The Neural Orchestra: Instruments of Mind

Event Date:
October 11th 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM

Francesca Brittan 

Associate Professor, Department of Music | Case Western Reserve University

Crawford Hall, Room 618

Abstract: In the last several decades, research (both professional and public-facing) across the cognitive neurosciences has drawn increasingly frequently on the figure of the “neural orchestra,” a metaphor mapping the activities of localized cortical areas onto sections of a musical ensemble.  Although the model was embraced as a novelty in the mid-1990s (a substitute for computational models of cognition), it has much older roots. This talk traces the brain-orchestra to its origins in the early nineteenth century, when phrenologists first introduced the “multi-instrument” mind, linking ideals of symphonic unanimity and centralized control to higher-order human cognition. Orchestral rhetorics, especially the authoritarian discourses associated with conductors, shaped early neuroscientific theory, as well as vice versa: the orchestra in the brain was also a brain in the orchestra. Today, the historical neuropolitics that generated the mind-orchestra have been largely forgotten, but they continue to exert a spectral influence, hovering behind descriptions of “orchestrated” attention, references to neuronal harmony, and conceptions of the “well-conducted” mind.  

Bio: Francesca Brittan is Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University. Her scholarly work focuses on music and sound cultures since 1800, often at the intersection of scientific histories. Her first book, Music and Fantasy in the Age of Berlioz (Cambridge, 2017) traces intersections between musical enchantment and romantic science from Berlioz to Stravinsky. Current projects include two edited volumes: The Attentive Ear: Sound, Cognition, and Subjectivity, 1790-1920 (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming); and Berlioz and His World (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). Her second monograph-in-progress, Instruments of Mind, examines entanglements between musical and neural organologies from Descartes to the present, bringing together sonic, cognitive, and neuroscientific histories. Her work has been bolstered by fellowships and prizes from the University of Cambridge, the University of Amsterdam, Cornell University, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the American Musicological Society. She is co-founder of the Music and Attention Working Group at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt.