the brain and the part that is largely in charge of pre-conscious processing.

I first heard about brain stem studies about 4 years ago when I saw talks by Dr Nina Kraus and Dr Patrick Wong. Up until that point I had heard a lot about studying the higher centres of the brain with fMRI, PET and EEG but I have not been introduced to subcortical measures of musical processing. I found it fascinating. Both authors had perfected the technique of measuring the Frequency Following Response (FFR), an evoked potential generated in the upper portion of the brain stem. What happens in an FFR experiment is that a small number of electrodes are placed on the scalp (nowhere near as many as in a typical EEG scan) and then a series of simple sounds are played to one ear. As a participant you don’t have to do anything, in fact you can even fall asleepYour brainstem follows the frequency of the sounds that it hears, even when you are unconscious. It becomes ‘phase locked’, meaning that it displays a characteristic waveform that follows the individual cycles of the stimulus (i.e. its frequency).

Before the FFR paradigm came along we knew that musicians could unconsciously detect smaller changes in pitch than non-musicians (see work by Stefan Koelsch) but we didn’t know where this ability came from; was it coming from the lower pre-conscious levels of the cortex or the much older brainstem regions?  Use of the FFR paradigm has shown that long-term musical experience changes how the brainstem responds to sounds in the environment, and that this correlates with performance in behavioural tasks. For example, Dr Patrick Wong (Wong et al., 2007) showed that musicians show enhanced brain stem responses to tones within speech (in Mandarin Chinese). What about skills that are critical to performing musicians though, such as detecting minute pitch variations thereby being able to tell whether you are in tune?

A paper out in the European Journal of Neuroscience by Gavin Bidelman and team recently looked at this  question using the FFR paradigm. They looked at the properties of the FFR in response to tuned (major and minor) and detuned chordal, triad arpeggios in eleven musicians (vs. 11 controls). Detuning was accomplished by sharpening or flattening the pitch of the chord’s third. Following each note onset the authors took a ‘snapshot’ of the phase-locking in the FFR which occurred 15-20ms post-stimulus onset. Peaks in the FFR were identified by the researchers and confirmed by independent observers. FFR peaks were then quantified and segmented into three sections corresponding to the three notes heard. The authors then completed a separate, standard pitch discrimination task to determine whether the musicians had better responses at the perceptual level. What they found was amazing.

FFR waveforms (image from G. Bidelman’s site, link below) 

Results

1) For the perception test: musicians showed better discrimination performance, and their enhanced ability was the same for major and minor distinctions, as well as for tuned-up vs. tuned-down manipulations of pitch.  The nonmusicians could distinguish major from minor, but could not reliably detect the detunings.

2) For the FFR data: musicians showed faster synchronisation and stronger brainstem encoding for the third of the arpeggios, whether the sequence was in or out of tune (notice the enhanced peak size and regularity in the image above) Nonmusicians on the other hand had much stronger encoding for the major/minor chords compared to that seen for the detuned chords.

The close correspondence between these two results supports the theory that musicians’ enhanced ability to detect out of tune pitches is rooted in pre-conscious processing of pitch that occurs in the brainstem, and specially in the enhancement of phase locked activity.

Conclusion

The thing that fascinates me is that this kind of evidence fills in some of the much needed gaps in our knowledge about how the so-called ‘lower’ centres of the brain are involved in processing jobs that it is very easy to causally attribute to the ‘higher’ centres of the brain, namely the cortex. In reality our perception of music starts at the level of the ear and all the way along its journey to our conscious minds it is carefully dissected, pre-processed and shaped. And it seems that our experience of the world can shape destinations all the way along this pathway, contributing to the overall behavioural differences we see in musicians and nonmusicians when they listen to music.

Bidelman, G.M., Krishnan, A., & Gandour, J.T (2011) Enhanced brainstem encoding predicts musicians’ perceptual advantages with pitch. EJN, 1-9.

Many thanks to Vicky at Victoria Williamson Psychology UK for post.