Saturday, October 15, 2011

How it feels to have a stroke!
featuring Jill Bolte Taylor
on TEDtalks



Uploaded by on Mar 13, 2008 Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened -- as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding -- she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story about how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.


Over the past number of weeks in our "Music and Brain" class, we have been exposed to a whole new world of knowledge focused primarily on the brain and our obsession as humans to understand its mysterious qualities and ways. Jill Bolte Taylor takes you in, to her personal space, a narrative story of her moments before, during and after having a stroke. By the end of her story, you'll have a deep sense of the uniqueness of both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Although a very serious medical situation for anyone, she presents her experience of a stroke using humour at her stories core. A spiritual person, she conveys a deep sense of grace and apprecation for the gift that life is. Towards the end of her presentation, she says that it was during her stroke that she found nirvana - that transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self, and the subject is released from the effects of karma and samsara. In hope, she suggests that all of us can find this nirvana too, and that one doesn't need to have a stroke to feel it or find it.

While music isn't mentioned in this presentation, as a musician, I found her explanation of the right and left brain to be informative and 'eye-opening.' When I sit at the piano and compose a piece of music, for worship, for a wedding, an anniversary or a memorial service, I lose the sense of time and I am inspired and energetic throughout the process. My right brain appears to be guiding my creativity and sense of accomplishment. At times, what feels like 30 minutes, in actual time is about 4 hours. During this creative time, I believe that I sense nirvana - it almost feels like an out of body experience. Contrary to this feeling of freedom, is the frustration I feel when practicing on the 5-manuel organ at Metropolitan United Church. A late starter on this instrument, I have been studying for a short 3 years. For me, my time spent on the instrument is one of frustration, focus, fatigue, with few moments of feeling satisfied. I have no sense of nirvana! It is clear, that during the times that I spend studying the preludes and fugues of Bach, my left hemisphere is doing its best to manage my music-making; with feet playing the correct pedal notes, my hands on different keyboards articulating appropriately, my eyes focused on the complex page of Bach's notation and my ears evaluating whether I am playing correctly or not. It all seems very technical!

Jill Bolte Taylor, in her presentation for TEDtalks has brought some clarity to my understanding of how my brain works when I am making music! Her presentation really is a "stroke of genius!"

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How one’s favourite song activates the reward circuitry of the brain: Personality matters!

Axmacher, N., Montag, C., & Reuter, M. (2011). How one’s favorite song activates the reward circuitry of the brain: Personality matters! Behavioural Brain Research 225, 511-514. Retrieved October 2, 2011, from Scholars Portal Journals

Researchers Christian Montag, Martin Reuter, and Nikolai Axmacher at the University of Bonn in Germany investigated two intriguing questions in the neuroscience of music and emotions. First, they wanted to compare brain activity when one listens to one’s favourite song and when one listens to one’s most unlikeable song. Second, they wanted to find out how this brain activity might relate to one’s personality traits, particularly the traits of “self-transcendence” and “absorption abilities”.

The researchers conducted their study on 33 undergraduate psychology students, who first had to complete two questionnaires for personality assessment: the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI) and the Tellegen Absorption Scale. Then, the participants listened to their favourite and most unlikeable songs for three minutes each via earphones in the fMRI machine.

Citing the results of another study that linked the activity of the nucleus accumbens (ventral striatum) to the peak of experienced positive emotionality and the activity of the caudate nucleus to the anticipation of that emotional peak, the researchers hypothesized that there would be substantially increased activity of these areas when listening to the self-selected pleasant song as compared to the self-selected unpleasant song. The statistical fMRI analyses confirmed this. There was significant activation of the insula and the cuneus as well.

The researchers also hypothesized that participants with high scores in the traits of absorption (according to the Tellegen Absorption Scale) and/or “self-forgetfulness” (a subscale of the “self-transcendence” trait in the TCI) would demonstrate higher activity in the ventral striatum when listening to their favourite songs. But surprisingly, the results revealed a negative correlation between “self-forgetfulness” and ventral striatum activity. That is, people who described themselves as being prone to absorption by music or other arts were actually not so absorbed while listening to their favourite songs. The researchers explained that perhaps these individuals needed another surrounding – other than a noisy fMRI setting – or needed to feel more intensity and closeness to the arts to achieve the state of absorption.

I am really fascinated by the results of this study. In my opinion, the fact that the results indicated a negative correlation between “self-forgetfulness” and ventral striatum activity, even though the researchers expected a positive correlation between the two, perhaps points to the inherent difficulty of conducting a scientific investigation of such a subjective matter as individual emotional responses to music.

