Author Archives: Kendall Campbell

A Symphony of Birds

Paris is a city of lights, but also a city of sound. The peacefulness of the gardens surrounding the cityscape is no match to the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. Sometimes the sound is welcomed, such as a talented neighbor’s piano playing or an excellent street musician’s violin performance under the Arc de Triomphe. However, sometimes it is less welcomed, such as a taxi honking or an amateur trumpeter interjecting himself on my metro ride. Despite that, I absolutely love the sounds around the city. An overlooked, but equally important aspect to the music of the city, is the music of the animal residents of Paris. Every morning, I walk outside my apartment and generally hear the sound of some animal within five minutes of stepping foot outside my door. Whether it is two pigeons fighting over food by a bakery or two dogs barking as they pass each other, it is clear that animals have specific abilities to communicate unique to each species.

1 Metro performer during daily ride on line 8


One of my favorite sounds to hear in Paris is the tweeting of birds up in the trees while I walk below on the street. During my time here in Paris, I have been exposed to the knowledge of bird songs in my classes and how their songs act as communication to one another. One questioned asked in class was “If some animals can be shown to have language, do they also create art?”. When I first heard this question, I immediately imagined monkeys holding a paintbrush behind a canvas with paint splattered on it and thought how I wasn’t so sure that it could be considered art. Upon further thinking, I thought of how art can be more than drawing, it could be related to dancing or singing. Instantly I started wondering if some birds may actually be singing for aesthetic purposes or just for their own personal entertainment. I knew that songbirds, like canaries or finches, are even known to have neural circuitry that shows that they are selective in what singing they process from other birds in order to rely on their memories for song learning (Phan et al., 2005). I then began to investigate if birds have been shown to exhibit any capacity of artistic expression and found an article by Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) that demonstrated the auditory skills and musical preferences of grey parrots in captivity.

2 What I initially thought of as animals creating art

According to Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017), grey parrots are quite intelligent and have high audible skills and musical talents. Male parrots are even known to have songs that are specific to only themselves and are able to provide highly trained song learning to their offspring (Berg et al., 2011). The aim of their study was to determine how music and the use of musical instruments would influence the activity of grey parrots and add to their audible enrichment.  A central experiment of the study focused on how the parrots would interact and manipulate a music-producing joystick test device. The parrots’ beaks and legs were able to freely manipulate two joy sticks in two different experimental set ups. The first set up gave one joystick that produced sound and another joystick that remained silent. The preference for the grey parrots to activate the joystick that produced sound over silence demonstrates how parrots are more inclined to have auditory stimulation than to be without it (Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner, 2017). In the second set up, there were two active joysticks, one set to 90 beats per minute and the other set to 120 beats per minute. This setup was used in order to gain a better understanding of musical and auditory preferences of individual grey parrots. The results from the second setup demonstrate that the parrots preferred to play beats at 90 beats per minute over 120 beats per minute. The spontaneous interaction of the parrots with the joystick device demonstrates that they have a potential capacity to exhibit musical expression.

3 Joystick Test Device used by Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017)

The real world application of the Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) study implies that musical instruments can significantly benefit grey parrots in captivity by giving them a creative outlet for expression. The strength of this experiment was the use of these two different set ups. By being able to compare sound to silence and then strengthen that result (birds prefer auditory stimuli to silence) by specific was measure of beat the grey parrots prefer, it really helps those curious (including me) to agree with their conclusion that grey parrots can not only have vocal singing capabilities, but that they can  consciously process music and have the capability to manipulate a simple form of a musical instrument. While I believe that their experiment, for the most part, was strongly thought through, there is one aspect of their experimental design that I find questionable. Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) state that their method to ensure that the birds acknowledged and used the musical joystick was to have a person stay present with the parrots and motivate them to engage with it. This alarms me as a possible confounding variable as they do not go in depth describing what their specific methods were to motivate the birds. The idea to measure grey parrot beat preference and frequency preference proved insightful and begs me to ask the further question of could birds, songbirds and non-songbirds, be shown to have the capability to synthesize the beats that they prefer and make a music all their own?


Works Cited

Berg, K. S., Delgado, S., Cortopassi, K. A., Beissinger, S. R., & Bradbury, J. W. (2011). Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences279(1728), 585-591.

Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2017, November). Sonic experiments with grey parrots: A report on testing the auditory skills and musical preferences of grey parrots in captivity. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction (p. 3). ACM.

Phan, M. L., Pytte, C. L., & Vicario, D. S. (2006). Early auditory experience generates long-lasting memories that may subserve vocal learning in songbirds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences103(4), 1088-1093.


Image 1: taken by me

Image 2: taken from:


Image 3 taken from: Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2017, November).

