Music, Memory and Metaphor

Two undergraduate researchers in cognitive science explore aspects of musical experience

by Meredith Holmes

Senior Caitlin Dawson (left), professor Per Aage Brandt and junior Kaitlin Seibert are all musicians as well as cognitive science researchers.
Photo: Daniel Milner

Cognitive scientists are interested in all of the activities and achievements that distinguish human beings from other species. They seek to understand how the human brain creates — and, in turn, is shaped by &emdash; languages and cultures, advanced tools and technologies, and social institutions. For this reason, the field of cognitive science is allied with many other disciplines, including neuroscience and biology, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities.

Since its founding in 2005, the college's Department of Cognitive Science has attracted many outstanding students who are equally involved in science and the performing arts. This year, for instance, two undergraduates with double majors in "cogsci" and music have designed studies examining how human beings respond to and think about their musical experiences.

Kaitlin Seibert '12 and Caitlin Dawson '11 have both worked with cognitive science professor Per Aage Brandt. In his view, their musical knowledge and their histories as performers give them "an optimal background for doing research in the field of what we can call cognitive musicology."

A Dual Approach

Kaitlin Seibert (right) has collaborated with Michael De Georgia (center) and Neha Dangayach to design a study of music and memory in stroke patients. De Georgia is director of the Reinberger Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and co-director of the Center for Music & Medicine. Dangayach is a neurology resident.
Photo: Mike Sands

Seibert, a pre-med student, began playing trumpet, piano and guitar while she was still in high school. Her fascination with music and the brain also developed early, as a result of her participation in instrumental groups.

During performances, Seibert recalls, she felt an uncanny connection with the other musicians—people of all ages and skill levels. Even when she played in impromptu ensembles with complete strangers, her pleasure in the music and her bonding with other musicians were undiminished. "There is something special about music that connects everyone," she says. "I wanted to know where that feeling comes from, biochemically. There has to be a scientific explanation for it."

Seibert recognizes that not everyone shares her curiosity. "A lot of people believe that if you study the science of orchestral music, it detracts from the experience,' she says. "It's like that with the neuroscience of anything&emdash;some people are afraid of learning more.' But she balances her desire to understand the cognitive aspects of music with an appreciation of its fundamental mystery.

During her first three years at CWRU, Seibert volunteered at The Music Settlement in University Circle and at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital. As a result, she became intrigued by how music affects a broad range of people. When she played the piano for children at Rainbow, for instance, some of them became very excited about making music, experimenting on the keyboard for hours, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.

Eventually, Seibert took a seminar with Brandt on music and cognition. In turn, he introduced her to Michael De Georgia, professor of neurology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Brandt and De Georgia co-direct the Center for Music & Medicine, which treats the medical problems of musicians, explores healing through music and the arts, and conducts research on the neurological foundations of music.

Working with Brandt, De Georgia and neurology resident Neha Dangayach, Seibert began developing a pilot study that is now awaiting IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval. Seibert researched background material and helped draft the protocol. Says De Georgia, "Kaitlin is very organized, methodical and detail-oriented. Most important, she is passionate about both music and cognitive science. Her enthusiasm has helped propel the project forward."

The study focuses on the hormone oxytocin, popularly known as "the bonding hormone.' Oxytocin is produced when people touch each other, when mothers nurse their infants and when people sing together. It is associated with a sense of connection and feelings of trust. In previous studies, when oxytocin was administered to research subjects, it increased their ability to recognize human faces. Now, Seibert and her colleagues plan to test the hypothesis that oxytocin can help stroke patients recognize a piece of music.

The patients chosen for the study will have a disorder called amusia—an inability to remember or recognize music or to distinguish differences in pitch. People may be born with amusia or, as in the case of stroke patients, acquire it as a result of brain damage.

At the outset, the patients will each be asked to name a piece of music with which they are very familiar. During the actual experiment, the researchers will play a recording of the piece each patient mentioned. Then they will administer oxytocin, in the form of a nasal spray, and play the piece again. The researchers hope that oxytocin will trigger a musical recognition.

Why do they think the hormone might have this effect? According to Seibert, the social bonding she experienced while performing music is also associated with listening to music. It is easy to forget this nowadays, when so many people listen to songs through earphones—a private experience that seems to cut them off from the rest of the world. But for most of our history as a species, listening to music has been a communal experience. In the language of cognitive science, then, music is a "social cue," just as a human face is. And since oxytocin primes the brain to respond to human faces, perhaps it activates the brain to respond to music, too.

