Author Archives: Mayra Razo

Goo Goo for (Lady) Gaga

In the chapter we read in class, we saw how Stravinsky’s music had a disrupting effect on the listeners’ ears because it was distinct from the sounds they had heard in the past. There were dopaminergic neurons that fired when met with such sounds. But most importantly, these neurons then lead to plasticity in the auditory cortex. It points to an idea that maybe manipulating the use of music can lead to changes in other areas of the brain, not just the auditory cortex. Music plays a role in our daily lives. Who doesn’t love to listen to music while riding the metro to class every day? Those 20 minutes allow me to jam out to my favorite songs and destress for the day. I don’t know how I’d function without it. There have been studies that have shown that music is a great stress reliever (Linnemann et al., 2018).

This then made me wonder, if music plays such a big role on our lives (I mean the same 10 songs are trending worldwide), then could music go beyond just pleasure and truly have effects on our brain? Is there just a pleasant component to music or can it also be beneficial to us? I decided to look into a 2019 study that studied the effects of music on premature infants.

The salience network model

Pre-term babies have a variety of medical complications that can lead to them being in the NICU for weeks or months. While in the NICU, Lordier et al. set to test whether playing music to preterm infants would enhance their brain development (2019). With the use of fMRI testing, they test the brain connectivity in the subjects while they are in a resting state. They first measured the resting-state functional connectivity, which is a measure of the statistical dependencies between different brain regions. The greater the connectivity, the more brain maturity. They measured this prior to music exposure in normal and pre-term babies and found that pre-term babies’ connectivity was significantly less than the full-term babies. Within the connectivity calculation, there is a salience network which helps a person detect a certain stimuli and respond to it accordingly. The salience network connects 3 main areas, for simplification purposes, we can call them the auditory and sensorimotor networks, the thalamus, and the visual cortex. The salience network is made up of the insula, often involved in sensory processing and cognitive abilities, and the anterior cingulate cortex, often involved in emotion and information processing.

The researchers recruited 24 full-term infants and 39 preterm newborns. Within the preterm group, 20 received the musical enhancement while the other 19 did not. They had 3 distinct songs: a song for the baby to wake up to, a song for an awake baby, and a song that helps the baby fall asleep.  The music was played to them for 5 days a week until they were released from the hospital.

Image describing the process of music listening

The results show that there is an increased connectivity in the regions of the sensorimotor network and the thalamus, but not the in the orbitofrontal cortex/visual cortex. This data supports the idea that music does in fact enhance a premature baby’s brain network.  Although this is a good place to start, I believe that further studies should be done to determine what type of music works best and to maybe follow the test subjects through the years to see the effects. Also, it was unclear why one area of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex did not show an increased connection since when comparing to adults, there is a significant amount of greater activity in this area (Brown et al., 2004).

The results of the study showing the strengthening of the pathways

So, now it makes so much sense why the people who first heard Stravinsky were in a riot, music exposure plays a big role in our lives from such an early age. This study showed us how music is not only something you hear for entertainment purposes; it also has the potential to actually enhance the brain connections of these infants. Prior studies have shown that adults are also able to enhance their brain networks by learning how to play music or by listening to pleasant music (Tanaka and Kirino, 2017). So now that we have seen the extent of music on brain region connectivity, you might want to start putting in your headphones. I know I won’t be feeling guilty for drowning out the world in those 20 minutes of riding in the stuffy metro.


Brown S, Martinez MJ, Parsons LM (2004) Passive music listening spontaneously engages limbic and paralimbic systems. Neuroreport 15, 2033–2037.

Dolezel, Jodi. “Premature Birth Facts and Statistics.” Verywell Family, Verywell Family, 24 June 2019,

Linnemann A, Ditzen B, Strahler J, Doerr JM, Nater UM (2015). Music listening as a means of stress reduction in daily life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 60:82–90.

Lordier L, Meskaldji D, Grouiller F, Pittet MP, Vollenweider A, Vasung L, Borradori-Tolsa C, Lazeyras F, Grandjean D, Van De Ville D, and Hüppi PS (2019). Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks. PNAS. 116 (24) 12103-12108.