The Ego in Architects

Beauty is found everywhere in Paris. From the art museums, to the local gardens, to the towering landmarks across the city, it is impossible to not have Parisian beauty in your sight at all moments throughout the day. It is hard to imagine that at one point in time, the sights that seem so breathtaking were once not there; once upon a time, there were no identifiable landmarks along the cityscape, just gardens and houses composing the city. While imagining what older versions of Paris may have looked like, I thought back to some of my favorite sights that I have seen: Sacre-Couer, Arc de Triomphe, and (of course) the Eiffel Tower. While thinking of these internationally famous landmarks, I began to wonder why. Why were they made? Why were they made the size they are? Why were they made of certain material? Why are some more ornate than others? I then realized that the answers to these questions pertain more toward the architects of such monuments and not the monuments themselves. As I pondered the history of these architects, I started to realize the amount of pride they must have had from their accomplishments. I then began to question the ego (self-defined as a sense of self-esteem/pride) of these architects and to what role did their pride impact the design of their monuments?

The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Sacre-Couer

To first understand the role of ego in architects, it is important to first understand the role of ego in a general person. Rizzolatti et al. (2014) explored the relationship between neuroscience and ego. According to their report, the link between ego and the brain is a network of brain regions that are highly active at rest and are non-active during goal-directed thinking, called the default-mode network (DMN). The DMN controls and suppresses the activity of brain structures that receive information from brain regions that are in charge of motivation, as well as moderates information from the external world (Rizzolatti et al., 2014). While this study cannot conclusively state that the DMN is responsible for ego (as there was no actual research performed in their article), since ego is a human construct, it does convince me that it is the closest neural mechanism for ego and/or pride. So, since the DMN processes motivation, is involved in goal-directed thinking, and factors in information from the world we live in, it seems reasonable to conclude that the DMN functions as the neurobiological mechanism for ego which deals with one’s sense self-esteem in relation to other’s in their environment.

Location of DMN in adult brain

As for architects, one study has shown that the creative aspect of an architect’s mind leads to a strengthened ego, or in other words, an inflated sense of self-esteem (Fodor, 1995). In this study, participants were asked to design an engineering solution to the question of how to water a dog while frequently gone from home. The participants were then graded based on personalities, in which the more creative individuals scored higher on ego strength. This inflated sense of ego leads to a psychotic-like behavior that favors creative performance in finding solutions to difficult engineering problems, a quality that is favored in a renowned architect (Fodor, 1995). While the study by Fodor did give insight into the reward mechanisms of ego, it offered little biological evidence for the existence/prevalence of ego, necessitating further research.

Upon further investigation, I found one study where researchers performed an fMRI on participants as they recalled memories where they felt prideful, meaning they had a sense of ego (Roth et al., 2014). In this study, they discovered that during feelings of pride, the left amygdala (brain region responsible for emotions and memory) was significantly activated, as was the left anterior insula (brain region responsible for emotional experiences). These feelings of pride were also correlated with an increased rewarding/pleasurable experience. It was helpful how in this study they used neutral imagery in between moments where pride (or shame) could be recalled, ensuring that there would be clear results for which parts of the brain are, indeed, activated in response to pride  (Roth et al., 2014). Based on their results, it may mean that when these great architects resolved their engineering feats, they activated brain regions responsible for subjective emotional experiences and felt an increase in personal reward, perhaps leading these architects to build to new heights to achieve this same feeling each time they completed a project. Additionally, other areas of the brain are rewarded when seeing pleasurable architecture; regions of the brain such as the parahippocampus (responsible for memory retrieval) show that past architectural experiences play a role in the reward circuitry (Coburn et al., 2017). This may be interpreted that as an architect gains experience, they may need to out build their previous work, leading to a compulsion to build higher, wider, and more grandiose than ever before. It was beneficial for Coburn et al. (2017) to include neurobiology from all senses (motor, auditory, visual, etc.) however, the most convincing piece of evidence for the role of ego in the construction of architecture lies in their explanation of the parahippocampus which allows for a unique drive to “one-up” one’s self.

Image of brain highlighting the location of the insula and amygdala

So, next time I look up at the Eiffel Tower from my apartment window or look back on my pictures at Sacre-Couer, I will know that the brilliant architects responsible for these masterpieces had a reward circuit in their brain pushing them to go past their previous boundaries and build more robust pieces of architecture than before. Who knows, if these architects were still alive, they may have already built a more iconic landmark for Paris than the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe. Only time will tell how far future architects will push themselves (and their egos) in the city of Paris.

Map of famous Paris monuments


Works Cited

Rizzolatti, G., Semi, A. A., & Fabbri-Destro, M. (2014). Linking psychoanalysis with neuroscience: The concept of ego. Neuropsychologia55, 143-148.

Roth, L., Kaffenberger, T., Herwig, U., & Brühl, A. B. (2014). Brain activation associated with pride and shame. Neuropsychobiology69(2), 95-106.

Coburn, A., Vartanian, O., & Chatterjee, A. (2017). Buildings, beauty, and the brain: a neuroscience of architectural experience. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience29(9), 1521-1531.

Fodor, E. M. (1995). Subclinical manifestations of psychosis-proneness, ego strength, and creativity. Personality and Individual Differences18(5), 635-642.

Image 1: my personal photo

Image 2: google images

Image 3: google images

Image 4: google maps screenshot

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

With 3 weekends having gone by already, I can easily say that this past weekend’s excursion to Provence was the most enjoyable one yet. The countryside in Provence was beautiful and the sights were breathtaking. From the Palais de Papes in Avignon to Pont du Gard to the city of Arles, this weekend gave me an enlightening glimpse into life in southern France. Earlier this week in class, I learned how Van Gogh spent the last years of his life in the Provence region, more specifically in the city of Arles. While in the city, I was able to visit the places around Arles that Van Gogh captured in many of his artworks. Van Gogh’s impressionistic paintings seem to have a life of their own, with golden strokes and dark blue swirls that seem to come right off the page. Standing in the same town that Van Gogh once called home and created masterpiece after masterpiece left me feeling in such a state of wonder. My state of wonder then began to stray away from the aesthetic aspect of his paintings towards pondering how did such a town inspire so many priceless works of art. I thought back to class when we discussed what Van Gogh’s life in southern France was like and the hardships he endured. Looking out over the Rhone, I began to ask to what level did Van Gogh’s mental state affect his work?

Actual location for the inspiration behind Van Gogh’s “La Nuit Etoilee”.

Amidst the beauty of these masterpieces lies hints toward the state of mind of Van Gogh. Surprisingly, many famous artists, inventers, composers, and the artistically creative show manic-depressive tendencies (Z. Janka, 2004). As discovered in class, Van Gogh was in fact plagued by many mental ailments, including hallucinations, seizures, night mares, insomnia, anxiety, manic episodes, depressive episodes, and alcohol abuse. One of Van Gogh’s most famous pieces, “Starry Night”, is thought to be inspired by a hallucination as he was admitted to a mental asylum at the time with no view of the cityscape accessible to him. Based on his reported behavior and mental ailments, I would most likely diagnose Van Gogh with bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is characterized by the National Institute of Mental Health as manic and depressive episodes that can be accompanied by psychotic symptoms (hallucinations and delusions) as well as substance abuse (NIMH). Approximately 15% of those with bipolar disorder have visual hallucinations and 28% have auditory hallucinations (F. Waters et al., 2014). The notion that multiple of Van Gogh’s artworks may have been a result of a hallucination intrigued me, as his paintings appear highly vivid, rich in color, with realistic yet whimsical details. Upon investigation into the neural mechanisms behind hallucinations, I learned that there are multiple ways that neurocircuitry plays a role in producing hallucinations.

When a sensation is perceived, let’s say a visual sensation, information from that sensation is sent from the retina to the visual cortex (V1). This is called bottom-up processing. When the brain first perceives a stimulus and then uses previous knowledge to influence what you are perceiving, it is known as top-down processing (A. Engel et al., 2001). A popular theory to the occurrence of hallucinations faults failures in either top-down or bottom-up processing that results in a perceptively false experience (L. Zmigrod et al., 2016). In psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, signals between top-down and bottom-up processing may become tonically hyperactive, causing top-down sensory expectations that result in false conscious experiences, otherwise known as a hallucination (S. Grossberg. 2000).  Another theory behind the manifestations of hallucinations focuses more strongly on bottom-up processing. When visual hallucinations occur, there is heightened activity in secondary and association visual cortices, the occipital lobe, and in visual processing areas in the parietal lobes. This hyperactivation of different brain regions may cause over-perceptualization which results in a change in activity in areas such as the prefrontal or premotor cortices, allowing for individuals to have a false sense of agency and perceive their own internal auditory or visual activity as “vivid external percepts” (L. Zmigrod et al., 2016). Either way, these false senses of stimuli or experiences cause an individual to perceive a false reality, hallucinating visual or auditory experiences and believing them to be authentic.

Diagram comparing top-down processing to bottom-up processing

Even given Van Gogh’s medical history, his personal account of his struggles, accounts from people who interacted with him, it is still difficult to fully understand the impact that his mental/physical  health had on his work. Was “Starry Night” a complete illusion? Did Van Gogh cut off his ear due to an auditory illusion? While we may never know the true answers to the questions, we can still infer that Van Gogh was, at the least, influenced by his possible bipolar disorder and the hallucinations that may have accompanied it.

Map of Arles, France


Works Cited

Engel, A. K., Fries, P., & Singer, W. (2001). Dynamic predictions: oscillations and synchrony in top–down processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience2(10), 704.

Grossberg, S. (2000). How hallucinations may arise from brain mechanisms of learning, attention, and volition. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society6(5), 583-592.

Janka, Z. (2004). Artistic creativity and bipolar mood disorder. Orvosi hetilap145(33), 1709-1718.

NIMH: Bipolar Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Waters, F., Collerton, D., Ffytche, D. H., Jardri, R., Pins, D., Dudley, R., Larøi, F. (2014). Visual hallucinations in the psychosis spectrum and comparative information from neurodegenerative disorders and eye disease. Schizophrenia bulletin40 Suppl 4(Suppl 4), S233–S245. doi:10.1093/schbul/sbu036

Zmigrod, L., Garrison, J. R., Carr, J., & Simons, J. S. (2016). The neural mechanisms of hallucinations: a quantitative meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews69, 113-123.