Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Music and Brain: Imagery and Imagination

Chapter 4-
Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination
Sacks, Oliver. 2007. “Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination.” In Musicophilia, Tales of Music and The Brain. Vintage Canada, Toronto: ON.
In this chapter of Sacks’ book Musicophilia, he discusses the concept of musical imagery, as it exists for individuals. Recalling the vivid internal musical symphonies that could be evoked in his father’s own mind, yet not for his mother, Sacks concluded that not everyone possesses an equal capacity for such mental imagery. Professional musicians, however, are remarkably skilled at this trait.
Sacks contemplates composers of past and present and the creative musical stimulus that occupies their minds. While some composers rely on an instrument during their creative process, many are able to conceptualize and hear the music entirely in their head. In addition, he examines Beethoven’s deafness and its effect on him as a composer; contrary to a musical demise that some may have predicted, following his sudden loss of hearing, it would seem as though the music grew more intellectually complex. Could it be, perhaps, that through the loss of an input source of hearing that his internal musical imagery was intensified as his auditory cortex became increasingly sensitive. Since Beethoven could no longer perceive external music, he was forced to rely upon more abstract, imaginative powers of thought as he composed. Through these measures, his music was an undeniable success.
His own personal history with music has also influenced Sacks mental musical imagery. Although not heightened to the acuteness of his father’s, Sacks noted his ability to glance at a piece of music which he had learned several years prior, and instantly begin to feel as though he was playing that music: he could “see” his hands on the keyboard, and “hear” the music in his head. This mental rehearsal to which he refers is an extremely important tool for performers before and while they are learning new repertoire, and before performances. Research has provided proof to the effectiveness of imagined practice.
Through their study of music’s effect on the mind, Robert Zatorre and colleagues have discovered that imagining the sound of music stimulates the auditory cortex to almost the same degree as actually hearing the music. Imagining the act of playing has an equally stimulating effect on the motor cortex, which in turn, continues to stimulate the auditory cortex. This evidence is encouragement for performers to visualize and imagine playing new music before attempting it; this process initiates neural circuitry that will be formed during the actual learning, thus, making the physical attempt much more fluent, as if the musician had already learned the music. The pathways have already been created; half the work has been done.
He continues to describe the mind’s tendency to predict music that is familiar to us. Studies of individuals’ brain activity during familiar listening experiences, wherein audible music is removed, demonstrate how the mind will attempt to fill in the missing segments of music; according to MRI brain scans, although music may have been removed, the auditory control centers displayed greater activation these times than with non-familiar musical examples. 
Research has also allowed investigators to learn of frontal cortex stimulation that occurs during deliberate, conscious and voluntary mental imagery, such as frequently relied upon by professional musicians. Those who do not depend on such musical imagery for their vocation, may find most of their imagery is the result of unconscious thought. Even when one is not aware of why a musical association is occurring, it is a continual occurrence. Some experiences of musical imagery can be predicated by repeated listening; a favourite song, for example, can become embedded into one’s subconscious and revisited unconsciously, for unexplained reasoning. Verbal associations may also initiate musical imagery: lyrics from a song, similarities of a situation, a key word may all cause an involuntary lapse of music in one’s mind. Finally, repressed emotions may be another factor in musical imagery that seems to be cultivated out of the blue. Sacks draws upon personal experiences through which he can relate to each unexplained onset of musical imagery. Clearly music is always on his mind.
Having spent a great volume of my time as of late researching biofeedback and EEG neurofeedback training as it applies to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Sacks’ chapter speaks volumes to me. I am flooded with inquiry questions and ideas for future research into the discipline of brain therapy, and reading his insights with regards to musical imagery, I am curious as to the overlap that I see.
Studies and therapeutic applications involving neurofeedback are based upon the notion that one is able to consciously retrain the brain. Through monitoring EEG patterns in an individual and applying biofeedback therapy which functions through operant conditioning principles, the subject can change the produced brainwaves. Thus, successful biofeedback or retraining of brain activity.
Sacks describes the cognitive processes of visual imagery used by musicians before learning new music, and even when they are away from their instrument. According to brainwave MRI scans, activity occurs in the auditory and motor cortex during these sessions of imagining hearing and playing music. As well, if an individual deliberately, voluntarily imagines music, the frontal cortex is also involved. This knowledge could prove to be effective in the treatment of ADHD, which is shown to affect the frontal and motor cortex within individuals. Whether through consciously invoked musical imagery of playing or simply hearing a melody that is familiar, benefits may be sought in the for patients. As well, evidence of auditory stimulation during familiar listening exercises could also prove to be beneficial to ADHD sufferers if implemented into therapeutic practices; if could offer individuals‘ increased spans of attention and focus, and help to engage concentration. 
This chapter has left me with further areas of interest to explore and contemplate, in the field of music and brain research, and has given me new insight into the power of both music and the human mind.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Your Brain on Improv

