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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sinfonia Concert: A Review

The Princeton University Sinfonia gave a fun-spirited concert on December 16 at Richardson Auditorium, with Ruth Ochs as conductor. The program consisted of  Berlioz’s Le Corsair Overture, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (Cassandra Wang, piano), Rondo from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major (Jonathan Tu, clarinet), and Borodin’s Symphony No. 2.

Berlioz’s Le Corsair Overture served as a riveting, bombastic opening to the concert, with Berlioz’s typical “come to the greatest show on earth” feel. Berlioz wrote the original version of this overture in August 1844 at Nice and led its first performance in Paris on January 19, 1845, then called La Tour de Nice (The Tower of Nice). Although the orchestra started off a little shaky, with entrances that could have been more confident, things eventually came together as the melody unfolded in the first section. Finally, the booms of the tympani resonating throughout the hall and the blaring brass served as a grandiose end to the beginning of a lively concert.

From such bombastic show of display, we are brought into another type of display: subtle virtuosity in Rachmaninoff’s famous Piano Concerto No. 2, composed in 1900-1901 and premiered with Rachmaninov himself as the soloist on November 9, 1901, in Moscow. I emphasize “subtle” virtuosity despite the obvious technical difficulty of the piece as a compliment to Cassandra Wang, the pianist. Cassandra glides through the runs with seeming effortlessness, and makes the most difficult of passages seem easy. Her playing reminds me of that of Yefin Bronfman’s, with a stoic body concealing the most expressive sounds. Her tone is warm and lyrical, taking the listener sighing into a far away dreamscape, especially in the beautiful adagio sostenuto. Cassandra deserves special commendation for her discerning ability to stay with the orchestra. The orchestra took the piece overall much slower than it is normally played, especially in Mvt. I and III, yet Xiao was able to restrain herself from the urge to rush (although noticeable) extremely well and patiently.  Although being greatly under tempo, and intonation issues in soloists (oboe), Cassandra’s solid and expressive performance made this piece the highlight of the concert.

Leaving behind the brilliant Romanticism of Rachmaninoff and the piano, we are transported to the wonderfully Classical world of Mozart and the clarinet in the Rondo from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. Mozart famous and only concerto for clarinet, known for its delicate interplay between orchestra and soloist, was written in 1791 for the clarinetist Anton Stadler. The clarinetist of the Sinfonia concert was Jonathan Tu, a graduate student at Princeton University and winner of the 2010 Sinfonia Concerto Competition. Despite a beautiful and warm tone, Jonathon had some trouble with his embouchure and excess air was often heard as he played. Nevertheless, the piece was quite enjoyable, maybe even a little too pleasant. In a way, the Mozart sounded a little too “perfect,” too “nice.” What was lacking in this performance, in both the orchestra and the soloist, was the feel of Mozartian whimsicality and playfulness. The dynamics were a little flat, and more contrasts would have made the experience more “fun,” in the playful Mozart style.

Finally, the concert ended with the heroic Borodin Symphony No. 2. The symphony was composed intermittently between 1869 and 1876, and is considered the most important large-scale work completed by the composer himself. Again, unconfident entrances took away from the boldness of the piece, especially in the opening sectional entrances of the Allegro theme. However, as the piece progressed, some really nice sounds started to come together. The double-tonguing of the brass in the Scherzo was effective in creating a underlying current of arousal, the vibratos of the strings created a wonderfully evanescent sound effect in the Andante, and the strong brassy sound at the end Finale served as a bold conclusion of finality. Sinfonia performed a concert of many popular delights in a more casual atmosphere. Though not a world-class orchestra, or the PUO, Sinfonia transports us to various places of musical adventure in a less intense manner.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Music and Mental Illness: Buttonwood by Greg Spears

Tonight, the JACK Quartet gave a stunning world-premiere performance of Buttonwood by Greg Spears at the Crane Arts center in Philadelphia. It was a piece of beauty musically, conceptually, and contextually. Beauty undefined in all its abstraction.