I think that there are many factors involved here. First of all, I do agree with the researchers that some people could find a noisy fMRI setting distracting, thus preventing them from becoming absorbed in the music. But I am not so sure that there is a clear connection between the tendency towards self-forgetfulness and the need for a different surrounding to become immersed in music. I think that listening habits simply vary among individuals. Some people listen to their MP3 players in noisy public spaces and still seem to be really absorbed, as they tap their feet, nod their heads, or hum along. Others prefer to enjoy music in a quieter, more private space; perhaps alone at home. I do not believe that those who require a more peaceful environment are necessarily less or more self-forgetful. For instance, certain individuals, regardless of whether they are highly self-forgetful or not, may just happen to have very sensitive hearing and simply cannot enjoy music in a noisy surrounding, even if they might love to otherwise. I would have liked to see what sort of questions were on the TCI questionnaire and what my “self-forgetfulness” score would be. (Unfortunately, I could not find a (free) online version of the TCI.)

More importantly, it seems to me that there is a difference between being moved by the music and being moved by the music to an emotional peak, which is what ventral striatum activity is supposed to indicate. I would imagine that reaching an emotional peak is a gradual process that might take longer or shorter depending on the individual. This was not taken into account in the present study, since each listening session invariably lasted three minutes.

Related to this is the fact that some music just requires more time to unfold. What if my favourite piece of music is, say, Barber’s Adagio for Strings? The duration of this piece is approximately ten minutes. The music gradually builds to a climax around seven minutes into the piece and the ending fades away. Listening to just the first three minutes might be insufficient to give me the experience of an emotional peak. The same result would perhaps be expected even if I were to listen to three minutes of music around the climactic moment, as this excerpt would be completely out of context; a peak cannot exist without the build-up to it.

Nevertheless, as a performer, I am very intrigued by the link of ventral striatum activity to the peak of experienced positive emotionality. So instead of just having participants listen to music, in the future, I hope that it would be possible to conduct a study that measures the ventral striatum activity of performers and listeners in a setting that more closely resembles a concert. I would be especially curious to know whether there would be high ventral striatum activity in both performers and listeners at the same moments during the performance. Put another way, would the listeners be more likely to become absorbed by the music when the performers themselves are? Or would the listeners be more likely to achieve the state of musical absorption when the performers are more objectively in control of their performance?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Still a Performer

Article: “Still A Performer”
Extracted from: Article Collection-
Author: Linda Matchan, Globe Staff
Date: October 8, 2011
The news article, “Still A Performer,” which appeared on the article collection describes the lasting impact that a lifetime filled with musical experiences can have on an individual. At 82-years of age, Naomi Kliman, regularly demonstrated her musical expertise through daily performances of a variety of piano repertoire. The former music educator and piano teacher of nearly 65 years still played “with vigor and passion”, despite her age, and also, exclusively by memory. Ironically, Kliman lives in an assisted living facility, within a unit for people with dementia. She suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and can remember very little from the last 50 years. Although her lengthy teaching career put her in touch with over 1000 students, when asked, Kliman says that she had 100. And, upon turning 80, she could no longer recognize her own piano, even after having played it each day of her adult life. Through the progression of the Alzheimer’s, however, one thing that has stuck with Kliman is her musical prowess and love for performing.
Within the facility that Kliman resides, the piano is located in a common area, but has had to be locked away when not in use. Due to Kliman’s incessant nature to play the piano constantly, it is important that it be out of sight, during times when the musical entertainment would be bothersome to the other residents. She automatically resorts to performing whenever she is able, which, according to John Zeisel, president of Woburn-based Hearthstone Alzheimer Care and cofounder of the Artists for Alzheimer’s (ARTZ), a nonprofit organization that develops cultural experiences for people with the disease, serves as evidence that sufferers can remember parts from their past including who they are. Zeisel believes that musicians with Alzheimer’s revert to activities from their past which gave them enjoyment and created their identity. 
Zeisel refers to the biochemistry that occurs when an individual engages in a meaningful activities, such as when Kliman performs music on the piano. These acts of enjoyment cause neurotransmitters to be released in the brain, and they become addictive behaviours, in order to continue on the high. Alzheimer patients and those who suffer from dementia search for skills that allow them to foster a connection to their past identities, and once they find them, they want to keep this association alive. Zeisel believes that it helps the individual to feel as though they are themself once again, as opposed to being a “sick person.” Kliman proved her past musicianship as she played, daily, for the residents at the assisted care facility where she resided, and despite her declining memory from off the piano bench, it is easy to see that some parts of this 82-year old are as sound as ever.
This article, depicting the untainted level of musicianship that an individual suffering with Alzheimer’s disease is able to maintain, holds promise in the growing field of research in music, health and medicine. Kliman’s ability to effortlessly perform classical music that was learned decades earlier, by memory, despite her inability to remember who she is or even recognize her own instrument, speaks volumes to how dementia affects one’s brain and memory. Through the study of individuals affected by Alzheimer’s like Kliman, who demonstrate the lasting skills of musicianship, researchers will be able to begin to map the areas of the brain that are most impacted by this disease. These understandings may then be useful to assist doctors with earlier detection of the onset of dementia, and may even be able to help slow the progression of memory loss within patients. The possibilities are vast.
John Zeisel, president of ARTZ, described patient’s sense of identity that resulted from engagement in activities that they used to enjoy, such as making music. The satisfaction and return-to-oneself that musical activities provide to patients supports the use of music as a means of therapy, in these situations. Monitoring the change in a patient’s motor skills, memory and cognition before, and after the musical experience could also lead to greater understanding of how our brains process music, and in turn, how music cognition influences other brain functions. Both music and medical disciplines stand to benefit from this research, as there seems to be a growing connection between the two fields.
Finally, when one considers both the release of positive endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain, in addition to the sense of self-identify that music brings to Alzheimer’s sufferers, one also begins to question whether music could be used to restore and retrain one’s brain, as the disease progresses. Knowledge about the cerebral areas to which dementia wrecks havoc, as well as those regions which control musical activities, could be used to help restore the broken connections or to assume control of the functions that have been lost through the disease. There is research yet to be done, and understanding to gain, however, one cannot argue with the definitive delight and relief that music brings to those with dementia.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Mind for Music

Nova Short: Inside Oliver Sacks' Brain (PBS)
This is a 4:23YouTube taken from a longer 45 minute DVD: Nova's Musical Minds, June 30, 2009
PBS #WG43209
Neuroscientist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks explores why some brains cannot decode music while other brains are sensitive to the slightest musical nuance in a 45 minute 2009 PBS documentary called Musical Minds: Can the power of music make the brain come alive?  In this 4 minute YouTube excerpt, Dr. Sacks is seeking to understand how the brain reacts to music. So he offers himself as a subject to study this very question. Sacks undergoes an fMRI to see how his brain will react to the music he loves. Sacks confesses he has had a distinct preference and love for J.S. Bach’s music since the age of seven.
Columbia University neuroscience researchers Hal Henkel and Joy Hirsch design a test to reveal if Sacks’ brain loves Bach as much as he does. With a device to rate his emotions in hand, a scanner will record Sacks’ brain activity as he enters the imaging machine. He hears two pieces of music, one by Bach and one by Beethoven. The researchers have selected musical samples that share certain qualities. For example, both pieces are choral works, similar in tempo and mood. When asked to respond to the music, Sacks replies that the Bach piece “blew me away” while the Beethoven “left me flat”. In fact, the scan confirmed those feelings. The brain scan of Sacks’ responses to Bach showed that many areas of the brain became activated while listening, and particularly the right amygdale, vital to processing emotion. The brain scan of Sacks’ responses to Beethoven scarcely lit up.
During the scan, there was a section where Sacks admittedly could not distinguish Bach from Beethoven and he had no feeling for what he was hearing.  Even when Sacks could not tell the two pieces of music apart the brain recognized the difference.  The brain favored Bach. During that time of confusion in the scan, Sacks' brain lit up in the same areas as when he was moved by the Bach piece just moments before.
Henkel , Hirsch and Sacks conclude that the brain is able to recognize and prefer music even if we don't.


The fMRI scans declare with vivid illumination Dr. Sacks’ preference for Bach. The contrasted scans between Bach and Beethoven are truly impressive.  I wouldn’t have predicted Sacks to be moved so little by Beethoven.
It was the point of Sacks' confusion during the scan that fascinated me most. While musical styles were not the same, the works were comparable and Sacks himself lost track of whether he was listening to Bach or Beethoven. How did the brain know to prefer Bach when emotional rating cues were not being given? Could it be the neural circuitry was more lit up for Bach because the brain defaults to preferential circuitry when confused? Or could age make musical preference more acute? Or did the brain recognize stylistic features of Bach on its own and default to some kind of auditory memory?
This test makes me wonder about  people that have eclectic preferences, where the love of musical style is not so poignant as Sacks' love affair with Bach. Will the brain be activated as pervasively through a number of preferential genres?
This test shows that the brain can respond independently of the affective response. My sense is that Sacks' brain has been acculturated to the stylistic nuances and emotional response neural circuitry of J. S. Bach. This brain has listened and responded to Bach for seventy years. It simply continued to do so.