Tanaka S, Kirino E, Reorganization of the thalamocortical network in musicians. Brain Res. 1664, 48–54 (2017)

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Stars, Stripes, and the Sound of Music

When I played sports in high school, I was one of those people who would leave their headphones on until the last possible minute because I needed the music to focus. During warm-ups, if there was a song playing, I’d make sure to move to the beat or sing the lyrics to get in the right mentality. Music has always been something that I have connected to sports. This past Sunday, we had the wonderful opportunity to go see the US women’s soccer team play here in Paris for the FIFA World Cup. They won 3-0! Without a doubt, it was truly one of the highlights of the entire program! At the beginning, when the players first came onto the pitch, an upbeat song with a lot of bass reverberated in the stadium. The crowd went wild, and they were screaming their hearts out. Almost as if contagious, the soccer players also gained adrenaline listening to this song and they jumped to the beat as they were doing their last minute warm-ups. Whether it’s before or during the game, I decided to look into the impact of music on physical performance.

NBB students love cheering on the US!

Songs like “We are the Champions,” “All I do is win,” “Crazy Train,” and “We Will Rock You,” are commonly heard at sporting events. These songs raise the spirits of the crowd, but do they also help players perform better? Elvers and Steffens’ study set out to determine just that (2017). They had 150 participants complete a basketball task where they had to throw the ball into a funnel. They measured a lot of variables to be able to reach multiple conclusions. One of the hypotheses was that performance would be improved if the person listened to music beforehand. The results show that performance is only improved if the person was already good at the task and if the player had the option to choose the type of music. Since the soccer game was between professional athletes, we can assume that there’s a high chance that their performance could be improved with music. They also measured risk-taking behavior by letting the participants decide at what distance to shoot the ball from. Here, listening to any type of music made the participants more prone to choosing to shoot from further away. In professional soccer games, we never see the same plays over and over again, they are often taking risks in order to get the result they want. Could it be that the soccer players are listening to music and find that it gives them the motivation to take risks during the game?

When we look at the different brain regions that are activated while this process is occurring, we see that there is a connection between music and the premotor cortex. In a 2009 study, they had participants listen to music that they considered pleasurable and music that they considered non-pleasurable (Kornysheva et. al.). They scanned participants using fMRI and found that there was greater activation in both the ventral premotor cortex, an area of the brain involved with motor control, and cerebellar areas, often involved in balance and coordination, when they listened to music that they considered pleasurable versus listening to the non-pleasurable music. The brain actually adjusts to a certain tempo of music, and it can increase motor function, hence better performance. So, music not only impacts performance in the present, it also changes the brain responses for the future. If only we could have scanned the brains of the US team while they were playing to see if we would find that their premotor cortex had a greater activation after listening to that song heard all over the stadium.

The premotor cortex (PMC) and the cerebellum are both involved in music’s effect on sport performance.

Although there have been a considerable number of studies whose aim is to find the correlation between sports’ performance and music, there is still more research to be done. For example, how is it that these same songs played worldwide can elicit the same response from athletes who are all different. Is it their beat that makes them classics? Do they all cause people’s heart to start racing and adrenaline to rush through their veins? It would also be beneficial to look for possible detrimental effects of listening to music causing a decrease in performance.

In the meantime, let’s keep hoping that the music on full blast in the stadiums brings out the best from the US soccer team so that they can bring home a championship! I believe that we will win!

The U.S. planning their next move.


Elvers P., Steffens J. (2017). The sound of success: investigating cognitive and behavioral effects of motivational music in sports. Front. Psychol. 8:2026.

Kornysheva, K., von Cramon, D. Y., Jacobsen, T., and Schubotz, R. I. (2010). Tuning-in to the beat: aesthetic appreciation of musical rhythms correlates with a premotor activity boost. Hum. Brain Mapp. 31, 48–64.

Image 1: taken by Sarah Taha

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Image 3: taken by me

Hallucinations or Chromesthesia?