Seibert has other ideas that she would like to test in future studies. For example, she suspects that while social bonding enhances our experience of music, the converse may also be true: Music may trigger the release of oxytocin and activate social attention and recognition. As yet, no one has examined the possibility that such a mechanism exists. Seibert could become the first cognitive scientist to pursue it.

Speaking of Music

For her part, Dawson has always loved doing research. "In elementary school, when everybody else was doing a book report, I was the kid doing an experiment and making sure I had an independent and a dependent variable," she says. "I find it exhilarating to discover things." Dawson started out as a biology major, in hopes of learning how the mind worked. But after taking a class with Institute Professor Mark Turner in the cognitive science department, she switched majors. "I'd always been interested in cognitive science—I just didn't have a name for it," she says.

Her musical interests have also shifted during her college years. Initially, the modern oboe was her primary instrument. But when she attended a faculty recital of early music, she was drawn to the sweet, pure sound of the baroque oboe and declared her second major in early music. About the same time, she became aware of a growing field of study that integrates music and cognitive science.

The language that people use to describe art has always interested Dawson, and a variety of experiences helped determine the direction of her research. These included a linguistics course taught by cognitive science chair Todd Oakley, many conversations with Brandt and a music theory course she took at the Cleveland Institute of Music. "I was listening to how the musicians in the class were talking about music— in tune, out of tune, on key, off key," recalls Dawson. The professor, Diane Urista, encouraged her to pursue this line of inquiry. Dawson then worked with Brandt, her advisor for her senior project, on research design. "It's hard to control for all the variables," she observes. "And how do you really control for art?"

The preliminaries for her study—obtaining IRB approval and recruiting 30 student participants—took longer than Dawson anticipated. But last fall, she was ready to launch her project. In a cognitive science lab in Crawford Hall, pairs of participants sat at separate computers and listened to the third movement of Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 3—a familiar work with a clear emotional progression. Then each pair of listeners talked for three minutes about the music. Although Dawson was present during their conversations, she remained unobtrusive. She wanted the participants to feel as comfortable and spontaneous as possible in a laboratory setting.

In another part of the experiment, participants viewed Willem de Kooning's Police Gazette, an abstract painting whose strong emotional content would stimulate conversation without steering it in any one direction. Then they discussed the painting for three minutes. Dawson included Police Gazette in her study so that she could compare conversations about music with conversations about visual art.

During this phase of her study, Dawson read many reviews by art and music critics and made a discovery. "I noticed music reviews used words like 'sharp' or 'bright' that did not involve sound," she recalls. Taking a closer look, she realized that art was almost always described in metaphors involving senses other than the one to which the art was addressed.

Dawson was surprised by this indication that metaphor might be essential to describing art. But then she thought about chocolate. How would she describe it? "Smooth," "rich," or maybe "intense," none of which are taste-related words. "We don't seem to have words to describe things as they are, at least for aesthatic experiences," she observes. "I think this is a fascinating revelation of the human mind."

Caitlin Dawson recorded her research subjects as they discussed a symphony and a painting. Now, as she listens to their conversations on her computer, she is analyzing the metaphors they used to describe these works.
Photo: Daniel Milner

Now, as she studies videotapes of the conversations, Dawson is looking for overarching conceptual metaphors that reveal how people think about music and art. Many participants, for instance, spoke about the Brahms symphony as if it told a story, with a conflict and a resolution. This is an almost universal response, not confined to college students. "There is something about music that causes us to associate it with other things in our lives that have the same structure," Dawson says.

The research participants also personified aspects of both the painting and the music, saying, for example, "The horns are angry," or "The black stripes are attacking the yellow triangles." Dawson finds that the language describing the music is far more complex and sophisticated than the language describing the painting. "It's my goal to figure out the reason for this, and to gain some insights about why music is so special," she says. "I want to understand why humans have this strong attachment to music and this multi-modal way of expressing it."

Both Seibert's and Dawson's studies go to the heart of cognitive science's quest to understand the human brain and its relationship to music, language and culture. Says Brandt, "I am proud and happy to be involved in projects as fascinating as these."

Meredith Holmes FSM '73 is a freelance writer.