Archived entries for The Latest

the hand

Yesterday, after a wonderful meal at Moroccan restaurant Kous Kous, I walked around the Hillcrest neighborhood with my cousin. We stopped in 5th Ave. Books which had a pretty excellent science section with categories like



I can’t wait to start reading it because a) it sounds awesome and b) it had a couple pages about Mark Mitton, the Haverford grad magician I met last week!

magic & techno

This past Thursday, a magician visited the Neurosciences Institute. I heard rumblings of his presence over lunch, but I had failed to cross paths with him until I went on a hunt for the owner of some unattended, unrecognized items in the conference room. I needed to do some sound testing in that room but didn’t want to inconvenience the person whose stuff was there, so find the owner I did. And I’m glad I did.

Enter Mark Mitton.

I found him in the office/lab of robotics engineer Donald Hutson, the mastermind behind the speaker apparatus for the music therapy study. After a few moments of creepily lurking in the doorway and eavesdropping on the conversation the two were having with John, I joined in the fun. Mitton’s friend and NSI contact David Edelman, a Swarthmore alum, walked in the room with a handful of brown paper lunch bags and hands one to each of us. Mitton taught us how to throw up an imaginary ball and have it land in the paper bag. He even taught us how to play catch with these imaginary balls. Amazing!

Even though this was the only trick I saw Mitton do and the secret was revealed, I know that Mitton is a good magician. Between his wit, intelligence, and energy, he could outsmart the curls out of my hair! He also tends to switch from topic to topic, as one word of a conversation reminds him of story, experience, or article. His voracious thirst for knowledge combined with his composed excitement manifest with full commitment to the amazing questions, phenomena, and truths that pervade his(/our) world.

As Donald, David, John, Mark and I were tossing around the imaginary ball, we eventually started to sync up. Mitton noted that once, at a conference, a woman approached him after the ball-throwing activity saying that her partner-in-catch was exuding all kinds of good chemistry her way: he caught every ball she threw. Here, the sensorimotor experience led this woman to feel an emotional connection. Indeed, this is not an isolated incident. John mentioned a line of research in group cooperation where people are more likely to cooperate successfully in problem-solving tasks if they first tap the same rhythm together. Mitton noted his experience singing in the chorus as an undergrad, where his school’s group would combine with the other two in his consortium and he would come out of the experience feeling truly connected to everyone, even the people he didn’t know. (P.S. What consortium was this? None other than the Tri-Co, where Mitton was a graduate with the Haverford Class of 1982 with a B.A. in Economics. Cool!)

Appropriately, the conversation skipped to DJs, who draw upon their ability to sense, understand, and interact with the audience in a large-scale, macrocosmic version of the bag trick-induced sensorimotor effect. While many concerts are a give-and-take between artist and audience, DJ performances seem to come with greater expectations. Just as early disc jockeys spun records based on the mood of the audience or the mood they were trying to instill in the audience, current DJs like Tiesto and deadmau5 have the ability to align and extend electronic blips in ways that make overjoyed puppets out of the audience members.

For an example of what the magician was talking about and what I’m trying to reiterate here, compare the first video to the second. The first shows Nosaj Thing, an LA-based electronic and remix artist, performing a DJ set by himself in a room at the Seattle radio station KEXP. The second is a live recording of Nosaj at the Low End Theory Club in LA. There are obviously other variables aside from audience that differentiate the videos (i.e., venue and presence of video projection), but it is pretty clear how Nosaj is reacting to and manipulating the audience.

the smiths and i

I am way behind on my entries regarding my academic and social life here. Hopefully, I will catch up soon but to be honest with you, I’ve been too busy living my academic and social lives to blog about them. Translation: 2busy2blog

Anyway, a quick anecdote from my evening:

I made some roasted beets for dinner. Ani gave them to me last week from the organic food collective to which he belongs. (He also gave me kale.) The process of cutting up the beets resulted in a kitchen counter easily mistakeable for the location where Barney was murdered. But, I cleaned it up pretty well, and it was worth it.

As they were roasting, Jay and Penny returned home to me chopping some lots of red onions and garlic. “To go with my roasted beets,” I said. Penny, without a second to think, asked, “Are you going to toss those beets with feta, too?”

“Why, indeed Penny!” I replied, surprised that she knew my plan. “How did you know that?”

