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…

Do you know why you prefer the music you prefer?

A study in press at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, carried out by Peter J. Rentfrow, Lewis R. Goldberg and Daniel J. Levitin suggests that our preferences for music are related with 5 different underlying factors.

Like with other art forms, we engage with music at many different levels. On the one hand, music emerges from a complex interaction of acoustic properties and auditory processes, but on the other it conveys emotions and has strong social connotations. One of the aims of researchers interested in musical preferences is to determine how people’s preferences for music are related with those levels. Some preferences might be influenced by music’s purely physical properties, like loudness, tempo, and so on, the emotion it conveys, or its social implications.

Rentfrow and colleagues’ objective was to characterize the underlying structure of affective reactions to music excerpts. To achieve this aim they performed four experiments. First, they assessed the preferences of a sample of Internet users for fragments of commercially released but unfamiliar pieces of music. Second, they repeated this process with a sub-sample of participants using new unreleased pieces of music. Third, they assessed the preference of a sample of university students for a subset of the new music pieces. Finally, the musical fragments were coded on a number of attributes that could be used to characterize each of the underlying preference factors.

The results of their first three experiments converge on the existence of 5 main factors underlying musical preference determined both by social connotations and particular auditory features: (i) Mellow, which comprises smooth and relaxing music; (ii) Unpretentious, including mostly singer-song writer music; (iii) Sophisticated, including music perceived as complex, intelligent and inspiring; (iv) Intense, with loud, energetic and forceful music; (v) Contemporary, which comprises rhythmic and percussive music.

Their fourth study revealed that each factor is characterized by a unique set of attributes that distinguishes it from the rest. Specifically, excerpts with high loading on the Mellow factor were perceived as slow, quiet, undistorted, romantic, relaxing, unaggressive, sad, simple and interesting. Unpretentious music is rated as undistorted, instrumental, loud, electric, not fast, somewhat romantic, relaxing, sad, unaggressive, not complicated, and not intelligent. Sophisticated includes mostly instrumental, not electric, not percussive, not distorted, not loud, intelligent, inspiring, complex, relaxing, romantic and unaggressive music. Intense music was perceived as distorted, electric, loud, percussive, dense, aggressive, not relaxing, not romantic, not intelligent, and not inspiring. Music with high loadings on the Contemporary factor was rated as percussive, electric, and not sad.

If one of neuroaesthetics’ aims is to clarify the biological underpinnings of people’s liking and preference for music, these results are of relevance for at least two reasons. First, researchers should probably take these factors into account when designing future studies. Second, it would interesting to ascertain the neurobiological concomitants of such factors, and to determine whether there are any differences among the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience of people whose preferences clearly differ across those factors.

Rentfrow, P. J., Goldberg, L. R., & Levitin, D. J. (2011, February 7). The Structure of Musical Preferences: A Five-Factor Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0022406

Music for relaxation or relaxation for music?

Many people feel that music has powerful effects on their mood and emotions. The fact that lullabies exist attests to music’s capacity to soothe. Adults too use music to relax: they play music to focus before an exam or to cool down after a stressful day. If music is beneficial for relaxation, could relaxation be beneficial for music? A recent study by Oshin Vartanian (DRDC Toronto) and Peter Suedfeld (University of British Columbia) adds to the growing evidence that relaxation and music might be mutually beneficial.

The study aimed to test whether a particular form of relaxation could enhance certain aspects of jazz improvisation. Prior evidence had shown that floating in a virtually stimulus-less environment (floatation version of the restricted environmental stimulation technique-REST) enhances perceptual and motor skills as well as creativity in sports and sciences. This disconnection from external stimulation reduces stress and induces a state of relaxed alertness and concentration. Could the same technique also lead to improvements in the perceptual-motor and creative aspects involved in jazz improvisation?

To answer this question Vartanian and Suedfeld asked 8 students enrolled in a jazz improvisation course to undergo one floatation session, which lasted an hour, each week for 4 weeks. Five other students acted as control group. All the participants individually performed five minute long freely conceived improvisations a week before and a week after the floatation sessions. These performances were recorded and then rated by an expert for improvisation, creativity, expressiveness, technical ability, and overall quality.

The results revealed that the initial performances of both groups of students did not differ on any of the assessment dimensions. However, the participants that completed the four floating sessions scored higher on technical ability than the control students on the post-treatment performance. No significant differences were found between both groups on any of the other measures. This result was confirmed by an independent measure of progress throughout the course.

Hence, flotation REST can improve the technical aspects inherent to musical improvisation. Contrary to the authors’ initial expectations, however, the same technique did not lead to better creativity scores. This might have been because these sessions have only short-term benefits on creativity, which faded before assessment. Alternatively, creativity in performing arts might not be expressed in the same ways as it is in other fields.

Clearly these results warrant further studies to test the effects of flotation REST on other musical abilities, as well as on other performing arts, and to clarify the neural mechanisms responsible for these improvements.