TED Talks
Charles Limb: Your brain on improv
TEDxMidAtlantic, Filmed November 2010; Posted January 2011
Charles Limb, a surgeon who has made many contributions to scholarship on creativity, examines how the brain functions during improvisatory music experiences. Fascinated with sound and music, Limb became a surgeon, which enabled him to combine his two passions, and continue to study the science of sound and how it is processed by the brain. 
His discussion begins with a videoclip of Keith Jarrett, an iconic jazz improv pianist, known for his completely improvised concert performances. Jarrett creates the music as he goes to avoid giving repeat performances that sound alike. His playing is seamless.
After observing Jarrett’s performance, Limb posits a thesis that “artistic creativity is in fact a neurologic product,” and thus, it is a process which can be studied, just as any other complex cognitive process. He also poses two questions in his inquiry, the first of which he also problematizes from a scientific perspective. Limb wonders: Is it possible to study creativity scientifically, without creating a dense study wherein one can no longer hear the music? These “unmusical” studies “miss the whole point of the music.”
The second question which Limb presents is: why should scientists study creativity? Limb concludes that because of the science of innovation, we are able to learn and understand more about how the brain is able to be creative. According to Limb, the plethora of questions that neuroscientists have regarding creativity in the brain far exceed the answers that exist, thus far.
Limb relies on functional MRI to study the active brain, using a process called BOLD imaging, or blood oxygen level imaging. This measures the rate of blood flow which causes an increase in the deoxyhemoglobin concentration in areas of the brain which are active during various creative processes. In the case of Limb’s studies, he uses fMRI to measures brain activity of subjects as they play both memorized and spontaneously generated melodies on a digital MIDI keyboard. Volunteers performed these passages using carefully positioned mirrors to see the piano keyboard, which rested on their legs, while they were inside the scanner. The main goal was for the participants to be playing “real music”, in the most natural type of environment as possible, due to the confinements of the fMRI scanner. An observation of the results from these experiments shows a clear distinction in regions of brain activity involved in practiced versus improvised musical excerpts.
Through the fMRI images produced in both the improvised and memorized musical sessions, Limb was able to target those areas of the brain which are most active during creativity. In addition to areas in the frontal lobe responsible for consciousness, other “multifunctional areas” within the brain, which are responsible for personality features such as introspection, self-reflection, and working memory are also highly active during creativity. It allows one to have fewer inhibitions and more impulsive, thus enabling improvisation and spontaneous generation to occur.  
In further studies conducted by Limb, involving musicians’ trading musical melodies back and forth, such as a jazz musician might do, in a communicative, musical process. Results of this musical communication showed brain activity in regions which correlate to those responsible for expressive communication and language. Thus, Limb’s results display neurological evidence pointing towards the notion that music is a type of language through which human interaction occurs.
Finally, Limb concludes his study of creativity by collecting neurological images of rappers, using the same cycle of memorized material followed by spontaneous creation of freestyle verse. Correspondingly, regions in the brain which are responsible for motor coordination and visual areas are much more active during subjects’ creative output. All of these results indicate an increase in brain function during improvisatory processes. Despite a volume of questions that still remain unanswered for Limb in his search for “creative genius, neurologically,” he is hopeful that with current technologies and innovations, “we’re getting close to being there.”
Limb’s research into neurological processes that occur during creativity has many implications for therapeutic applications of music. Furthering our understanding of how the brain processes both instructional and improvisational music can be helpful through multidisciplinary ways. For instance, pinpointing areas of the brain involved in memorized, learned material versus that which is spontaneously generated provides therapeutic possibilities for individuals who have suffered stroke or other brain injuries. Knowing what we do about the brain’s ability to be retrained and its plasticity, in combination with evidence that engagement in creative acts cause increased brain activity, presents the potential to relearn functionalities that may be lost due to injury or illness. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Patients may be able to teach other regions of their brain through (assisted) improvised musical processes; stroke sufferers may regain the cognitive and/or motor functions; and, individuals diagnosed with mood spectrum disorders such as autism, ADHD, ADD, etc. may be able to normalize brain activities by speeding up or slowing down EEG waves through improvised musical performances. Further research is still necessary, but through these preliminary findings, Limb’s contribution to the extant knowledge about how the brain works has successfully mapped direction for further exploration on this topic.

