Auditory Cognition Summer School 2011

Earlier this year an invitation to apply for a week long Auditory Cognition Summer School at the University of Groningen arrived in my inbox. The opportunity to meet people with the similar interests and extend the international network of  Music, Mind & Brain MSc prompted a quick response to the requested justification of interest and relevance. The acceptance criteria were devised to promote generative discourse amongst a diverse group, chosen on the basis of the relevance of their research interests. Following a successful application, the Netherlands rail network provided my seamless and civilised arrival in the sunny town of Groningen 2 hours north west of Amsterdam.

My welcome pack included updated information about the educational and social programme, speakers and participants – and instructions on picking up my free bike! Cycling around Groningen is easy, fun and safe (apart from an early near crash caused by my misunderstanding of European cycling etiquette!). The campus consists of both ‘state of the art’ facilities and historically beautiful, exceptionally functional buildings. Founded
in 1614 with 5 Professors and 82 students, the University is now ranked as one of the Top 10 research institutes in Europe, comprising of 50,000 students. Consequently, Groningen is a city of enterprise and a dynamic base for scholarly application which proudly boasts
not only the ‘most contented inhabitants on the continent’ but also the worlds’ most beautiful urinal!

The first lecture covered the healthy and impaired auditory
system, given by expert audiologist, Deniz Baskent. The lab session comprised of techniques used for auditory testing, including otoacoustic emissions and pitch sensitivity, and utilised the latest software. After this, group projects (in the form of questions) were assigned and people paired from complementary disciplines. With many aspects of auditory cognition represented, from
biomedical engineers, to architects specialising in auditory design and experts in artificial intelligence, I looked forward to engaging with my new colleagues.

“Why do I like this [sound]?” was the questioned designed to stimulate debate amongst my group, which comprised of Anne, a PhD student from Leiden University studying the
influence of emotion on auditory processing; Erkin, a PhD student from Chalmers University (Sweden) researching the connections between haptic sensations and auditory perception and Vicky from the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing, University of Nottingham. We had 5 days to brain storm and prepare our presentation, but with a heavy educational and social programme, the pressure was on.

A ‘getting to know each other’ Tapas evening rounded off day 1, followed by a tasting of typical Dutch and Belgium beers. This included the entire history of beer, the process of making it and explanation of the various descriptions as well as the joy of an expert tasting session. This entails taking a swig, holding the beer in your mouth until it reaches room
temperature, then swallowing and breathing out through your nose at the same time in order to fully appreciate the complexity of the taste and aromas. Undoubtedly I am now a complete beer snob!

Dr Roy Patterson from Cambridge University thoroughly engaged with his lecture about his development of auditory images. In the subsequent lab session, we explored the freely available AIM software designed to generate, for example, glottal pulse rate, vocal tract length and display size-invariant representations of messages communicated at syllabic level. The illustration included here is a simulated auditory image of an /ae/ vowel, as
in the word ‘hat’. A seasoned speaker, Roy interspersed his talk with anecdotes about fish communication strategies which were informative and very amusing.

Saturday was reserved for a group outing to Amsterdam,
during which I spent a very enjoyable day with the programme director, Dr Tjeerd Andringa. Originally a Physicist and founding member of the Artificial Intelligence department at the University of Groningen, Tjeerd consults with INCAS3, (the Innovation Centre for Advanced Sensors and Sensors Systems) and is a board member of EuCognitionII. His interests in cognition range from synaptic cleft  to geopolitics, which we discovered led to lively debate over lunch. A true facilitator, Tjeerd introduced new ideas at regular intervals, consistently challenging the group to think outside the box.

The evening was spent at ctaste, an incredible fine dining ‘in the dark’ restaurant. The
removal on sight heightens the sensory experience of the taste, texture and smell of the food and wine. Blind waiters provide excellent service, but also some amusing Monty Pythonesque moments as crockery escaped and we tried to guess the menu. As we discovered, kangaroo presents as a slightly gamey lamb taste with the texture of horse! Not for the faint hearted, or for those of a claustrophobic disposition but an enlightening escapade as one battles to focus against overwhelming background noise and sensory overload.

Sunday saw more group work and a little rest before a Dutch pancake evening on a pirate boat, followed by a novel game of power point karaoke, in which you have to present an improvised lecture on novel topics such as ‘the geometry of rope tying’, or in my case…Vegetables. Let me just say, this game is a lot easier when you are sitting down watching everyone else.

Professor Susan Denham, head of Cognitive Neuroscience at Plymouth University and co-director of the summer school, gave a very interesting lecture on Monday concerning neuromorphic models of streaming. Building on the work of Bregmans’ Auditory Scene Analysis with her computational background, Sue’s current work looks at the competition between rivals in auditory processing and the flexibility of perception by modelling
sequences in CHAINS. This looks at the parameters of perception in a process defined as stochastic perceptual switching. The following lecture given by Dr Robert Mill explained more fully how the model differentiates between the factors of exclusivity, inevitability and randomness in order to ascertain why the (auditory) world appears stable. During the subsequent lab session, Sue tested the group for fundamental (frequency) listeners vs spectral component listeners, with predictions that some people appear to be extreme (for example, drummers like me tend towards fundamental frequencies) whilst others can be mixed. Results supported her model and happily I appeared as a percussive outlier.

Monday evening heralded the much anticipated ‘International Cooking Event’, in which we prepared culinary delights for the wonderful group of students who had been so welcoming, helpful and had obviously worked incredibly hard to organise the week for us. Everyone went to great lengths to provide samples of their gourmet heritage, from homemade arepas (cornmeal pancakes from Columbia) to Coco-Cola Chicken from China. Good old bread and butter pudding went down well from the British contingent, but
mostly it was heart warming to see how much effort people went to in order to
share their love of the food of their home nations.

The next day, Tjeerd presented his work regarding real world sound perception, questioning traditional approaches to listening and differentiating it from hearing. He also explained the process of the creation the verbal aggression detection system for unconstrained social environments by his company Sound Intelligence. Research enabling identification of a particular cohort of frequencies (which even actors couldn’t match for
intention of violence) has been implemented in stations around Holland to great
effect, generating philosophical questions concerning the slightly disconcerting ‘big brother’ overtones.

Tuesday evening was spent earnestly within groups preparing the next days’ presentations. This aspect of the week, with topics such as ‘Sonic environments to grow up in’ actually became one of the highlights as expertise from all areas was shared, although sadly not
enough time was assigned for full discussion. Wednesday continued with a fascinating lecture from Dr David Prior, an electroacoustic composer and ambisonic artist. Combining
art and science, David founded Liminal with his creative partner Frances Crow and won the PRS new music award with The Organ of Corti, currently on tour in the UK.
Having enjoyed the ‘sound walk’ David organised, I really hope I get a chance to experience more of his work.

Thinking about auditory stimuli from this perspective
reminded me that above all, the experience of sound as music is at the heart of my journey – a journey which has taken me through the wonders of our music, Mind and Brain course and now to Groningen for a wider perspective. Auditory
Cognition is an emerging rainbow of complimentary disciplines, which as ACG 2011 showed, can all inform each other and work together on an international level, creating space for innovative projects and future collaborations. If an invitation to ACG 2012 lands in your inbox – I recommend you reply.

ACG 2011 Group Photo

 

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