When we visited the Musée D’Orsay a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed to hear that The Starry Night painting by van Gogh was at another exhibition; I had looked forward to the opportunity of seeing it in person. Although this was not possible, this past weekend we travelled to Arles, the town where van Gogh lived most of his life. It was a wonderful experience to walk around the areas where he painted his most famous works! Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous painters from the mid-1800s, was also a man who lived a struggling life. Being somewhat of an outcast, he was ostracized by his community leading him to live a life of loneliness. Over the years, he spiraled into a routine of drinking absinthe that eventually led to the deterioration of his health. He was diagnosed with epileptic seizures and lived in and out of an asylum in Arles, France. Few know that he did his most famous works while he was suffering from these manic and depressive episodes. Seeing as how we have learned so much about him and even visited his hometown, I decided to look more into his medical diagnosis.

Starry Night: One of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous paintings

When you look at The Starry Night, you probably wonder how is it that van Gogh was able to see those colors in the sky when you can only see dark shades of blue at night. There are various theories as to why he decided to paint it that way, but one of those theories was that van Gogh had synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition when stimulation in one sense automatically leads to sensations in another sense (Bradford 2017). For example, a person might see a letter and automatically associate it with a color. In the case of van Gogh, there is some evidence that points to him having chromesthesia. Chromesthesia is a subset of synesthesia in which certain sounds are associated with colors. “Vincent Van Gogh explained in his letters that for him, sounds had colors and that certain colors, like yellow and blue, were like fireworks for his senses” (Katie 2018). Could it be that he had synesthesia.

A famous cafe in Arles, France painted by van Gogh

Synesthesia is still a widely unknown occurrence. There are 6 regions in the brain, primarily in the motor and sensory cortex, where higher activation levels are observed, V4 (involved in color perception) being one of them (Rouw et al. 2011). For this reason, there are two differing hypotheses as to how it arises, one of them being that there is somehow a disinhibition when relaying back sensory information to the different brain areas, meaning that essentially anyone has the potential to develop synesthesia. The other theory is that there is a cross-activation mediated through white matter pathways that occurs between the different sensory cortex areas; this is something you are born with, so only those people are able to develop it.

To test this out, researchers performed a visual imagery task to induce synesthesia in a group of individuals (Nair and Brang 2019). They were put in a dark environment to simulate visual deprivation and were then asked about the shapes of multiple letters through audio. The results show that there was significantly more visual imagery when a sound was presented right after the audio recording. The fact that it took approximately 5 minutes to induce these sensations points to the theory that everyone is born with the capacity to be synesthetic, but it only appears when one of the other senses is deprived.

Could this be what van Gogh was experiencing? In a 2016 case study, they describe how a 20-year-old woman who was diagnosed with social phobia and schizophrenia due to her avoidance of social groups and claims that she could see colors when she heard sounds. The doctors thought that she was suffering from hallucinations. In reality, she had savant abilities and synesthesia. To have someone be misdiagnosed only a couple of years ago, makes you wonder if maybe the doctors missed something when diagnosing van Gogh. At a young age, when he took piano lessons, he described the experience as overwhelming because each note was associated with a different color He was disregarded and His teacher believed him to be insane and wouldn’t allow him to continue the lessons (Taggart 2019). Could it be that he was never understood because he did in fact think distinctly due to his ability to perceive the world in a different way? A question that may never be answered, but could give us a little more insight into one of the greatest artistic minds of that time. Maybe for van Gogh, the sky was in fact joyous and explosive, not just a simple color.


The cafe that inspired van Gogh’s painting


Bradford, Alina. “What Is Synesthesia?” LiveScience, Purch, 18 Oct. 2017,

Bouvet L, Barbier J, Cason N, Bakchine S, Ehrlé N (2017) When synesthesia and savant abilities are mistaken for hallucinations and delusions: contribution of a cognitive approach for their differential diagnosis, The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 31:8, 1459-1473

Katie. “Vincent Van Gogh and the Power of Synesthesia in Art.” Exploring Your Mind, Exploring Your Mind, 20 June 2018,

Nair A, Brang D (2019) Inducing synesthesia in non-synesthetes: Short-term visual deprivation facilitates auditory-evoked visual percepts, Consciousness and Cognition, 70: 70-79.