Contextually, the piece reflects Greg’s experience as an artist-in-residence at the Buttonwood Psychiatric Hospital in the winter of 2010. During intermission, I talked with Dr. Schimmel and other hospital workers, who described Greg’s interaction with and dedication to the patients as going beyond anything expected. He would attend 3 hour meetings with hospital workers and patients, and trudge through coldness and snow to get there. He not only composed and performed for patients, but played with them. According to Dr. Schimmel, Buttonwood “captures the treatment team’s enthusiasm and narrative through various disciplines…the cacophony, feelings, and moods of the patients.” Conceptually, Greg describes the piece as portraying the “sense of external normalcy versus the intense drone of internal struggle” in the narratives of the patients. It is a beautiful concept—of leaving an imprint of such an experience for the composer, the patients, and the world, each able to take away what each will, with the hope that music can better the understanding of psychiatric illness.

Musically, the piece is one of profound beauty (if you’re willing to take my word for it). There is beauty in deviation. The violin reaches out in fragments of desperate abrupt crescendos against the drone of the cello. We feel the intense internal struggle of individual patients, of the desperate attempt to break the entrapment of illness (the violin’s cries) grounded by a sense of external continuity found in the hospital (the cello’s drone). Even in seeming normalcy, elements of deviation are detected by the listening ear. For example, there are times when two violins play the same melody the same time, but one is “normal,” the other is “dirty”, with scratches and screechings, signaling that while in life appears to continue in all its external regularity, inside things are on the verge of breaking apart. The piece begins and ends with a sense of peace and calmness, surprising given the context of psychiatric struggle and cacophony. Yet, beneath the calmness is a quiet loneliness, found in the quiet high-pitched cry of a violin. We leave with this sense of quiet loneliness steeped in an understanding of intense internal struggle—deep, profound, and beautiful.  

Yet, perhaps even more touching, even more beautiful than the conception, performance, or composition was the reception of the piece. Person after person after person came to talk to Greg after the performance (received with standing ovation), and to hear the words of gratitude from those from the hospital, to see the smiles on their faces and the appreciative warmth in their eyes, speaks to impact of Buttonwood in capturing the "quiet drama" of mental illness that could not be expressed, or only too often misunderstood.  Buttonwood is a testament to hidden struggle of the mentally ill, and a testament to the power of music to express where words fail.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation

The Literary Vesicle excitedly releases Artscience by David Edwards. David Edwards is the founder of Le Laboratoire, an artscience center in Paris. The book is all about the wonderful fused applications of art and science that create innovation, about the beauty of "artscience":

There may be aesthetic aims that require application or understanding of the scientific method...or there may be scientific aims that require application or understanding of the aesthetic method...Either way, the fused method that results, at once aesthetic and scientific--intuitive and deductive, sensual and analytical, comfortable with uncertainty and able to frame a problem, embracing nature in its complexity and able to simplify to nature in its essence--is what I call artscience (p. 6-7). 

Some examples of artscience include:
·         Johannes Kepler--scientific discoveries in astronomy by optimizing what he viewed as the harmony of celestial bodies with musical notes
·         Diana Dabby--music composition through chaos theory, Olin College
·         Julio Ottino—fluid mixing (art and chemistry), Northwestern University
·         Kay Kaufman Shelemay—music as medicine, music and memory, Music, Ritual, and Falasha History, Harvard faculty.
·         Don Ingber—cellular structure modeled off a Buckminister Fuller tensegrity structure, Yale undergrad, Harvard faculty. Ingber is now “an international spokesperson for architecture and design in nature and biology."

Really, all science should be appreciated artistically, and enhanced as a result. (Even in organic chemistry, there's beauty in the geometric designs of molecules!)

Edwards proposes a realization of artscience through a process termed “idea translation”. The process is outlined below:

1.      Develop idea/concept through serious interdisciplinary study.
2.      Test idea through experimentation that may involve personal experience.
3.      Translate idea within or reaching outside of research institutions.
4.      Realize idea by arriving at an awareness of artscience as a catalyst to research.

I'll leave with a statement that is a favorite among favorites. Edward’s proposal is much closer to truth than proposal, in my opinion.

What I would like to propose is that scientists who create in the arts have the chance to become better scientists as a consequence.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Richard Schechner: "Art is cognitive as well as passionate...

...and theory is passionate as well as cognitive."

Today I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Richard Schechner, who could be termed as one of the founders of Performance Studies--the study of the everyday life of performance. In addition to the brilliance of who he is and what he's done (Professor of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, editor of TDR: The Drama Review, and artistic director of East Coast Artists, one of the founders of the Performance Studies department of the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University (NYU), the list goes on and on...), I'm inspired by his philosophy on life, and on the path to knowledge and ultimately wisdom.