And she starts to sing the chorus of this:

the worth of viral infection

The other day I walked into lunch thirty minutes late and sat at table with some familiar faces. They promptly left, and I met some new folks. One of them, David Edelman, went to Swarthmore, and we had a great conversation about the liberal arts experience on the Main Line. I also met Geoffrey Owens, whose most recent work (as I understand it) concerns extracting photosensitive genes from bacteria and using viruses to infect rats’ brains with them. He uses fiberoptics to shine a light onto the area of the brain where the gene is expressed and observes how it affects their behavior.

Today at the hospital, I mentioned this to one of the fellows and she was like, “Oh, that sounds sort of like gene therapy.” I’ve spent the past ten minutes on the Wikipedia page for gene therapy, and I’m pretty much in awe. It is essentially the insertion of genes into cells and tissue to treat conditions where a mutant gene is causing problems. Many of the vectors for this gene insertion are viruses, which have perfected the art of infiltrating cells with their own genetic  material. Most notably, gene therapy has been quite a successful cancer treatment, but it is not yet widespread.

In recent history, when you hear “virus,” it is either being discussed in regard to H1N1 or some computer bug that managed to wipe away years of documents (and, if really unlucky, gigabytes of songs).  Yet another popular application is the “viral video,” or a video that has gathered a substantial amount of Internet fame and on occasion, infiltration into other forms of media or intellectual engagement.

A perfect example of this “infiltration” is marked by one of Ani and John’s recent research forays. They came across the video of the cockatoo Snowball dancing to “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys.

They noticed that it seemed to be keeping the beat as it danced and wanted to determine whether it actually was. As I noted in a much earlier post, vocal learning is the ability to produce complex sound patterns based on auditory input. This phenomenon also exists in songbirds, hummingbirds, whales, dolphins, bats, and seals.

Last Sunday, CBS Sunday Morning had a feature on Snowball and this research:

They left out an important finding, though. John and Ani changed the tempo of the same song to see if Snowball would be able to synchronize to the altered tempo, and he was! The study results have been published in several places, authored by Ani, John, a UCSD affiliate named Micah Bregman and Snowball’s owner Irena Schultz. One of them, “Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal,” is available here.

the earth quakes

On Monday evening, I experienced my first earthquake. A 5.7 quake, this plate movement interrupted my relaxation time. I was getting ready to go to bed (really) early, when suddenly my bedroom door started vigorously shaking. When it persisted, I realized that it wasn’t an attempted breaking-and-entering but tectonics! The first wave was pretty vigorous, and lasted for maybe seven seconds or so. Just when I thought it had stopped for good, a more subtle rumble was like “Nah, I’m not done here” and proceeded to gently shake everything for another five or so seconds.

This song sums it up pretty well.

“That’s what you get when you’re on the West Coast.”

In response to my Facebook status update regarding the quake, my friend Simone Crew ’11, a native of the Bay Area, wrote “Welcome.” That also sums it up pretty well.

rock-a-bye baby

One of the primary questions I get from people about this project is “What music are you going to use?” In fact, much of my time has been taken up choosing appropriate lullabies based on published literature on developmentally-appropriate music (read: lullabies) for neonates. Lullabies are songs intended to soothe, so they are perfect for infants in the NICU environment.

They are also used by parents to lull babies to sleep.

OMG CUTE. (If you hope to get things accomplished during the rest of your day, don’t Google search “sleeping baby.” If you want to warm your heart, Google search “sleeping baby.”)

We are seeking moderately paced lullabies with steady volume, female vocals, and a single background instrument. We also want versions of the lullabies in Spanish and English so that the neonates can be exposed to music in the language of their parents. Lullabies with all of these qualities are difficult to find, and appropriate versions in Spanish and English are nearly impossible to find.

My current assignment is to listen through lullabies to find ones that meet our list of requirements regarding vocal quality, tempo, and instrumentation so we can perhaps present these to an individual who is willing to record Spanish and English versions of the same lullaby melody. This is our current path because I have not been able to find anything perfect for our study on the Internet. This lullaby search has taken me on a journey through instrumental, baby-geared renditions of Nirvana (featured in a previous post) and most recently to the lullaby albums that my mother played for me and my brother.

