#WSF18: Why Music Makes Us Shiver

I have some friends who have tried to describe the overwhelming emotion they feel when listening to a certain piece of music, so much so that it sometimes brings them to tears. While I could empathize with the sensation, my reaction to the same piece was often completely different. Personal experience and context for which the piece is playing are just two variables that can affect the way we interpret music and explain why we find some melodies more mesmerizing than others. But what is it exactly that gives a piece its character, and what more is taking place within our brains when we process sounds?

To further explore this phenomenon of music and its ability to dictate our emotions, an expert group of neuroscientists and musicians took the stage for a World Science Festival event, “Notes on the Folds: Why Music Makes Us Shiver.” With John Schaefer, host and producer of a nationally-acclaimed WNYC radio show, as moderator, the conversation began with a solo performance by composer Mari Kimura.

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Mari Kimura and John Schaefer. Photo: World Science Festival

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Art in the Eye of the Beholder

The expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been used by many since it first appeared in print in the 19th century by writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. Cliché as it may sound, the idea behind this colloquialism—that perception is a subjective experience—is one that researchers are still working to unravel today. We’ve learned that aspects of perception (auditory, time, etc.) can be altered from depression, for example, and that there is a specific part of the brain dedicated solely to facial perception. Now, scientists are looking at differences in personality and how that affects the way a person visually examines a piece of artwork.

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Photo courtesy of James Cook University

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2018 Brain Awareness Video Contest

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Thanks to a growing Brain Awareness Week partnership, we know there are many people out there who are passionate about educating the public about the brain. The Brain Awareness Video Contest, sponsored by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), provides a wonderful opportunity to reach even more people, and to develop something unique and creative.

Due June 14, these videos must describe a neuroscience concept in less than five minutes, in a fun and captivating way. Anyone can enter! And on top of the sense of accomplishment, the top three winners and the People’s Choice winner receive cash prizes. The first-place winner will also receive a free trip to this year’s SfN annual meeting in sunny San Diego, where the video will be screened at the Brain Awareness Reception.

For contest details, visit the BrainFacts.org website, run by SfN.

Good luck!

And All That Jazz: A Q&A with Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D.

Guest post by Kayt Sukel 

Famed artist Barbara Januszkiewicz once said, “Jazz is the art of thinking out loud.” Is it any wonder then that jazz has made its way into a variety of neuroscience laboratories to help researchers investigate the neural underpinnings of creativity, communication, and timing?

In honor of International Jazz Day, a day designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to celebrate jazz’ ability to connect people from all over the globe, Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D. , a neurologist at Columbia University (and jazz guitar player), shares his thoughts about jazz, timing, and the celebration of what our brains do each and every day in the service of cognition.

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Photo: Michael Shadlen

You are a jazz guitarist. What first got you interested in playing jazz music?

MS: I’ve always been interested in music. When I was younger, I played the violin. Later, I switched to guitar—mainly because my violin teacher wanted me to choose between basketball, girls, and violin. So I switched to guitar. I played in a rock band for a long time doing covers. We had the Bar Mitzvah circuit down!

But the drummer in our band was in the jazz band in high school. And he turned me on to it. We’d go to this amazing café called Amazing Grace in Evanston, Illinois. They had mostly folk music but also a lot of jazz acts. I remember seeing Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, and all kinds of amazing artists play there. It was pretty spectacular.

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Coben Reveals Secrets to Success

A recent Brainwave program focused on a best-selling author’s approach to writing thrillers. The featured guest was Harlan Coben, the 56-year-old author of 30 novels (seven New York Times No. 1 bestsellers) and a Jersey guy with a shaved head and a keen sense of humor. Matching wits and finding neuroscience angles was David Eagleman, the Stanford University-based author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, and the writer and host of the Emmy-nominated PBS television series The Brain.

The Rubin Museum in New York City advertised the science of suspense as the program’s theme, but the conversation covered any number of areas that a writer of thrillers considers: memory, empathy, manipulation, human nature, and consciousness, to name a few.

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Coben explained that he helped jumpstart his thought process for his next book by sitting and observing people in Strawberry Fields in Central Park for three days.

Coben’s stories almost always contain woods and basketball and are set in North Jersey, where he lives (Ridgewood) with his pediatrician wife and two dogs. Growing up in a loud, Jewish home in Livingston, he said storytelling was essential to be heard at the dinner table. Even with four children, he says he still thinks of himself as a 17-year-old who is waiting for his life to begin. He believes that every individual has their own compelling story to tell and, in discussing human nature, said with a twinge of sarcasm, “We think we are uniquely complex, and no one knows what is really going on inside us. At the same time, we all think we are very good at reading the thoughts of others.”

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