Dana Press Blog: Artful neuroscience

Artful neuroscience

July 14, 2008

Here at FENS 2008, the Forum of European Neuroscience meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week, we’ve been treated to the music of the alpenhorn and one of the jazz groups playing this week at Montreux. But the sonic highlight was two “experiments” conducted in one of the giant meeting rooms. 

In the first, mezzo-soprano Solenn’ Lavanant and pianist and professor of opera Gary Magby were the (scientific) instruments, neuroscientist Pierre Magistretti, psychiatrist François Ansermet and professor of opera Ioanna Bentoiu were the researchers, and the audience of more than 900 registered neuroscience junkies were the subjects. Lavanant performed each of three arias twice, trying to express different emotions each time. After each pair, Magistretti invited us listeners to describe what we heard.

We had a lot to say—and we proved his point: Artists transmit emotion through their performances, yet what I feel may not be what the listener sitting next to me feels. The vibrations of sound are filtered through our minds. One listener heard the first performance, an aria from The Barber of Seville, as melancholy, meaning sad; another said that for her the sound was sweet. To test whether we could guess the singer’s intentions without watching her face and movements, many of us closed our eyes through the second pair. Still good, and beautiful.

In the second experiment, composers Orazio Sciortino and Richard Rentsch treated us to two classically-inspired improvisations to show “the use of synchrony in the process of creativity,” said Magistretti. Or, as Rentsch put it, “notes are words, and when we put them together we speak with each other.”

The audience and the experimenters were so taken with the performances that they coaxed the players to carry on far longer than the allotted time. I can’t say I was too sorry when Magistretti said, “we had a neurobiological part [to the symposium], but we’ll keep it short” to let the players play.

The experiment will continue online: In a week or so, we’ll have the Webcast posted. The symposium, Music and the Brain: Perception to Emotion, was sponsored by the European Dana Alliance for the Brain.

—Nicky  Penttila