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Not With The Band: Soon We May Be Able To Listen To The Music Of Our Brain?

the sweet music of neurons firing


Science can be weird sometimes and this new article from Stanford is really bizarre in the way it mixes science and music in a very unexpected way. Everyone has an idea of what an electroencephalogram (EEG) is, the recordings of brain activity thanks to electrodes placed around a person’s head. But a neurobiologist and a professor of music research at Stanford got the crazy idea to transform the brain’s electrical activity recorded by an EEG into music! 

Neurobiologist Josef Parvizi, who is a specialist on seizures, and professor of music research Chris Chafe, who is a world expert in musification, the process of converting natural signals into music, decided to work together. Parvizi shared EEG data with Chafe, who converted the electrical spikes of neurons to music using a tone close to a human voice, and you can actually listen to a sample posted on Youtube below! And since Parvizi is working on seizure patients they also used recordings of a brain going through a seizure for comparison with the recording of a normal brain

Chafe noticed: ‘My initial interest was an artistic one at heart, but, surprisingly, we could instantly differentiate seizure activity from non-seizure states with just our ears. It was like turning a radio dial from a static-filled station to a clear one.’

The recording is very weird and amazing, it sounds like the high-pitched voice of a crazy woman over a deeper more masculine voice, going faster and faster, so that you can feel a panic rising from the recording before everything calms down. The two men think they may have developed a tool to listen to the brain, a sort of ‘brain stethoscope’ which could detect seizures or epileptic episodes. This is how Chafe and Parvizi describe the whole thing:

‘Before the seizure begins – during the so-called pre-ictal stage – the peeps and pops from each “singer” almost synchronize and fall into a clear rhythm, as if they’re following a conductor.

In the moments leading up to the seizure event, though, each of the singers begins to improvise. The notes become progressively louder and more scattered, as the full seizure event occurs (the ictal state). The way Chafe has orchestrated his singers, one can hear the electrical storm originate on one side of the brain and eventually cross over into the other hemisphere, creating a sort of sing-off between the two sides of the brain.

After about 30 seconds of full-on chaos, the singers begin to calm, trailing off into their post-ictal rhythm. Occasionally, one or two will pipe up erratically, but on the whole, the choir sounds extremely fatigued.

It’s the perfect representation of the three phases of a seizure event.’

And this is really impressive! They hope to apply their work to develop a device able to listen to the brain of patients, as it is much easier to detect a seizure with this sound than just by looking at the patient. It’s a wonderful application of interdisciplinarity, and how science and music can collaborate in the most wonderful way. This is still very experimental, but why not a device allowing us to listen to the music of our brain, seizure or no seizure?

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