Through the eyes of Schechner, knowledge is seeing things together, as in seeing wild imagination in the hard sciences (string theory, gluons?) and concrete theory in art. I see this as creativity as well, through the lens of Rosenthal, who describes the creative "janusian" process as seeing two distinct areas of space into one. I admire Schechner's passion behind idea, for he is "passionate about scholarship as if passionate about art," and makes a great statement again those critics of neuroaesthetics arguing that the statement "I don't want to study the science of art because I don't want to ruin art" is NOT TRUE. Schechner tackles a problem by pursuing a problem to the end, and seeing connections (and we can see he is very successful!)

Schechner comes up with many clever axioms, some of which I’d like to share (roughly quoted):
“Ignorance (of anything) to infinity is constant.”
“Improvisation must have structure. Structure must have improvisation.”
“Art is constantly as restatement, manipulation…”
“Serendipity is important.”

Here’s to another “artscientist,” as Daniel Edwards, author of Artscience, would say. And here’s to the artscientist within us all!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

From the Literary Vesicle: Welcome to Your Brain

The Literary Vesicle of the Artistic Synapse releases Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang.

Aamodt and Wang dispel popular myths about the brain, like "we only use ten percent of our brains," while at the same time creating a "user's guide" to the brain: practical knowledge about how the brain works and how to best take advantage of it's workings.

Sam Wang was, in fact, my Neuroscience module professor from Molecular Biology class. Many of the themes in the book were incorporated into his lectures, which made them very interesting and easy to understand. He is, needless to say, brilliant. Prof. Wang has also spoken publicly on all sorts of neuroscience-related issues, check out his videos at BigThink:

The Literary Vesicle's transmissions from the book:

  • Brain activity in response to recognizing certain sounds changes based on experience. Our experience actually changes our ability to recognize sounds.
  • Perfect pitch is "more common among people who speak tonal languages in which pitch is important for distinguishing words" (eg Chinese). 
  • To hear better on your cell phone in a loud room, cover the mouthpiece.
  • The chance of mental disorder is linked to a stress gene.
  • Dopamine and serotonin is involved in the shaping of your personality.

What is the Literary Vesicle?

First of all, what is a vesicle? Synaptic vesicles are little pouches in the neuron that contain neurotransmitters. These pouches fuse with the neural membrane, releasing the neurotransmitters into the synapse (the gap between neurons) to transmit signals.

The Literary Vesicle is a vesicle of the Artistic Synapse that will release books into the Synapse (aka the book corner of the Synapse), and while doing so, take note of interesting and "artistic" transmissions from the books.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Princeton News: Sculpture in chemistry lab bonds science and art

Princeton News: Sculpture in chemistry lab bonds science and art

Here we witness another example of "artscience", a term I stole from David Edwards, author of Artscience and founder of Le Laboratoire, an artscience center in Paris.
Kendall Buster has delved into art and science over the course of her career. The work she created for Princeton University's new Frick Chemistry Laboratory has emerged from both of her worlds.
The sculpture brings to mind shapes seen through a microscope lens. It was inspired by models employed to represent molecular structures, according to the artist. 
It is no wonder that the beauty of cellular structures are akin to the elegance of architecture, for nature's designs are naturally the most stable and intelligent, with simple elegance. This reminds me of the work of Don Ingber from Harvard University, who defended that cellular structure was like a Buckminster Fuller tensegrity structure.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I-Dosing: Getting High on Music?

"Music is my ANTI-drug" used to be the saying. But this month, the saying has become "Music is my DRUG"--literally. According to the hype, a new type of digital "music" can induce a drug-like state in the mind, a process that is cheekily termed "I-Dosing." It's real and on retail at The altered state of mind achieved by I-Dosing is caused by binaural beats, in which one ear hears a pitch that is only slightly off key from the pitch played in the other ear. This small difference in pitch causes an eerie fluctuating sound, so that you can hear something like wavering "beats" in the continuous tone (musicians will be familiar with this sound, as it is similar to the fluctuations in sound heard when two instruments are slightly out of tune from each other).