Wired for Sound (Summary)

Reference: December 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/health/Oliver-Sacks-Finds-the-Bond-Between-Music-and-Our-Brains

Written by: Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP

Oliver Sacks, MD, the noted neurologist and author, describes the profound bond between music and our brains and how the simple act of singing can be good medicine

Dr. Oliver Sacks states that music has cultural and community relevance for human beings, it brings people together. However, he notes that music not only fundamentally creates a social bond, it literally also shapes the brain. Perhaps musical activity involves many parts of the brain (emotional, motor and cognitive areas), even more than what is used for language, suggest Sacks.

When music has been applied in Dr. Sacks practice in neurology, he states that he has seen patients with Parkinson’s disease who were initially non-responsive, become alert when music is applied in treatment. People with aphasia, which is a loss of the use of language most commonly caused by stroke, retrieve words, in song, they could not otherwise utter. He has viewed people with Tourette's syndrome, who may be distracted by physical and sometimes verbal tics, able to find means of managing or by-passing their tics through music, and people with extreme forms of amnesia, unable to remember what happened to them a few minutes ago, able to sing or play long, complicated pieces of music, or even to conduct an orchestra or choir. He also notes that in Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia sufferers are able to respond to music when no other treatment is able to reach them.

In closing, Dr.Sacks says that the profound bond between music and our brains and the simple act of singing can be good medicine at any age.


As a music therapist interested in the various means of evoking memories and responses through music, I found the article quiet intriguing. The examples that Dr. Sacks provided as to the various responses of patients with diverse diagnoses responding to music treatment is astonishing. Furthermore, this article written by Dr. Sacks, a practicing neurologist, provides more credibility to the value of music as treatment. The value for me comes from the cross-disciplinary practice; practitioners, aside from music therapist, who also see the value in music as treatment.

Moreover, I believe that at this time, in the field of music therapy, further cross-disciplinary research must continue, in order to bring the value of music therapy to the mainstream.

Building The Musical Muscle


Charles Limb performs cochlear implantation, a surgery that treats hearing loss and can restore the ability to hear speech. But as a musician too, Limb thinks about what the implants lack: They don't let you fully experience music yet. (There's a hair-raising example.) At TEDMED, Limb reviews the state of the art and the way forward.

Charles Limb has two titles on his official website: Associate Professor, Otolaryngology, Head & Neck Surgery, and Faculty, Peabody Conservatory of Music. He combines his two passions to study the way the brain creates and perceives music. He's a hearing specialist and surgeon at Johns Hopkins who performs cochlear implantations on patients who have lost their hearing.And he plays sax, piano and bass.


He goes further to state, "Now the question comes to mind: Is there any hope?And yes, there is hope. Now I don't know if anybody knows who this is. This is ... does somebody know?This is Beethoven. Now why would we know what Beethoven's skull looks like? Because his grave was exhumed. And it turns out that his temporal bones were harvested when he died to try to look at the cause of his death, which is why he has molding clay and his skull is bulging out on the side there. But Beethoven composed music long after he lost his hearing. What that suggests is that, even in the case of hearing loss, the capacity for music remains. The brains remain hardwired for music."

Recently, at the Colloquy on Music in Health and Medicine at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, we heard from Lorna MacDonald, the Lois Marshall Chair of Voice Studies who reported on a Cochlear-Implant Singing Study at the Hospital for Sick Children.  In collaboration with Talar Hopyan, Dr. Blake Papsin, and Karen Gordon, Lorna MacDonald has been focusing on enhanced speech inflection through singing lessons for teenage CI-users implanted in early childhood.  It is inspiring to know that so many in the fields of medicine and music are working toward the improvement for others.