Brainsong

If you could translate your brain waves into music, what would it sound like? Would the sounds indicate anything meaningful to you? Some recent work published in PLoS One explores the characteristics of brain songs based on EEGs, and suggests that these songs do, in some circumstances, provide audible clues to brain activity.

Researchers in China translated data from EEGs into sequences of musical notes played on the piano. (Very roughly speaking, the amplitude of the brain waves was translated to pitch, the period to duration of the notes, and the average power to the intensity of the sound.) They processed EEGs taken during REM sleep (a sleep phase characterized by rapid eye movements and loss of muscle tone during which most vivid dreams occur) and during slow-wave or deep sleep. They found that volunteers who didn’t know which was which consistently attributed appropriate moods to the resulting musical sequences. The article (linked below) includes sound clips so you can listen for yourself.

I don’t grasp all the details of the conversion process, but thought it was fascinating to be able to listen to brain waves translated into piano music of a sort. The suggestion that such translated brain waves might someday be the basis of neurofeedback therapy was intriguing. (It seems like it would be wonderful to hear what my brain was doing and also hear how that activity changed according to my efforts. Could hearing brain waves really make it any easier to change your brain’s music from one song to another?) This bit of speculation toward the end is also quite interesting:

“We focus in particular on scale-free phenomena, which exist widely in nature and include those of neural activity, EEG, and human behavior. Therefore, the scale-free or equivalent power-law phenomenon may be an essential mechanism of the brain. In addition, this study also addresses an old question: why do people like music? A possible answer is that the brain and music both follow the same dynamic principle, the power-law, which may provide the most efficient method for humans to interact with the environment.

Scale-free music of the brain, Dan Wu, Chao-Yi Li, and De-Zhong Yao. PLoS ONE 4(6): e5915. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005915 (Published June 15, 2009)

3 Comments

  1. It makes me wonder whether aliens, when they receive our message packets saying, “Hello, this is Earth and this is us,” and then hear the music we’ve enclosed with the packet, will hear the sounds as ugly nonsense because their brains are so different.

  2. Good point, especially considering the range of things that different humans consider musically pleasing or displeasing. Whatever the basic mechanisms are that make music “work” for humans, there’s a lot of variation at higher levels.

  3. Goes along well with your review of Musicophilia, which is still on my reading list. This study is interesting in the way it links the different functions of the human brain (and mind): the tones are a musical translation the raw neurological brain data of sleeping humans, which then gets played back to other (awake) humans, who actually respond to it in its musical form and can interpret it on some level. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of the atomized data of our biological functioning with the more abstract, aesthetic compound processes of musical expression and interpretation…the parts of ourselves that tend to elude the lens of science.

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