The question is, is I-Dosing dangerous? Probably not. It creates a brain state more similar to that of meditation. In fact, binaural beat therapy to treat anxiety had been in use long ago. However, like many things in life, the thing that makes all the difference is one's perception. With the media portrayal of I-Dosing as a type of "drug music", it has automatically set I-Dosing up for adolescent interest, and along with it, parental concern.Yes, it should really just be called "meditative music," but of course that just isn't interesting enough for the press.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

It all starts with a book...

Yes, it's cliche, but for me, very true. It all started with Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

My senior year of high school, my AP Psychology teacher recommended this book to me, and, as the music fanatic I am, I eagerly picked it up. It wasn't the neuroscience, it wasn't the psychology, it was the music that first attracted me. Back then, I was reading What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland, and The Mozart Guide, and some history of western music book. I was, in short, a music nerd. (...still am.) I was totally unsuspecting of how it would draw me into a field I never knew I never knew: music and the brain.

Musicophilia proceeded to open my eyes to This is Your Brain on Music by Levitin, and later Proust was a Neuroscientist by Lehrer, within a few months. And now, here I am today.

So I must warn you: Unless you want to become a crazy fanatic over music and the brain matters, do not read this book!

Read Musicophilia on Google books

Related link:
Blogging for a Good Book: A Suggestion a Day from the Williamsburg Regional Library
~about Musicophilia

Monday, July 26, 2010

When Music Meets Brain?

I came across this beautiful picture, titled "When Music Meets Brain." But I'm craving to know, what is it? A neural structure involved in music processing, or an artistic rendering of a creative mind?

Though I can't quite understand it, we can still glean something from it. It's another example of the philosophy of neuroaesthetics: Understanding the science behind the art allows us to enhance our appreciation of both science and art.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Mona Lisa Mystery: The Science Behind the Smile

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is celebrated for her mysterious smile. At every glance, her countenance seems to change slightly. Upon turning our gaze away from her mouth, we may experience the strange sensation that she is smiling more, as if mocking us. Yet, as soon as we focus our eyes once again upon her mouth, we find she is smiling just as she was before. Is there a method behind this seeming madness? Is it a trick of the light, or a trick of the mind?

Margaret Livingstone (2002), Harvard neuroscientist, suggests that this phenomenon may be because Mona Lisa’s smile is more apparent when seen in coarse resolution. Therefore, in the periphery of our vision, where there are larger receptive fields that are poor in perceiving detail, Mona Lisa appears to be smiling more. When we look directly at Mona Lisa’s mouth, we are able to process detail much more effectively because the receptive fields of cells in our central vision (fovea cells) are much smaller. As a result, Mona Lisa’s smile fades as we focus our gaze to her mouth. In the picture below, note how Mona Lisa's seems to smile more in coarse resolution (as in peripheral vision), and smile less in fine resolution (as in central vision).

From Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, by M. Livingstone, 2002, p.73
Another theory for the appeal of Mona Lisa’s smile is that angles of her mouth activate area V5 (the area for processing motion) and the frontal cortex. Neurologist A. Chakravarty (2010), author of "Mona Lisa's smile: a hypotheses based on a new principle of art neuroscience," suggested that Da Vinci “[introduced] an element of implicit dynamism, an imagination of movement of a smiling face, in the painting to increase the aesthetic value of his art work”. According to Chakravarty, Mona Lisa’s smile is appealing because it calls upon one’s imagination of movement. However, Chakravarty’s claim seems quite broad, and does not specify what is it about Mona Lisa’s smile that makes it any different from other subtle smiles that also call upon one’s imagination of motion.

Despite the detailed neuroaesthetics of Mona Lisa’s mouth, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of this great masterpiece. In addition to the enigma of Mona Lisa’s smile, there is still, for example, the enigma of how her eyes seem to follow the viewer and the dynamics of the background. Most importantly, there is the profusion of cultural questions regarding the style of the time period, the identity of Mona Lisa, and Mona Lisa’s relationship to Da Vinci . These questions are important aspects of art that neuroaesthetics could never encompass to address.

