Noises In Your Head

ICA Event – 17th February 2011

The ICA leads the way in offering interesting, integrative and inspiring evenings. Tonight was no exception with the event blurb enticing an extraordinary range of artists, musicians, scientists and culture hounds.

As one Music, Mind and Brain guest exclaimed, it’s one thing knowing how it feels when the cogs turn, but what happens inside? How do our brains look when we’re “doing music”? And the fact that we “do music”, rather than just experiencing it, was the impression left by the eloquent speakers at an evening suitably divided into two halves.

Areas of the brain associated with speech production

First to speak was producer and curator Joana Seguro, who devised the “Faster Than Sound: Brainwaves” project. She wanted to create a ground-breaking, innovative and experimental collaboration. Combining a scientific background (in pharmacology) with music industry experience, Joana brought together composers Mira Calix and Anna Meredith, a visual design group (, the Aurora Orchestra quartet and Professor Vincent Walsh (UCL) as consultant neuroscientist, to design and produce an audiovisual event in just one week.

Fusing the clanking sounds of MRI scanners (equipment used to image the brain and its activity) with electronic programming, interactive sculpture, multiple musical genres and digital art forms, the result of the collaboration was showcased to the audience in a short “making of” montage. We heard serene string lines giving way to mechanical noises, a disturbing yet ethereal combination. Strange neon swirls and mazes set the stage for the lab coat-clad laptop musicians; glimpses of the score revealed something more akin to a set of architectural drawings. This taster was enough to delight at the news of a tour later this year.

As consultant for the Brainwaves project, Professor Vincent Walsh described his personal disappointment at the cynical claim that “most of the best work in the arts is probably behind us”. He suggested that artists and scientists are often interested in the same problems but describe them with different vocabulary and approach them in different ways. Vincent acknowledged that it can be difficult to meet halfway, but paid testament to the experts (artists, musicians, film makers and programmers) who, in his opinion, are streets ahead of science when it comes to understanding and exploiting the interdependence of hearing and vision.

With good-humoured self-deprecation, Vincent described the functions of sections of the brain in order to establish the point he most wanted the audience to take away with them: that “the brain helplessly and stupidly makes maps” of all it perceives, regardless of the type of sensory input (e.g. visual, auditory). By carving up the brain into separate sections to better understand it, we run the risk of over-simplifying and missing the bigger picture. Though certain types of sensory information are primarily processed in different neural areas, the same electrochemical processes are at work everywhere. The brain can reorganise itself to make the best use of its valuable real estate (as is the case when the visual cortex of blind people is recruited to better process sound), and information from one sense can affect how we perceive information from another.

In order to show how both our eyes and ears can be tricked, Vincent compared the paradoxes of Escher’s Ascending and Descending picture and Shepard Scales. Audiovisual perception is fragile and shaped by our expectations, an idea wonderfully illustrated with an excerpt of Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival. Further clips demonstrated the way that what we see influences what we hear, strengthening Vincent’s argument that it is a mistake to think of music as a purely auditory event.

The second part of the evening introduced the human voice as one of the most complex sounds we routinely come across. Dr Carolyn McGettigan, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, enthusiastically explained her reasons for working with Reeps One,

Reeps One - UK Beatbox Champion

the UK beatbox champion. A fascinating description of how we create sound using the air in our lungs, our larynx, and mouth, lips and tongue as articulators (like musical instruments), was brilliantly illustrated using a sequence of MRI pictures. Dr McGettigan explained that humans can talk as a result of evolutionary adaptations, while our primate brethren cannot. Our upright walking assists breath control, our palette is domed, our muzzles foreshortened for articulation and our larynxes lower, probably due to sexual selection.

As speech is an expert behaviour for most of us, Dr McGettigan wanted to understand why some people (such as impressionists, professional singers, phoneticians, actors and beatboxers) can take their voices to another level. Vocalising is particularly amenable to testing as it is still possible to produce normal speech in MRI scanners, unlike demonstrating other areas of expertise such as professional footballing or dancing skills. After being approached at the UK Championships, it turned out that Reeps One (Harry) was also interested to know more about how he “does it”.

From the age of 13, Harry had spent time creating sounds whilst walking to his friend’s house. He realised he was vocalising a beat, listening to it, and almost dancing at the same time. At this point in the evening, Harry stole the show with an awe-inspiring display of his talents. He traced a process he calls a “sound tree” from initial sources, such as using the sounds of the letters ‘B’ and ‘K’ for the kick and snare drums, adding a hum for resonance and further developing them in imaginative ways, sometimes producing several tones simultaneously. Harry says “When it sounds right, it feels right” and the audience couldn’t help but agree as our chairs literally vibrated with the bass frequencies he created. Check him out here.

Dr McGettigan and her team recorded Harry in the echoic chamber at UCL and showed us the sound wave and spectrogram results, graphically representing the incredible complexity of intensities and harmonies Harry creates. Using a laryngograph they measured the vibrations on his neck, and we were able to listen to the sound source alone, comparing the switches between tones induced by changes in the larynx for counting and beatboxing.

Whilst extraction of the acoustics was revealing for comparison with speech, Dr McGettigan was more interested in answering cognitive questions, so as well as showing scans elucidating the dexterity of Harry’s articulators she succinctly explained the use of fMRI in order to report results accurately (essentially exploding the myth that the brain simply “lights up” when activated). Harry’s tasks were to beatbox, count and rest as requested so that the scientists could evaluate the differences between actions and recruitment of brain areas.

Compared to producing no sounds, Dr McGettigan found that both counting and beatboxing resulted in extra activity in the parts of the brain involved in movement (primary motor cortex and cerebellum) and feedback on those movements (somatosensory cortex). Perhaps surprisingly, Reeps’ specialist activity didn’t seem to draw on different parts of the brain than when he simply counted – though the brain activity was more intense when he was beatboxing.

In order to examine expert-novice differences, Dr McGettigan managed to persuade her boss to undertake the same scan and found recruitment of similar areas but with enhanced activity in the areas associated with hearing or imagining sound (temporal cortex) as well as structures involved in planning. The results imply that perhaps the novice was actively thinking more about how to produce the beats and imagining how they would sound. Perhaps expertise leads to more focused activation, different strategies, and greater efficiency? Experts may naturally call up complex routines which novices have yet to acquire.

Some people might argue that a scanner isn’t a very realistic environment for a beatboxer – perhaps Reeps’ brain does something completely different in his “natural habitat”. This challenge of “ecological validity” is faced by many scientists who need to maintain control over factors they are not investigating, in order to ensure results are reliable. Dr McGettigan and others may need to be inventive to take this research further and continue to answer questions about how the brain “does music”.

Tonight’s engaging and wide-ranging event helps us recognise that art in all its forms is so much more than purely aesthetic, and that science need not be restricted to the lab. Further exciting collaborations amongst a new breed of scientists and artists are bound to follow, and the best work may well be yet to come.

Dawn Rose and Alex Billig

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