Archived entries for The Neurosciences Institute

administration of music

A large part of my time at NSI/Children’s thus far has involved creating the 30-minute stimuli material. Basically, I’ve listened to a lot of lullabies, chosen the ones that match qualifications set by prior research, performed some sound editing to equalize any abrupt volume changes (which are jarring for anyone, but especially babies), and sound tested them to ensure appropriate volume level.

Above is the brilliant Donald Hutson. He works on creating Brain-Based Devices for the Neurosciences Institute, but on the side, he is a master destroyer at BattleBots. Check his website here. He has a bot called Diesector – eek. On a lighter note, Donald engineered the lovely speaker system we are using to play music for the babies. The black thing coming out of the back of the speaker is actually a camera stand. A wire runs directly from the speaker to the iPod, so it doesn’t need any outside power. As long as the iPod is charged, the babies’ll hear music. This picture shows the iPod securely connected to the pole, but it took some finagling and brainstorming to get it to that point.

Donald attached one of those plastic snap-clasps (I just made up that name) to the iPod with adhesive foam tape. He then secured it with a zip tie, and we put it on the pole. It was a little loose, and I wanted to make sure that I would be able to see the screen at all times, so he added one thin layer of black duct tape. This added the perfect amount of traction and extra circumference for a snug fit around the pole.

The process of sound testing involved latching the speaker onto a chair in the conference room at NSI so the sound would project about one foot from the end of the sound level meter. This emulated the conditions of the speaker over a baby’s head. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the appropriate maximum sound level for prolonged exposure for an infant is 70-75 dB, so I had to first test each song for its existing dB level and then adjust accordingly.

This entire process is done, with the finalized lullaby playlist on both iPods we have designated for the study. This week at the hospital, the nurses are getting officially informed about the study and hopefully early next week, I will finally start the music administration we’ve all been waiting for!

I’ll leave you all with just a few robot-themed songs I enjoy.

Remnants of my however-modest presence in the NJSKA scene:

I wish I could find the Japanese version on YouTube but I failed:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hq-W-4Izjwc

I’ve told the world this approx. a billion times, but I’m seeing Robyn on the 22nd:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0B6Cp5ajCc

Fave remix (of this song) of the week. I feel like everyone tries to rmx this, and luckily most of them do a great job with it:

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.

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.

day one

So much about which to blog. So little energy left. So I’ll give a quick rundown.

Today marked my official first day of work at the Neurosciences Institute. Finally, NSI has become a place where living, breathing people do incredible science instead of a series buildings that had been entering my dreams on an increasingly regular basis.

Although I included a nearly identical photograph in an earlier entry about the Institute, this picture was taken with my camera.

Upon arrival, I had some lunch (catered by NSI, tasty, intended to encourage interdepartmental dialogue) with Dr. John Iversen, one of Ani’s colleagues and the second researcher involved with this summer’s NICU project. Towards the end of lunch, Ani met up with me and we ventured to Rady Children’s Hospital to meet with Dr. Gail Knight. The three of us went over some of the more logistical things regarding the study, and then Ani and I returned to NSI. I got acclimated to my office, and that was pretty much it for day one. Today, it became clearer than ever the degree of intelligence that will surround me this summer. I’m already honored.

After work, I took an extremely congested route to join UCSD’s gym and it took me approximately thirty-five minutes in rush hour traffic. Upon arrival, the receptionist told me a much easier way to get there: drive two blocks. Thanks, GPS. Your system may have succeeded at positioning me globally, but it lacked efficiency, to say the least. Stressed, frustrated, and a little stir crazy from the car (I need to get used to the amount of time I’m going to spend in a vehicle), I went to the Torrey Pines Glider Port.

Before I left the house this morning, Penny suggested that I go there, and this suggestion was seconded and thirded by  gentlemen at lunch. I sat down, read, and slowly ate my dinner (avocado, tomato, mozzarella, caramelized onion sandwich on baguette bread). There is nothing like an hour and a half of listening to the ocean while watching the sun pierce the clouds to relax you. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Pacific Ocean. Hopefully next time we can get a little more intimate.