Friday, July 16, 2010

World Science Festival 2009: Notes and Neurons

The full program of the World Science Festival 2009: Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus is available online, in five convenient parts. For now, I just want to share a video excerpt from this program featuring Bobby McFerrin titled The Power of the Pentatonic. It's a fun clip that conveys the universality of music in humans, and speaks to music as being hard-wired in the brain. Watch and enjoy these three minutes.
Program Excerpt:
Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the power of the pentatonic scale, using audience participation, from the June 12, 2009 World Science Festival event "Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus". Also on stage are panelists Jamshed Bharucha, Provost and Senior Vice President of Tufts University; the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Neurosciences at McGill University, Daniel Levitin; Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, Lawrence Parsons; and host of WNYC’s music/talk show Soundcheck, John Schaefer

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Elusive "Groove"

What is groove? I asked my 12-year-old sister and she casually responded, "Anything that is groovy has groove". I asked her what groovy meant, and she answered, "It has rhythm...and it's funky. I mean not funky, but, um...." and became silent. Why is groove so easy to feel yet so hard to define?

I was first inspired to look into the meaning of "groove" after listening to a contemporary concert by Steve Mackey (contemporary composer and chair of the Princeton Music Department) and his students. Mackey is a brilliant modern composer, I recommend listening to his A Beautiful Passing. Anyway, I wondered what science had to say about groove, and found this:

JSTOR: Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Dec., 2006), pp. 201-208

The paper titled "Experiencing Groove Induced by Music: Consistency and Phenomenology" from Music Perception by Guy Madison discusses an experiment that tries to probe into the role of groove in music by having subjects rate pieces of music on various characteristics such as “groove, driving, simple, flowing, happy...bouncing, having swing”. Here is the abstract:
THERE is A QUALITY OF MUSIC THAT makes people tap their feet, rock their head, and get up and dance. The consistency of this experience among listeners was examined, in terms of differences in ratings across 64 music examples taken from commercially available recordings. Results show that ratings of groove, operationally defined as " wanting to move some part of the body in relation to some aspect of the sound pattern," exhibited considerable interindividual consistency. Covariance patterns among the 14 rated words indicated four prominent factors, which could be labeled regular- irregular, groove, having swing, and flowing. Considering the wide range of music examples used, these factors are interpreted as reflecting psychological dimensions independent of musical genre and style.
They discovered that groove contributed to the second largest proportion of variation among all ratings, pointing to the importance of groove as a dimension of music (although they only included “music with a beat” in their music samples). And, they found that groove has no simple relation to tempo, or “having swing."

It’s interesting how science often seems to reduce and then expand artistic concepts. The paper starts by clearly defining “groove” as "wanting to move some part of the body in relation to some aspect of the sound pattern," but ultimately reveals that groove isn’t clearly attributable to any characteristic. So, I guess in the end, it all goes back to the elusiveness of “groove.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brainbow: Brain Connectivity in Color

The recent article on the Princeton University website, "Virus 'explorers' probe inner workings of the brain", discusses how Princeton University researches are developing new methods of exploring brain connectivity through the use of virology. Genetically engineered viruses are able to leave color tracks as they travel through neurons, and through the use this technology, aptly termed "Brainbow," and a protein called CRE, neural connections can be studied. The significance of this is that unlike conventional tracers, Brainbow has the capability of distinguishing sections within a given circuit, as described below:
Enquist and his collaborators are using genetic engineering techniques to direct certain neurons, such as those that control a particular body function, to produce CRE. When the neurons that have been engineered to make CRE are infected by the new viral tracer, they will be different colors from infected neurons that are not making CRE. This will allow the researchers to see different subcircuits in the brain, Enquist explained.
Such technology has wide-spread implications for our understanding of the brain, including music and the brain. If neurons involved in certain specifics of music processing, say rhythm, can be genetically modified to produce CRE, then perhaps we can better understand specific circuits involved in music processing.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Subjectivity of an Objective Sound: Is the Length of a Note Definite?

Is the length of a note definite? Yes...and no.

In the video "Physics of Sound: Daniel Barenboim on the Duration of Notes" from PBS's The Music Instinct, the acclaimed conductor and pianist, Daniel Barenboim, speaks to the definite nature of the duration of notes. Unlike the subjective quality of a sound, such as a "beautiful" sound, Barenboim points out that the duration of a sound is objective and definite: "the duration of sound and it’s relation to silence is a very objective thing."

And that got me thinking, is the duration of a sound definite? Why, yes, it seems so simple--a sound has a definite start and end, explained by the laws of physics. So why I am still not convinced? Because as a musician, as a pianist, I believe that my body expression, my hand and arm movements and gestures, may shape a listener's perception of the music. Now the question is, does it?

