Health

This is Sting's brain on music

Sting's song Englishman in New York and the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction might not seem that similar to some, but scans of the Englishman's brain as he listened to the works showed similar activity for both.

Montreal researchers scan English musician's cerebellum, gain clues to his musicianship

Sting and The Police perform in southern California in 2007. When Sting was in Montreal to perform, he accepted an invitation to have his brain scanned in a fMRI machine while he imagined, heard and composed songs. ( Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty)

Sting's song Englishman in New York and the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction might not seem that much alike to some, but scans of the English musician's brain while he listened to each work showed similar activity. 

Researchers who wanted to delve into mental representations of music discovered the similarities when Sting was in Montreal for a Police reunion concert and agreed to have his brain scanned.

And in doing so, they hope information they learn could help efforts to teach people to become masters in their field.

McGill University cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music, invited Sting to undergo a recently developed imaging-analysis technique.

First, the researchers had Sting imagine a piece of music. Then he listened to it. He also composed a song in the scanner and listened to many songs from a variety of genres. 

In non-expert musicians, imagining and listening recruits similar brain circuits. But the degree of similarity in Sting's case was interesting, Levitin said. 

"Some surprising things came out," Levitin said in an interview from Los Angeles, Calif. "One of them was that pieces of music that I wouldn't have seen as similar his brain saw as similar."

Sting's brain activity while he listened to Englishman in New York and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction was one example. 

"I went and looked more closely at them," Levitin said. 'If you're a bass player and you're playing those songs, both of them start on the low E on the bass."

Sting's musical talents include playing the bass, singing, composing as well as playing the lute.

In another example, the multiple Grammy winner's brain activity showed similarities when listening to the 1960s Beatles hit Girl and Argentine Astor Piazzolla's tango composition Libertango.

Both are in minor keys and include similar melodic motifs of identical three-note fragments buried in them, Levitin said.

The findings provide evidence that Sting's brain is finely attuned to keep track of tempo, pitch, genres, composers and eras.

The research team is interested in understanding the brain organization of experts in a variety of fields, such as athletes, chess masters or painters. In particular, Levitin focuses on attributes they've mastered, such as if painters encode artwork in their brain in terms of colour, form, era, topic or shading.

In Sting's case, he was intellectually curious about the findings and thrilled at the opportunity afforded by the technology, Levitin recalled.

For the neuroscientist, appreciating how experts catalogue and organize information in their brains could help in teaching others to become masters. 

Beyond this experiment, the investigators say the field is in its infancy in terms of understanding the complex systems of the brain.

Daniel Levitin shows Sting his cerebellum. (Owen Egan/McGill University)

By delving into how the brain works under normal circumstances, they hope to gain insights into how it works under extraordinary circumstances. They eventually hope to apply the findings to treat brain injury and diseases such as Alzheimer's or stroke.

Levitin foresees a day when we'll all have our brains scanned for a baseline view, just as happens now with blood tests.

In the meantime, the researchers continue to perform non-invasive functional MRI scans on thousands of ordinary people to see how they consider songs to be similar.

Clues to how 'music heals'

The technology is based on passing a magnetic current over the head. Magnets track with the slightly magnetic hemoglobin in the blood, allowing researchers to follow blood flow in the brain and to create a map of neuronal activity while performing tasks such as solving math problems. 

​The findings on Sting's brain were published in the journal Neurocase.

The beauty of Levitin's use of the new technique on Sting lies in how it confirms an avenue neurologists suspected protects artists from dementia, said Dr. Luis Fornazzari, a behavioural neurologist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Fornazzari was not involved in the McGill research, but he's found how artists — from sculptors to writers to painters — suffering from vascular dementia may still be able to draw spontaneously and from memory, despite being unable to complete simple, everyday tasks. 

Scans show Sting's brain as he imagined and listened to music. (McGill University)

Clinicians already take advantage of how people with dementia have better memory for lyrics than for faces or names in music therapy, Fornazzari said

 "Music heals," said Fornazzari, a former piano player who hopes to resume playing the instrument and the cello someday.  

Functional MRI offers a window into the biology of how music helps the healing process, Fornazzari said.

"I think that we are more symbolic than practical and [it's] that symbolic way of being so human that gives that protection."

Levitin's study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.  

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