While reading Jayne Standley’s Music Therapy for Premature Infants, I shared her list of recommended lullaby albums to my mother, only to realize that the album my mom played for me every night (Joanie Bartels’ Lullaby Magic) was high on the list! I just listened through this CD again, along with her follow-up Lullaby Magic 2, and both of them put me instantly at ease. As an infant, I would fall asleep to Lullaby Magic whenever a bedtime story from Mommy or Daddy wasn’t enough. (It rarely was, I am told.) Lullaby Magic 2 came out a year or two before my brother was born, so I got to listen to it coming from his room during my first couple of years in elementary school.

My mom played them to us in a cassette player that looked a lot like this:

I was listening through Lullaby Magic 2, reminiscing (with myself, how pathetic) about falling asleep in my room as a kid (really pathetic), and I come across this gem called “Sleepyhead (Leila’s Song).” It is not my favorite on the CD, but it instantly and obviously triggered Passion Pit. Now “Sleepyhead” is stuck in my head, which, even after approximately 1.5 years of incessant listening, is not a bad thing.

I love Passion Pit. Hopefully they get big enough for Rockabye Baby! to make a lullaby album by the time I become a parent.

Also, I just used a new restroom at NSI and realized that the scent of the hand soap is the same as the shampoo my salon uses. If remembering the ease of being a child on the brink of sleep wasn’t enough for my well-being, I am now remembering how good it feels to have someone else wash your hair. (For those readers who have never experienced this, please don’t knock it before you try it.)

I feel like a Food Network star yearning for their favorite food on Best Thing I Ever Ate: “Uggh, my mouth is watering and I can almost taste it.” In my case, though, I’m mentally returning to my life’s most relaxed moments. I suppose an afternoon of listening to lullabies should do that to a person.


My brain seemed to have a lot of it floating around today. What an unexpectedly great birthday!

When I was younger, I used to have the best birthday parties. Always themed (i.e., shells, clowns strawberries, bird houses, Roald Dahl), my mom would cultivate parties that involved crafts, delicious food, backyard games, and copious usage of my playground and hammock. I also remember tons of lemonade and well-decorated cakes. I think my favorite was my clown birthday party, where my aunts all teamed up to paint the faces of the party guests in their preferred clown get-up. The craft involved making these snow globes using jars and these really fun, miniature clown statues. This is certainly a retrospective favorite because I don’t actually remember this party; I just watch the home video at least twice a year.

But my 21st was so great, too! Even though it would have been nice to see my family, my host family and my work friends made the day truly special.

7:30 a.m. – On my way down to the stairs to leave for work, notice a wonderful birthday balloon bouquet (BBB) from Jay and Penny. Yes!

8:30 a.m. – Found out that the IRB approved the study, and received a bunch of e-mails from NSI employees wishing me a happy day. Cute!

10:30 a.m. – Got TB test, but the nurse missed the first time (read: she stuck me with the needle, went to inject the fluid and it went all over my arm.) Ouch!

11:00 a.m. – Returned to Dr. Knight’s office to meet with Carol, a nurse practitioner involved with the study to find the office decked out with birthday decorations, an extraordinary cake (click “extraordinary” for onset of jealousy), a book I have been yearning to own but unable to afford, and a generous gift from the my coworkers at RCHSD! Amazing!

12:00 p.m. – Had lunch at NSI with Ani, John, and two women who are interested in starting a chapter of Dancing for Parkison’s in San Diego. Inspiring!

1:00 p.m. – Entered my NSI office to find a nice birthday message (on a beautiful postcard, no less) from Ani and a Putumayo CD called “From Mali to Memphis: An African-American Odyssey.” Thoughtful!

1:30 p.m. – Stopped by the office of Debbie Honeycutt, a member of the NSI Development Staff, who baked me the most delicious brownies I have ever eaten in my entire life. Chewy!

2:00 p.m. – Continued to amass and categorize articles about the effect of stress on neonatal brain development, how music can effect neonates, etc. etc. Knowledge!

4:30 p.m. – Tripped on the way out of NSI and opted to fall on my left knee instead of drop the brownie tray. Split my pants and my knee cap, but luckily there was a non-emergency-bound ambulance at the gas station so I could clean myself up. (Cute) EMTs!

6:30 p.m. – Ate delicious carne asada tacos at a Mexican restaurant with my host family and some family friends. Delicioso!

Overall, I realized today more than any other day how happy I am to be in San Diego doing exactly what I’m doing. In other news, Haverford physics professor and avid jazz saxophone player Stephon Alexander is joining Ani, John, Dr. Gall, and I for lunch tomorrow! Exciting!