I would say that my destress period was perfect, save for one detail. I didn’t have headphones and could not listen to the music that I craved: Sigur Ros.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sUVm77WjE0

When I finally returned home, I was catching Jay and Penny up on my adventures when the phone rang. One of their lovely family friends called to let me know that PBS was airing a NOVA program called “Musical Minds.” We watched it together; blog entry on the topic to come soon.

music and the mind

Have you ever heard of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra? Their website introduces them as a group that performs music solely on instruments made of vegetables, with “carrot flutes, pumpkin basses, leek violins, leek-zucchini-vibrators [??], cucumberophones, and celery bongos.” Sometimes, they even include the noises of kitchen instruments.

Geez, I’m hungry. Good thing I’m going to Hillcrest Farmer’s Market after finishing this post!

Anyway, here is the cover of their album Automate, complete with my favorite vegetable, romanesco (fractal) broccoli. I’ve never eaten this cauliflower relative, but I have been known to call supermarkets when it is in season to see if it happens to be in stock.

Here are some of their instruments:

Cool! I was ignorant to the existence of this musical ensemble before finding a video of a talk by Dr. Patel called called “Music and the Mind.” It is part of a series available on YouTube called Grey Matters: From Molecules to Mind. Ani included the group as an example of how humans are constantly innovating new ways to explore as musical beings. This topic is one of the many interesting remarks made throughout the talk, and I wanted to write on some its highlights as a way to introduce formally the overarching topic that inspired my summer project.

Part IAn introduction

The video starts with an introduction from Dr. Ralph Greenspan of the Neurosciences Institute. He remarks that Ani is a clarinetist and a classical guitarist and that this musical background sparked his interest in the way the brain intersects with music. (I played clarinet and piano throughout my pre-collegiate education and attribute my interest in the field to this musical background!) Greenspan also notes how appropriate it is that, in light of this, Ani works at NSI, which is not only a premier research institution on brain science but also the home to a beautiful performing arts space that offers a plethora of performances throughout the year. Luckily for me, I get to benefit from both of these aspects of NSI, and of Dr. Patel!

Part IIA song is…

Patel’s talk begins with a quotation from Plato circa 400 B.C.: “Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inwards places of the soul…” He reflects that despite this early mention of the real impact that music can have on the individual, the field is only several decades old. He continues to explain some research with which I am vaguely familiar on the physiological manifestations of strong experiences with music, powered by the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus acumbens, brain areas involved in the reward circuit featuring the neurotransmitter dopamine. My Haverford adviser Marilyn Boltz showed me a journal article on this topic when I was planning the syllabus for a Hurford Humanities Center class I co-taught with Jane Holloway ’11 on film music. Ani was focusing on strong experiences with purely instrumental music that was not paired with lyrical or filmic stimuli.

More generally, it is important to consider why music neuroscience is an important field. How is research in the field able to contribute to a scientific understanding of brain mechanisms and humans as a species? Is it anything other than just really awesome? Yes, indeed! And Ani lists several compelling reasons why. He indicates the benefits of the fact that music engages many brain functions, including emotion, memory, learning & plasticity, pattern perception, imagery. Also, music and language are universal and unique to human beings.

You may be like, no, birds sing. Haven’t you heard of parrots? Or the lyrebird? But Ani addresses this point of controversy, pointing out that birdsong tends to be triggerd by hormonal and neuronal changes that happen at certain times of year and in certain contexts, mostly by males who have reached sexual maturity. Humans of both sexes, conversely, are musical from an early age.

It is important to understand how both humans and, for example, parrots are able to produce complex sound patterns based on auditory input, known as vocal learning. Ani explains that this phenomenon also exists in songbirds, hummingbirds, whales, dolphins, bats, and seals. He showed a video of a dancing parrot, and cited not only vocal learning capabilities but the existence of the basal ganglia as reasons why this parrot was able to synchronize its body movements to a beat. It is also true that species unable to vocally learn, such as our closest genetic relatives chimpanzees and bonobos, cannot move to a beat.

