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Mind & Music conference at Rice invites the public to tap into some of life's mysteries

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Anthony K. Brandt is passionate about classical music "breaking, bending and blending" tendencies and their ability to incite brain activity. Photo by Beryl Striewski
News_David Eagleman
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Norman Fischer
Casey O'Callaghan

We love to attempt to explain things we are unable to understand. It's this curiosity that lends to endless conversations — some civil and some heated — that attempt to make sense out of a world that in many ways we know a nano bit about. 

The scientific process powered by technological innovation has allowed us to turn hypothesis and theorems into truths. But just as we are beginning to solve some dilemmas, this increased knowledge also leads to many more questions being posed.

As renaissance man David Eagleman proposes, possibilianism "reflects the scientific temperament of creativity, testing and tolerance for multiple ideas."

In the beginning...

In many ways, we are just at the brink of beginning to explore many concepts that by their nature harbor multiplicity. And one of those subjects is the connectivity between music and the mind.

Music helps with math. Music helps with spatial concepts. Music accelerates speech. Listening to Mozart makes a baby smarter. We have all heard these statements. Right? But are they true?

As funding for the arts continues to be severely threatened, the arts community finds itself having to justify its necessity and place in modern society. Those who grew up around creative pursuits understand the benefits innately.

But those that have not — a number that's on the rise — need evidence.

Out of need often comes synergistic relationships. Once thought of as disparate subjects, art and science are increasingly communicating as means to understand an organ so complicated that technology is just beginning to open the doors to deciphering its plurality: The brain.

Finding the solution

Exploring the Mind Through Music is the second conference hosted by Rice University's Shepherd School of Music — in collaboration with Rice University's Humanities Research Center and Methodist Hospital's Center for Performing Arts Medicine (CPAM) — aimed at opening conversations between musicians, scientists and scholars to begin understanding their relationship.

The man behind this initiative, Anthony K. Brandt, is better known to the Houston community as a Musiqa composer passionate about modern music's essential place in societal development. 

"Music has been a part of every human culture," he explains. "Nobody knows why, but we can speculate it is part of our software, spanning thousands of years."

Technology has been able to illustrate electrical activity in the brain. During a music performance, the energy emitted would be blinding. 

"Consciousness lies just at the perimeter of brain activity," he continues, inspired by Eagleman's recently released book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. "Consciousness is the last step in a series of processes. Think of consciousness as the headlines emerging out of a very busy town. The rest is largely inaccessible to us. Music provides a window into that world." 

According to Eagleman, the brain constructs an internal representation of reality and it monitors and only pays attention when something changes or it notices error. 

"Although there is a place in society for groove-oriented music (regular and stable are characteristics of most popular music), classical music tells a lot about brain activities because it never ceases to 'break, bend and blend' material. Classical music gives us insights into how the brain monitors flow, changes, nuance and subtlety." 

The "breaking, bending and blending" tendencies of music translate immediately into lifestyle truths.

Skeptical? Think about governments breaking from civil unrest. Relationships causes people to blend and engage in a give-and-take process. We constantly bend our ways to better work with people.

No one has been able to establish cognitive universals regarding music.

"Science is trying to explain what the arts are," Brandt said. "The arts are a moving target. Its basic nature is to take whatever its got and reshapes it. In Zen philosophy, it is said that the only permanent truth is impermanence."

Concepts of western music characteristics like high and low pitches, happy/sad correlations with major/minor modes, and spatial relationships are not the same from culture to culture. 

So the research and conversation begins. 

The nuts and bolts of the conference

A selected group of 30 fellows — half are musicians and half are scientists — began arriving Monday night from as far as China, Israel and Sweden to partake in a cross-pollination exchange. They will participate in forums to better understand each other's discipline, facilitated by visiting faculty including David Huron from Ohio State University, Fred Lerdahl from Columbia University, Aniruddh Patel from The Neurosciences Institute and Robert Zatorre from McGill University, and resident faculty including musicologist Gregory Barnett, cellist Norman Fischer, cognitive scientists and linguists Suzanne Kemmer and Bob Slevc, music therapist Christine Neugebauer, philosopher Casey O'Callaghan, David Eagleman, and Richard Stasney, otolaryngologist and head of the The Methodist Hospital Center for Performing Arts Medicine (CPAM). 

The best things in life are free, and for the public, so is this conference.

Here's what you should catch:

Tuesday: Music, Emotion and Memory

Robert Zatorre's "Music in the Brain: Pitch, Imagery and Emotion" lecture at 7:30 p.m. is followed by David Huron's "What is a Musical Work? And Other Curiosities of Memory." These back-to-back presentations explore the primary function of memory which according to Huron, is to predict the future and ensure survival.

So what's the value of recalling a piece of music? His charismatic approach explores music and emotion. Zatorre investigates the scientific link. Schubert and The Beatles are brought into it. 

Wednesday: The Mind, Body and Language Connection

From 2 to 4:30 p.m., a triple lecture begins with Norman Fischer's "Musician, Athlete, Performer: Incorporating Mental Procedures to Train the Advanced Player." He suggests that mental preparation, imagination and visualization is just as effective as actual physical practice.

Fischer's hypothesis, which is beginning to be proven by science, could have major implications in the training and education of young musicians. 

If you are a musician or performer, attend Richard Stasney's "Medical Problems of Performing Artists" talk. He will discuss causes, symptoms and treatments for overuse ailments often found in performing artists.

"The Art and Science of Music Therapy" by Christine Neugebauer studies how music can be used as a tool to treat conditions like autism.

At 7 p.m., the discourse turns to the never-ending topic: Is music a language? Is language musical? 

Pulitzer prize-winning composer Fred Lerdahl begins with establishing the relationship between "Linguistic and Musical Syntax." In "Music, language, syntax and brain," Aniruddh Patel looks at the commonalities from a cognitive level. 

Thursday: Music and Perception

At 2 p.m., David Eagleman will focus on two areas of research: Synesthesia and the perception of time. We have been accustomed to think of the brain as a compartmentalized organ. Eagleman feels that the future of research lies in changing this paradigm to a networked model.

Synesthesia, the interconnectivity of cognition and intelligence where one sense inexplicably evokes another, offers a doorway into understanding thought processes. 

Notice that time seems to go rather quickly sometimes and very slow at others? Eagleman draws a connection with neural engagement.

Casey O'Callaghan's "Crossmodal perception in the arts" proposes that what we may perceive as universal may not be the case.

The public forums end at 7 p.m. Thursday with 17 fellows presenting their research and ideas.

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