What does music do to our brains, or did Einstein really know what he was doing?

August 16, 2016

Einstein playing his violin in 1931, aboard the S.S. Belgenland, travelling from New York to San Diego. Vintage Everyday image.

Einstein playing his violin in 1931, aboard the S.S. Belgenland, travelling from New York to San Diego. Vintage Everyday image. Einstein claimed to get great joy from his violin. Did it also help his physics work?

Albert Einstein played a mean violin. I don’t think any recordings exist, but some say he was good enough to have earned a slot in a decent symphony.

Albert Schweitzer made money to support his work for health in Africa by offering organ recitals.

Thomas Edison liked to hire men in his lab who played instruments. In the midst of high pressure experimentation, they would often take a break as a group, and do a performance just for themselves.

People who make music often claim they do it to relax, but there may be more than mere relaxation going on when we play an instrument or sing. It’s possible making music makes us better at doing other things, too.

Should we be surprised this showed up from the World Economic Forum?

It’s an article by Assal Habibi who is a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, at the website of WEF, explaining where his group is going to find out how music training affects the way we think and work.

Over the past two decades, several investigators have reported differences in the brain and behavior of musicians compared to nonmusicians.

Music training has been found to be related to better language and mathematical skills, higher IQ and overall greater academic achievement. Also, differences between musicians and nonmusicians have been found in areas of the brain related to hearing and movement, among others.

However, the interpretation of the findings remains unclear. For example, the differences reported between adult musicians and nonmusicians might be due to long-term intensive training or might result primarily from inherent biological factors, such as genetic makeup.

Or, as with many aspects of the nature-versus-nurture debate, the differences may well result from contributions of both environmental and biological factors.

One way to better understand the effects of music training on child development would be to study children before they start any music training and follow them systematically after, to see how their brain and behavior change in relation to their training.

It would involve including a comparison group, as all children change with age. The ideal comparison group would be children who participate in equally socially interactive but nonmusical training, such as sports. Follow-up assessments after their training would reveal how each group changes over time.

Go take a look.

If you’re a teacher, ask whether you should be incorporating more music into your social studies, language or science classes. If you’re a manager or employer, ask whether you should be encouraging your team members to find musical outlets.

If you’re just curious, ask whether you wouldn’t be better off to volunteer in a local choir or band.

Maybe we should all dance to beats of different drummers, and violinsts, and guitarists, and clarinetists and . . .

Three years of this study remain. But these interim results are promising. They support previous findings on the positive impact of music training on brain development.

Our findings suggest that music training during childhood, even for a period as brief as two years, can accelerate brain development and sound processing. We believe that this may benefit language acquisition in children given that developing language and reading skills engage similar brain areas. This can particularly benefit at-risk children in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods who experience more difficulties with language development.

Should we be using this tool to better educate our kids?

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Optical illusions, and “Bloody Mary” images

October 24, 2010

Take a look at this.  Focus on the “+” in the middle, and describe what you see.

Troxler Effect, the purple chaser

Troxler Effect image

No, the purple dots don’t disappear, though that’s probably what you “see.”  Worse, there’s no green dot.  Your brain sees green when the purple disappears — and even when your brain refuses to let you know the purple dots are still there, it will tell you you see a green dot when the purple dots you can’t see, disappear.

So, is it so hard to understand that people might see weird things in the mirror, if they stare at their own faces for a while?

Cortical Hemming and Hawing has the full story, with a history of the Bloody Mary story.  Go see.


Synesthesia? In every school

February 28, 2009

Do the math:  930,000 U.S. kids with synesthesia, out of 60 million students.  (Okay, “synaesthesia” for the British search programs.)

You might have one. A pyschologist in Britain did the research.

For the first time, psychologists have documented the prevalence of a form of synaesthesia – the condition that leads to a mixing of the senses – in a large sample of children. Over a twelve month period, Julia Simner and colleagues tested 615 children aged six to seven years at 21 UK schools and conservatively estimated that 1.3 per cent of them had grapheme-colour synaesthesia, in which letters and numbers involuntarily trigger the sensation of different colours.