Part IIILife without music, or without language

Since there is no animal model, much of the research on music neuroscience has focused on individuals who are amusic, or those with problems with, for example, recognizing familiar tunes, spotting sour notes, or telling the difference between two tunes. (Ani provides these specific examples in this talk, citing the research of Isabelle Peretz.) These problems can range from melody perception/production, rhythm perception/production, and the emotional response to music, which has elucidated that the brain has no specific musical center. This was found by observing and studying two groups: amusics without aphasia (language loss), and aphasics without amusia. This talk introduced me to another cool musician, composer Vissorion Shebalin, who suffered several strokes and lost his ability to speak

Intrigued by these findings, Ani’s lab (circa the 90′s) was the first to use brain imaging to study the processing patterns of music and language in health patients without brain damage. Using musical and linguistic sentences with grammatical anomalies (a wrong, “sour” note, or an incorrect verb tense), they found that the brain responses to were nearly identical. It has also been shown that some areas of the brain deemed specific to language, such as Broca’s area, are activated by music. The connection between music and language in the brain described by these findings is bolstered by another finding that musical and linguistic grammar impairment is significantly correlated, with the severity of one predicting the severity of other depending on the degree of aphasia or amusia.

Part IVBabies

Of most relevance to the current project, Ani divulged that humans are the only species that use music to soothe their young. Lullabies are universal among humans, as is “parentese,” the sing-song-like speech that adults tend to use around children. This summer’s research aims to continue to explore the merits of these behaviors on the health of newborns, in particular the cardiac surgery recoverees.

this time tomorrow, it’ll be three hours earlier

What a week! Preparing for my departure has been a full-time job, especially considering the added neuroticism of an individual who has ne’er-before traveled by air. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but I’m about to embark on my first adventure in the sky. Here are some thematically-appropriate tunes, even though I already booked my flight and I’m not going over the sea.

I’ve been shopping to smarten up/California-ize my wardrobe and gathering all of the last minute necessities that have spent a little too long simmering on the back burner. I just finished packing my carry-on, which barely falls under the limit in both weight and size, and my personal item, a stuffed-to-the-brim backpack complete with airplane snacks and enough reading material for a time period equivalent to the length of my flight cubed.

Tomorrow, the Cherichello clan is getting up bright and early to have a family breakfast before Dad has to go to work and my brother (Johnny) has to set off to school. Mom is taking the day off to take me to the airport, which I greatly appreciate.

Anyway, on a note directly relevant to the project, I received an e-mail about a required Biomedical Ethics training course that I had to take online due to my involvement with this summer’s music therapy research with human subjects. This course, mandated by the UCSD Institutional Review Board (IRB), ended up taking me longer than expected because I became fascinated with the array of completely unethical studies throughout history that led to today’s cautionary procedures. One study that sticks out for quite a number of scientific errors intended to determine whether sleeping or being physically active allowed for more digestion. The researcher fed two prisoners a large amount of food, then sent one to bed and one to engage in vigorous physical activity. Going through the lessons and quizzes of this course brought me back to this semester’s Experimental Methods and Statistics (colloquially, “Psych Stat”) at Haverford, as they mark one of the many prerequisites to my first engagement with IRB-approved research as a role other than “participant.” Although I have conducted two group studies at school, both have been for lab classes and thus have not gone through the IRB. I feel so legit!

To further build on this legitimacy, I’m continuing my progress with Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Music Therapy for Premature Infants (I’ve yet to mention the second in any detail, but that post is soon to come). Both have incited in me countless a-ha moments, whether they regard my own experience as a stressed person, my (limited, but growing) knowledge of infant development, or the power of music. If I were already in SD,  it would be merely 12:30 a.m. and my eyes would not be feeling the wee-hours-burn, so this post would include some of the content of these “a-has,” but for now, they must wait.

One last exiting update is that I meet Dr. Patel for the first time over lunch at the Neurosciences Institute (NSI) on Tuesday at noon, after which we are both heading over to Rady Children’s Hospital for the first meeting with Dr. Knight. I have training at the hospital during the next few mornings and will my afternoons at NSI.

In sum: sleep, family breakfast, Newark airport, California by 4:30 (7:30…), readreadread, acclimation. I can’t believe this thing that I’ve been talking about for so long and thinking about for even longer is happening. Wish me luck!

Note: Posts following this one should be full of photographs, pending the purchase of batteries for my camera.



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