An article by M. Schutz and M. Kubovy from the University of Virginia, titled "Seeing Music: Do We Hear Silent Gestures?" describes a study that addresses the question: Can gestures change the duration of a musical note? The article includes videos of the gestures and easy-to-understand figures, and is also described in more detail at M. Schutz's website. The experiment is described below:
We recorded a world-renowned percussionist performing notes using long and short gestures on a professional quality marimba (a percussion instrument similar to a xylophone), a sample of which is shown in Figure 1. Participants then rated the duration of each note twice: once with the gesture (audio-visual), and once without (audio-alone). In the audio-visual condition they were instructed to ignore visual information and base their ratings on the sound alone.
Video of 1) A Long Stroke 2) A Short Stroke

As shown in Figure 2, although notes produced by long and short gestures were indistinguishable when presented as audio alone, these same notes were judged to be significantly different when presented with the corresponding gesture. This effect occurred despite instructing participants to ignore visual information when making their ratings. Our results indicate that while gesture fails to alter the sound of the note, it (serendipitously) alters the way the note sounds.

When the subjects were shown a video of the gesture and told to listen to the note (visual and auditory), they rated it correspondingly shorter or longer than when only told to listen to the note (only auditory). Furthermore, a similar study that involved monitoring brain activity of subjects showed that the auditory areas of the brain actually lighted up for correspondingly longer or shorter periods of time with the gesture than without the gesture. This means that in the case of a long gesture, the listeners didn't just think the note sound longer, but actually heard the note as longer.

There's a difference between asking, "Is the duration of a sound definite?", and "Is the duration of a musical note definite?" The answer is yes and no, respectively. The brain aims to understand the world around us, often sacrificing accuracy for understanding, distorting reality in order to process it better. In the case of a pure sound, a sound that isn't processed by a brain, the duration of the sound is definite. But in the case of music, in the case of a musical note that is processed by a brain (for any sound that isn't processed by some listener wouldn't be called music) , the length is subjective. After all, the brain distorts reality, as evidenced by the phenomenon of visual capture--the dominance of visual information over auditory information. In the end, all human experience is subjective, and the question becomes a distinction between laws of nature and laws of human nature.

Is the length of a note definite? Perhaps we should first ask the proverbial question, "If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?"

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Music Instinct: Science and Song

The Music Instinct: Science and Song is a fascinating 2-hour documentary on the science of music, and premiered June 24, 2009 on PBS. It is a co-production of Thirteen for In this documentary, J. Levitin (author of This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs) "leads a group of researchers as they investigate music’s fundamental physical structure; its biological, emotional and psychological impact; its brain altering and healing powers and its role in human evolution."

The DVD is available for sale for $24.99 at the online PBS shop here, if you're interested. But even better, you can watch short video clips for free, featuring demonstrations and interviews with Oliver Sacks, Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin, Evelyn Glenni, Daniel Barenboim, and many many more. The videos, though short, give great sparks for further exploration, and there are many of them. They are categorized into interviews, music and evolution, music and medicine, music and the brain, performance, and physics of sound--enough to satiate many varied appetites!

Expect to hear more about individual video clips here at the synapse in the near future! Finally, thanks again PBS for bringing us such great programs.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Art of Science | Princeton University 2010 Art of Science Exhibition

Princeton Art of Science Competition First Prize: Xenon Plasma Accelerator
When studying art and science, we typically look at the science of art, but let's flip things around a little, and look into the art of science.

The Princeton University 2010 Art of Science Competition is about finding art in original scientific research. Check out these ingenious works of art at the Art of Science 2010 Gallery. Here is a description of the exhibition from the website:
The 45 works chosen for the 2010 Art of Science exhibition represent this year’s theme of “energy” which we interpret in the broadest sense. These extraordinary images are not art for art’s sake. Rather, they were produced during the course of scientific research. Entries were chosen for their aesthetic excellence as well as scientific or technical interest.
I'd like to share an anecdote of my own, on a somewhat related relationship between art and science. A chemistry professor of mine, during our study of those colorful transition metals, loved to remark, "inorganic chemistry is intrinsically beautiful." He would lay out various transition metals in weighing vials for us to see, bright vivid blues, reds, greens, etc--very beautiful indeed. And then, instead of simply saying, "Today, we are learning about transition metals", he would ask us, "Why are transition metals so beautifully colored?" And by answering that question (which is much more difficult to answer than first meets the eye!), we discovered how transition metals worked--the transitions of energy involved, the orbital interactions, etc. (Perhaps an artistic rendering of transition metals would have been a good candidate for the 2010 Art of Science Competition's theme of "energy".) So, through our exploration of the aesthetics of transition metals, we developed a scientific understanding as well. Indeed, science itself is, as my chemistry professor would say, "intrinsically beautiful."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Synesthesia and Creativity