Rouw, Romke, et al. “Brain Areas Involved in Synaesthesia: A Review.” Journal of Neuropsychology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 16 Sept. 2011

Shovava, and Shovova. “5 Synesthesia Artists Who Paint Their Multi-Sensory Experiences.” My Modern Met, 28 Feb. 2019

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It Starts with Love Universal scoring vocab to any tennis fan. I grew up watching all types of sports, and tennis was not the exception. I heard names like Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova, and Serena Williams(QUEEN!). The main tournaments in the tennis world are the Gland Slams. They happen 4 times a year, and during that time, you can bet that I’m constantly checking my phone for scores or watching it on television. Prior to coming to Paris, I knew that Roland Garros would take place while I was here. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would get the opportunity to attend and be able to sit and watch a match with a couple of friends. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Roland Garros Round 2 Peterson vs. Vekic

I will admit that while I was sitting, watching this tennis match at the Open, I did not wonder how the players were able to accurately hit the ball every single time. But after reflecting on my experience, I decided I wanted to do further research since I was in such awe at how beautiful and graceful they were.

Expertise Brain Regions

Do you ever wonder how a tennis player can return a ball smoothly when it’s coming at them at 92MPH? It’s almost as if they have an instinct for it. One study in particular aimed to test whether or not there was a difference in brain activation depending on the level of expertise (Balser et. al., 2014). For this study, they recruited 15 tennis experts and 16 volleyball experts chosen from a pool of professionals. They acted as the novice participants for whatever sport they were not an expert in. They were then shown videos of both volleyball and tennis players and were asked to predict where the ball would go simply based on early movement from the serve player. While this was going on, they measured the level of activation, through fMRI for three major brain areas: the Supplementary Motor Area commonly involved in the control of movement, the Superior Parietal Lobule reflecting the spatial orientation, and the cerebellum which uses a predictive internal model to solve a task. They found that the tennis player watching the tennis player serve had higher levels of activation in all 3 brain regions. This suggests that the experts will rely more on fine-tuned perceptual-motor representations than non-experts; the information has been made into a reflexive memory. This means that although the tennis players were not actively returning the serve, their brain was activated when watching the videos as if they were!

Another study looked at how people determined when an object reached the target point. Chang and Jazayeri sought to test whether people used mathematical concepts or temporal cues when engaging with dynamic stimuli and deciding the time to contact (2018). They had people look at an object moving across their visual field in 3 categories. In the first, their view of the object was obstructed, and they had the subjects guess when the object would reach a certain point. The other group never lost sight of the object. The third group was shown the object at the fixation point in the middle of the screen. Results show that when people were not able to see the object (Group 1), they based when the object had arrived on just temporal cues such as time, but when they were exposed to the object (Group 2 or 3), they still relied on both mathematical and temporal cues. In the world of tennis, this is significant because not only does the athlete calculate how quick the ball is coming at them, but they also contextualize the ball with their environment as well as listen to when the ball hits the court in order to have the most optimal response. So, it’s not just the arithmetic-side of the brain, there are also sensory inputs that go into decision-making.

I hope that the next time you’re watching a tennis match your brain does not attempt to analyze every single serve, if so, then I apologize. I know that the next time I’m watching Roger Federer (my favorite!) play for his 21st Grand Slam title hopefully here in Paris, I’ll be thinking about his tremendous ability to return a serve partly thanks to the brain. Oh, and I’ll be wearing my newly purchased Panama hat!

my Panama hat!



Balser N, Lorey B, Pilgramm S, Naumann T, Kindermann S, Stark R, et al. (2014) The influence of expertise on brain activation of the action observation network during anticipation of tennis and volleyball serves. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8:568.

Bilalić, Merim. “Introduction to Research on Expertise (Chapter One) – The Neuroscience of Expertise.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 2017,

Image 1: taken by me

Image 2: Chang CJ, Jazayeri M (2018) Integration of speed and time for estimating time to contact. PNAS 115 (12) E2879-E2887.

Image 3: taken by me