“[This] implicates over 170,000 children age 0–17 in the UK alone, and over 930,000 in the USA,” the researchers said, “and suggests that the average primary school in England and Scotland (n = 168 pupils) contains 2.2 grapheme-colour synaesthetes at any time, while the average-sized US primary school (n = 396 pupils) contains 5.1.” Inevitably, the prevalence for synaesthesia as a whole, considering all the sub-types, would be even higher.

A hall-mark of grapheme-colour synaesthesia is that the colour triggered by a given letter or number is always the same – a fact the researchers exploited to identify the condition in school children.

Indeed, when asked to associate letters with colours, the children identified as synaesthetes showed more consistency over a 12-month-period than the other children did over a ten second period!

Researchers calculated about 5 such students in the average U.S. school, assuming a student population of about 400.

400!  In Texas that’s a tiny high school that may have difficulty fielding a football team.

In Brain, a journal of neurology (abstract available, full text with subscription).

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Simner, J. Harrold, H. Creed, L. Monro, L. Foulkes (2008). Early detection of markers for synaesthesia in childhood populations. Brain, 132 (1), 57-64 DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn292


Tip of the old scrub brush to Research Digest Blog.

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No one believes it. Is it so?

August 9, 2008

One of the great mysteries of history is how an entire nation of people can follow a leader into tragedy — a stupid war, economic morass, cultural suicide, genocide, or other tragedy — without appearing to notice they were going against their national values, against reason, against morality.

I wonder if part of the answer can be found by studying the way our brains perceive things, in particular, the way our brains force us to see things that are not so.

Some things are just so unbelievable, our brains tell us we’re seeing something different, something more believable. Here are two examples, the Charlie Chaplin mask illusion, and the Einstein mask illusion.

Chaplin — you know it’s concave, but the nose sticks out every time:

Einstein — is Big Brother really watching you? What do your eyes say?

Here’s a nasty little kicker: Even when most people know that it’s an illusion, they can’t perceive the illusion-in-action; as Paul Simon wrote, “Still a man sees what he wants to see and he disregards the rest.” See Stephen Fry’s discussion about the illusion from BBC2:

Historical applications

  • CIA chief William Colby was involved in Operation Phoenix during the Vietnam War. When investigations revealed that the operation involved torture, many people refused to believe the U.S. would be involved in torture (good!). And even after he admitted to Congressional committees that he had personally authorized the torture, people had difficulty believing it. David Wise wrote an article about Operation Phoenix for the New York Times Magazine, July 1, 1973: “Not one of Colby’s friends or neighbors, or even his critics on the Hill, would, in their wildest imagination, conceive of Bill Colby attaching electric wires to a man’s genitals and personally turning the crank. “Not Bill Colby… He’s a Princeton man.'”
  • “[T]he Russians are finished. They have nothing left to throw against us,” a confident Adolf Hitler told Gen. Franz Halder in July 1941. Russia mired down the German army, making the phrase “the Eastern Front” a dreaded death sentence in German commands. In the end, it was the Soviet Army that first got to Berlin, and captured Hitler’s command bunker where der Führer had committed suicide a short time before. Adding to the historic irony, twice over: First, Stalin refused to believe his intelligence service reports that the Nazis were massing on the border of Russia, just two years after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which pledged neither nation would invade the other. Second, Hitler’s generals had studied Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, working to avoid all the mistakes Napoleon made. So sure were the Nazis of their superiority to Napoleon in every way, they invaded Russia on the anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion, June 22, 1941. Great shades of Santayana’s Ghost!
  • Bush administration historians will wonder why Bush was able to do what he did, in the Iraq war and other situations foreign and domestic, with even members of his own party who saw him close up believing he’d do something different. See this story by Ron Susskind, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, based on an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam.  (See also documents from the National Security Agency archives.)
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

Richard Feynman discussed at length how scientists know their experimental results are accurate, and how to keep science honest. He pointed out that most of the time, errors creep in at the start, and some people just refuse to believe they exist. It is easiest to fool ourselves, Feynman said — and so a good scientist understands that, and protects against self-deception. If only other disciplines could adopt that philosophy, strategy and tactics!

Faith can get us through troubled times, but often gets us into troubled times in the first place.

Do you have other examples of self-delusion by illusionary means?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Vous Pensez.


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