Sound Health: Music and the Mind

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Kennedy Center for the Arts have teamed up to explore the connections among music, the brain, and human wellness. The idea for the “Sound Health” partnership came up in conversations between NIH director Francis Collins and renowned soprano and Kennedy Center artistic advisor Renée Fleming. In March NIH hosted a science workshop, where researchers shared what they know about sound and sense with Fleming and other musicians, scientists, and music therapists. This past weekend, they moved to the Kennedy Center for a shared performance with the National Symphony Orchestra and a day of talk and music-making for the general public.

Bone flute from Geissenklösterle, a cave in Germany. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

“Music is a critical part in understanding how the brain works,” Collins said on Friday. It’s likely that early people made music before developing formal language–we’ve found  flutes that are more than 35,000 years old. “It’s critical to understanding” how the oldest circuits in our brains work, and it can add “new and stronger scientific basis” to the range of techniques that music therapists use to help people recover from stroke, trauma, chronic pain, and other maladies.

All the Saturday events except a kids’ movement workshop were recorded; I’m including them here. They are all worth a watch or two, with engaging scientists talking interspersed with great musicians performing. Together they add up to more than seven hours, so take your time! I’m listing them in the order of the day, but if you want the general overview, skip down to “The Future of Music and the Mind” (but that is the only one without a musical performance).

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The Arts and the Brain

Arts brain aaasFrom left, Alan Leshner of AAAS, Christopher Tyler, Nina Kraus, and Gary Vikan answer audience questions.

Our brains glow with activity when we view or do art. Now that scientists can scan our brains in the act of observation and creation, what can they tell us about what is going on in there?

Quite a bit, we discovered during an evening of talk, food, music, and interactive art at the AAAS office in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco presented images ranging from cave drawings to Jackson Pollock that illustrated the idea of embodied cognition.“You can’t appreciate the work unless you feel it in your body,” he said.

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