Conference report: The Neurosciences and Music IV – Learning and Memory: June 9th to 12th

Recently, the Mariani Foundation (Fondazione Pierfranco e Liuisa Mariani) invited to the fourth edition of their conference on Neurosciences and Music. With their conference – which is organized every third year – the Mariani Foundation aims to promote the dissemination of knowledge in research fields related to neurobiology, physiology, psychology, neuropsychology applied to music, with a strong emphasis on child development issues. Thus, this year, the extensive four-day conference was primarily focused on Learning and Memory. A wealth of fascinating symposia, workshops and poster sessions took place in the city of Edinburgh from the 9th-12th of June 2011. Scientists from all over the world enjoyed a very stimulating scientific program in the impressive venue of Edinburgh Hall and the Hub.

As the overall topic of this conference was the art form “music” and the scientific approaches as to how the human mind and brain perceives, reacts, interacts and may be modified with this perceptual experience, I think a summary of it could be of interest also to those who approach music and other artistic phenomena from a neuroaesthetics point of view. Hence, I’ll give an overview of the main topics discussed during the conference and post some links for further reading for those who are interested. I’ll also briefly summarize some of the conference contributions that I personally found particularly remarkable.

The conference took its starting point in a series of workshops designated to present the state-of-the-arts in the field with regards to experimental, social and real-world methods for studying music, all within a neuroscientific context concerned with the study of Learning and Memory. Furthermore, following the overall scope of the Mariani Foundation, a strong emphasis was also laid on how to approach the neuroscientific study of music-related topics with children, infants and even newborns.

During the first workshop, what mainly caught my attention was the proposal of an experimental protocol for fMRI studies with very young children presented by doctor Nadine Gaab from Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. After summarizing the main difficulties of using fMRI methodology with children, she proposed a series of guidelines to follow before, during and after the experiment with a child. These guidelines can be downloaded here: www.childrenhospital.org/research/gaab  The protocol mainly consists of three phases: (i) task training, (ii) movement prevention training and (iii) the use of presents, certificates etc. as motivators. She also stressed the importance of, firstly, a well-trained staff that uses child friendly concepts in their language such as, for instance „brain-camera“ instead of „scanner“, and secondly, equipment that is clearly child-friendly, such as, for instance, whole hand response devises.

Another particularly fascinating workshop was by professor Sandra Trehub from the Department of Psychology of the University of Toronto, Canada, who made a strong argument for the use of behavioural methods in developmental research, thus, tentatively defeating the neuroscientific scope of the conference. She reminded us of the available behavioural methods such as conditioning, referential listening or eyetracking with newborns and infants. She also pointed out the difficulty of maintaining such young participants’ attention centered in the experimental tasks. In this respect she suggested to accompany studies with additional measures such as heart rate as an indirect measure of attention (HR decreases with attention).

Further workshop contributions rounded off the first day. For me, the most remarkable three -a part from the two mentioned above- were (1) by Stephanie Uibel from the Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, on the project of the “Musikkindergarten”, (2) by Katie Overy from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh, UK, on the role of the phenomena of synchronization and imitation in the shared experience of music making, and, finally, (3) a breathtaking intervention by Nigel Osborne from the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development (IMHSD), University of Edinburgh, UK, on the use of music as an intervention tool with children who suffer from the PTSD after traumatic (mostly war) experiences.

Days two, three and four were dedicated to symposia with 4-5 talks each on diverse topics:

SYMPOSIUM I: Mechanisms of rhythm and meter learning over the life span (Chair: Erin Hannon).

SYMPOSIUM II: Impact of musical experience on cerebral language processing (Chair: Mathias Oechslin).

SYMPOSIUM III: Cultural neuroscience of music (Chair: Steven Demorest)

SYMPOSIUM IV: Memory and learning in music performance (Chair: Caroline Palmer, Peter Pfordresher)

SYMPOSIUM V: Mind and brain in musical imagery (Chair: Andrea Halpern & Robert Zatorre)

SYMPOSIUM VI: Plasticity and malplasticity in health and disease (Chair: Eckart Altenmüller)

SYMPOSIUM VII: The role of music in stroke rehabilitation: neural mechanisms and therapeutic techniques (Chair: Takako Fujioka and Teppo Särkämö)

SYMPOSIUM VIII: Music: a window into the world of autism (Catherine Wan)

SYMPOSIUM IX:  Learning and memory in musical disorders (Chair: Psyche Loui & Isabelle Peretz)

Summary coming up soon…

International Dance Day Today!

Since 1982 the International Dance Council (CID) of the UNESCO invites us to celebrate the International Dance Day on the 29th of April. Its aim is to promote the international recognition of dance as a distinctive art form because, as the CID notes, across countries and cultures of the world dance still does not receive the same attention and consideration as other art forms.

The universal recognition of dance as an art form has clear implications for neuroaesthetics! Research in this field in the past few years has shown dance to be a noteworthy art form that can gracefully reveal important details of the emotional, cognitive and neural underpinnings of human art appreciation.

However, neuroaesthetics of dance is undoubtedly still in its infancy. Research on dance appreciation poses an array of remarkable experimental design demands to the neuroaesthetician. The first obstacle to overcome is the short-lived nature of a piece of dance –it is gone at the very moment of performance. Moreover, for experimental purposes, ideally, the dance movements must be extracted from very thoroughly crafted choreographies; the movements must be isolated from facial and musical information and, furthermore, be presented to experimental participants in the remote setting of a laboratory. Undoubtedly, this entrains an experience in the observer that is considerably different from the experience of attending a genuine dance performance. Secondly, as in all art forms, the perception of a dance is notably influenced by its cultural background and meaning, as well as by the historical moment of choreography and performance. Thus, a truly ecological experimental approach to dance seems complicated, if not impossible. Nevertheless, scientific aesthetics can overcome at least some of these constraints. By integrating existing scholarship from dance theory and humanistic approaches on dance practice, neuroaesthetics may actually find ways to approach the process of experimental design with dance movements in a more ecological fashion.

Research on dance appreciation, so far, has focused on movement perception, structure perception and emotion recognition, both in behavioral and neuroimaging studies. However, to date only few studies have linked the findings from such basic research questions with the hedonics of the proper aesthetic experience derived from the observation of that same dance movement. This is where promising avenues of study for future experimental aesthetics and neuroaesthetics reside…