Synesthesia is a phenomenon of great interest to neuroscientists and artists because it may be the key to understanding creativity, as suggested by eminent neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. Synesthesia is a blending of the senses--for example, seeing a certain letter or number or sound as a specific color (the most common form of synesthesia). Other types include colors associated with days of the week (such as in the title of the podcast by Richard E. Cytowic, "Wednesday is Indigo Blue") or even tastes associated with chord types. For example, in the case of E.S., a minor seventh chord tasted bitter, a major third tasted sweet, and a major sixth tasted like cream! Want to experience some synesthesia yourself? Check out

This excerpt from The Accidental Mind by David J. Linden provides some interesting statistics on synesthesia:
Synesthetes have normal-to-above-normal intelligence and they appear typical in personality tests and general neurological exams. They do not hallucinate or show an unusual incidence of mental illness. Determining the number of synesthetes in the general population is difficult, but recent estimates have been as high as 1 in 200 people. Synesthesia is much more common in women and left-handed people. Although it is hard to exclude sampling bias, it appears, not surprisingly, that synesthetes tend to be drawn to the creative professions, such as writing, visual art, music, and architecture (p. 90).
Although Linden writes that synesthesia occurs in 1 out of 200 people, Cytowic states in his podcast "Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia" that at least some degree of synesthesia is actually quite common, occurring 1 out of 20 people! Determining the number of synesthetes is difficult because synesthetes are often embarrassed to share their abnormal ability, or they simply don't realize that what they experience is unique, and may exclaim in astonishment something along the lines of, "You mean the key of G isn't blue to you?!"

A hypothesis to explain synesthesia rests on prenatal pruning. When we are born, our brain is completely connected and the senses are wired together. Yet as we develop, certain connections are eliminated while others are retained. The hypothesis is that when connections are retained that normally shouldn't be (for example, from visual areas to auditory areas), the result is synesthesia. So perhaps we were all synesthetes once! Ramachandran proposes that we still are all slightly synesthetic, with his example of "kiki" and "buba" in his TED talk: VS Ramachandran on your mind.

Now to the good stuff: how does this have to do with creativity? Well, if you think about it, creative thinking involves putting together two seemingly unrelated concepts, such as in the use of metaphor. Alan Rothenberg, prominent researcher of creative processes, argues that janusian thinking, "bringing two opposites together in your mind, holding them there together at the same time, considering their relationships, similarities, pros and cons, and interplay, then creating something new and useful" is a crucial part of the creative process. If this be the case, then wouldn't abnormal connections in the brain that link together "unrelated" areas enhance creativity? More research on synesthesia and creativity to come!

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Benjamin Zander on music and passion | Video on

Benjamin Zander on music and passion Video on

I came across this and couldn't resist sharing. It's a diversion from the brain--the most inspirational diversion I could ask for, for anyone: scientists, musicians, and non-musicians alike.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Concerts from the Library of Congress: Music and the Brain

The Library of Congress is having a 2-year series of lectures (08-09, 09-10) relating to new research on music and the brain, and has put up 15-25 minute podcasts previewing each lecture. The topics include music and religion, music and memory, music and crime, to music and language, music and emotion, music and evolution, music and medicine, and more. The speakers include Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, and his new book, The World in Six Songs (discussed in the podcast), and researchers such as Dr. Patel from UCSD, just to name a few. These podcasts are very interesting, I highly recommend them! Download them to your mp3 and enjoy.

Unfortunately, there don't seem to be any podcasts for the 2009-2010 season.

I wish the full lectures were made readily available. If you find any of those, please share. Thanks!

The Birth of The Artistic Synapse

The Artistic Synapse was born from two passions of mine: music and neuroscience. It was originally going to be called "The Artistic Impulse," but I like the idea of the synapse: a place where information is passed down and connections made. This will be where I'll post interesting tidbits of my discoveries. So let the adventure into music and the brain begin.