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Drummers Have A Different Brain Than The Rest Of Us

Time perception is a little of a mystery, how do we perceive time? Sometimes time goes slowly, sometimes fast, but how do we know that an hour, a minute, a second has passed? Most of the time, we don’t, but there is a rare breed among us that are able to keep track of each millisecond.

There is an interesting article in the New Yorker ("The Possibilian: What a brush with death taught David Eagleman about the mysteries of time and the brain" by Burkhard Bilger) about David Eagleman, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, who has been obsessed about time perception, and who has carried out a study of time perception in drummers.

The idea came from Brian Eno who met Eagleman after receiving one of his books of short stories, and told him a story that inspired the drumming study.Eno remembers: ‘I was working with Larry Mullen, Jr., on one of the U2 albums, ‘All That You Don’t Leave Behind,’ or whatever it’s called.  Mullen was playing drums over a recording of the band and a click track — a computer-generated beat that was meant to keep all the overdubbed parts in synch. In this case, however, Mullen thought that the click track was slightly off: it was a fraction of a beat behind the rest of the band. I said, ‘No, that can’t be so, Larry, we’ve all worked to that track, so it must be right.’ But he said, ‘Sorry, I just can’t play to it.’

Eno said he eventually adjusted the click to Mullen’s satisfaction, and later, after the drummer had left, he checked the original track again and realized that Mullen was right: the click was off by six milliseconds!!

Brian Eno continues:‘The thing is, when we were adjusting it, I once had it two milliseconds to the wrong side of the beat, and he said, ‘No, you’ve got to come back a bit.’ Which I think is absolutely staggering’.

Two milliseconds? How is this possible? I can’t even figure out what is a second. This led Eno to ask himself the burning question: ‘Do drummers have different brains from the rest of us?’

Eno sent an email inviting a number of drummers to participate in the study. Eagleman did the whole EEG thing to them, recording 16 wavering lines representing each the electric activity at a different point of the brain, while they were performing a set of four tests that were video games designed to measure different forms of timing: ‘keeping a steady beat, comparing the lengths of two tones, synchronizing a beat to an image, and comparing visual or audible rhythms to one another.’

Eagleman’s results demonstrated a ‘huge statistical difference’ between the drummers’ timing and that of the random control subjects tested in Houston. ‘When asked to keep a steady beat, for instance, the controls wavered by an average of thirty-five milliseconds; the best drummer was off by less than ten. Eno was right: drummers do have different brains from the rest. They kicked ass over the controls’
said Eagleman.

So drummers are much better than us at keeping trace of time, but the story does not tell how they get that exceptional sense of timing: Is it practice? Is it genetics? Or both? Still a mystery.

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