(To update you on my sunburn, it has certainly faded to a tan and a pretty deep one at that. It impedes my wardrobe selection and I look like a fool in my gym shirts.)

the beat of the heart

Dr. Knight was talking to me about a generic electrocardiogram (EKG) print out, and I wasn’t following her as much as I would have liked, so we decided that I should learn about it. I am currently trying to teach myself how to read one so I can understand what is actually going on in the heart when looking at a monitor. I wrote down some notes on it, but I figured it would be good to have it all in one place for myself, complete with some pictures that are much clearer than my drawings. The process of learning this involved regurgitating my knowledge of the heart, which has waxed and waned over the past five or so years, but it is amazing what the brain can remember.

Anyway, I first researched how EKGs function: the electrodes placed on the body detect electrical changes on the skin that happen when the heart muscle depolarizes and repolarizes. These changes are very tiny so the EKG must amplify them in order to extract anything meaningful from it. Using the following two images and some great information from Wikipedia, I’m starting to understand more of the physiological intricacies.

The P wave represents the depolarization that spreads from the sinoatrial (SA) node throughout the atria. There is a brief zero volage period, also referred to as the isoelectric period, after the P wave. This represents the time during which th eimpulse is traveling within the atrioventricular (AV) node and the bundle of His, the collection of cells specialized for electrical conduction.

The QRS complex represents ventricular depolarization, and the T wave represents ventricular repolarization, which takes longer than depolarization. The P-R interval is the period of time from th eonset of the P wave to the begining of the QRS complex, which is essentially the time between onset of atrial depolarization and ventricular depolarization. Finally, the ST segment is the isoelectric (remember, zero voltage) period following QRS where the entire ventricle is depolarized.

Sorry this entry was super drone. I need this information, and I could not think of any fun analogies to map onto the different waves. My inability to lighten up this content is definitely indicative of how little I am grasping, but you gotta start somewhere.

P.S. My heart has been beating for 21 years today. If my heart beat at an average of around 72 beats per minute for my entire life, it has given me a hefty 795,251,520 beats. You’ve done me good, heart.

“musical minds,” oliver sacks, and the nicu

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the NOVA program “Musical Minds” was playing when I returned home from my first day of work. Coincidence! It was so well-done, and for that I’m thankful that it was not a steak. Instead of delicious char and even more delicious cholesterol, the program featured Oliver Sacks explaining how the mind can experience music in magnificent ways, using case studies to exemplify his point. Much of the content is taken from his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Oliver Sacks’ tour through the musical mind featured four fascinating cases: Derrick Paravicini, a blind and autistic musical savant, Matt Giordano, a sufferer of Tourrette’s syndrome who copes through drumming, Anne Barker, a member of a musical family who is diagnosed with amusia, and Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who experienced sudden musicality after getting struck by lightning. The program also features Sacks submitting himself to an fMRI to compare the activity of his brain in several instances: listening to and imagining the same song, as well as listening to a song he liked and another he disliked.

Piano Man

Derrick, now in his 30s, lost his sight due to oxygen treatments meant to sustain him in the hospital after being born three and a half months premature. His autisim and learning disabilities put him at the functionality of a four-year-old, with no knowledge of his addres or phone number. But he was shown twinkling away on his piano with a prowess I associate with jazz and blues greats and is able to play back any piece of music after hearing it just once.  He started playing piano at age two and when he was brought to a school for the blind at four, he finalized his attachment to the instrument. His teacher noted that it took him years to learn proper fingering technique because he was only able to comprehend the proper method when taught tactiley; his teacher needed to press his fingers on the keys over and over and over again before the lesson stuck.

The Need and Wont to Drum

Matt first developed his affinity for the drums at age two when he began to drum along to the Moody Blues song, “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock n’ Roll Band.” The most interesting part of Matt’s story for me was that his penchant for drumming coincided with the onset of his psychological symptoms. After realizing that drumming quelled his symptoms, he began to almost self-medicate with the instrument to the point that when asked about his life without music, he said, ” I probably wouldn’t be here.” He now teaches drum therapy classes to other Tourrette’s sufferers, and the classroom transform from a cacophony to orchestration as soon as the drumming begins. Sacks commented that music demands focus and while the Tourrette’s doesn’t go away, the order of the music becomes a force against “the bastion of chaos.”

Cacophony, or Lacking Harmony

I feel most sorry for Anne, for whom music is an ugly noise. Amusic, she has the musical equivalent to colorblindness and is essentially deaf to melody and harmony in music. She has the auditory equipment to hear music as sounds, but lacks the perceptive capabilities to understand it as musical. She cannot sing or dance along to music, even though she would love to be able to do so. When listening to a (beautiful) Chopin nocturne, she described how much she hated the thumping of piano keys. Submitted to a series of those musical grammar tests I mentioned a few posts back, Anne got two out of ten correct and admitted after each sample that she was just guessing. It is especially hard for Anne because she comes from a musical family: her family owns a shop for traditional Irish instruments, and all of her siblings have been engaged with Irish dancing and music-making for their entire lives. Anne struggled with Irish dancing for six years until she realized that while she was able to learn the movements during her seemingly endless home practice sessions, she was unable to align her movements with the music at lessons

The Lightning Symphony

Tony Cicoria’s story is one of the most fascinating I have ever heard. When I was watching “Musical Minds,” I remembered exactly where I was when I first read about Cicoria in Sacks’ book. It is that kind of tale. Struck by lightning at forty-two, this former orthopedic surgeon experienced an out-of-body experience following cardiac arrest. Three to four weeks later, he suddenly developed an insatiable passion for listening to piano music. This passion for listening soon transformed into the desire to play and, eventually, compose music. Despite his strong desire, he had none of the music theory and did not know how to read music, so he would wake up at 4 a.m. and practice until he had to work, then return to the piano until he was too exhausted to see the page. An unfortunate but understandable detail of Cicoria’s story is that he does not want Sacks, or anyone for that matter, to study his brain in order to maintain the mystical, religious feeling he has about his sudden musicality.

The Brain Behind the Brains

Sack describes a bit of his musical and scientific history. His home was full of science, music, and medicine, so it was only natural for him to combine the three. For example, his father, a surgeon, was known to “read” scores between surgeries, apparently able to conduct them in his mind. Sacks became particularly interested in the power of music when he was working with patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York City who were suffering from a form of encephalitis known as “sleepy sickness.” Before it was discovered that the drug L-Dopa helped ease them out of their catatonic state, Sacks observed that music freed them as well. Singing and dancing happened where speaking and walking did not. Amazing! This finding inspired the creation of the Institute for Music & Neurological Function at the hospital.

Two short segments of “Musical Minds” focused on Sacks’ brain. (I almost capitalized brain; perhaps it should be in this case.) An fMRI was taken of his brain while listening to one of his favorite songs, Joseph Horowitz’s “Diversion.” Then, another scan was taken when he was imagining the song. The brain performed in the same way during both of Sacks’s engagements with the song, except an additional area in the frontal lobe involved in creativity and higher mental functioning was activated when he was told to imagine the song. Sacks’s brain activity also aligned with his preference for Bach and apathy towards Beethoven, with many brain areas activated during the Bach but none during the Beethoven.

To the NICU

Aside from the stories mentioned above, Sacks discusses anecdotal evidence concerning “the fetus question” which has shown that fetuses demonstrate preference for music they were exposed to while in utero. Research in this area is in its infant stages (ba-dum-chh), but what if the evidence consistently supports the anecdotes? It has definitely been shown that infants react more to music they prefer, so if prenatal music intervention can create musical preferences, the effects of this music on the stress reduction will be even greater.

the sky is gray and white and cloudy

In case you needed clarification: today was overcast, and today I got a nasty sunburn. When my dress is on in a certain way, it sort of looks like I’ve developed my California tan, but move the dress straps and you can pretty much hear my skin screaming for aloe. Luckily, this burn will serve as a reminder of the great day I had, and surely, when the burn fades (heals?) into a tan, the memory will not.

There are currently two entries in draft form: one about that NOVA program on Oliver Sacks, and one about research that Ani and John have done on Snowball the dancing, Backstreet Boys-loving parrot. Over the course of the next few days, entries will rain down on “ILaSGOoMH,” as I am now referring to the blog.* I pronounce it ee-lahs-goom.

*I’m obviously not calling my blog “ILaSGOoMH.” I call it “my blog.” If I were, though, what language would people think I was speaking? Ee-lahs-goom sounds kind of German to me, but I don’t know German.

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