Author Archives: Nava Amalfard

Georgia On My Mind

“Georgia… Georgia…The whole day through, just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind!” As an Atlantean, I grew up hearing the rich, melodic voice of Ray Charles regularly. His iconic song, “Georgia On My Mind,” embodied the rhythm of an entire state. His prolific piano skills mesmerized those who listened and those who watched as the musician ferociously swayed his head while majestically playing the keyboard. Besides his legendary music, Ray Charles stage presence was iconic and never would he be seen without his thick, black sunglasses and 1000-kilowatt smile. Charles was blind by age 7 due to glaucoma. Nonetheless, young Charles had insatiable love for music and learned to play the piano using braille music. He was particularly drawn to jazz and the blues, which he later heavily incorporated into his music. Charles was still incredibly popular when another musician, Stevie Wonder, entered the jazz, R&B realm. The Motown wonder churned classics after classics with hits like “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” Wonder like Charles had no eyesight and wore thick black frames; Charles had lost his eyesight when he was born six months premature and experienced retinopathy as a premature baby receiving excessive amounts of oxygen. The two men, both blind, had some of the most remarkable hearing.

This made me curious; does being blind influence our auditory processing, making us more attuned to our other senses? This was a rumor I had long heard and was curious to explore further. In an article published just last month in The Journal of Acoustical Society of America, Zhang and Jiang, 2019 tested whether congenital blindness enhances perception of musical rhythm more than melody in Mandarin speakers. While neither Charles nor Wonder spoke Mandarin, it is reasonable to assume that the rhythmic enhancement that would occur due to congenital blindness would similarly occur in those who are congenital blind and speaking English.

Using the Musical Ear Test, a common musical aptitude test that focuses on both rhythm and melody, the researchers tested the musical competence of sighted and congenitally blind individuals to determine musical competence. The experiment included twenty-eight sighted individuals eighteen congenitally blind subjects; all with no formal musical training. They then were placed individually in rooms and given different stimuli to listen to containing various sound pressure and intensity and then asked to identify which stimuli were identical to each other (Zhang and Jiang, 2019). The results were surprising and nuanced. Congenital blind individuals demonstrated higher general higher musical amplitude and more specifically a superiority in music perception exclusively for rhythm (Zhang and Jiang, 2019). Blind and sighted individuals performed equally well on melodic tasks. Perhaps the reason for this is because music is not solely an auditory function but with an underlying motor component (Levitin et al., 2018). The motor components of music such as pulse, tempo and rhythm are vital to musical success and part of our evolutionary history.

While the review article does not explicitly state that rhythm identification is enhanced by blindness, I am curious as to whether those who are congenitally blind grow up relying more on rhythmic components to learn music and thus are more attuned to hearing them. Given we are exposed to music regularly our entire lives, it is difficult to distinguish whether the rhythmic advantage found in congenital blindness in the Zhang and Jiang, 2019 study is one rooted in neuroanatomical differences in our auditory system or whether greater reliance on the auditory system has improved its function through practice. Additionally, these rhythmic enhancements could be due to an absence of visual distractions. When one typically listens to music, one is looking at the singer, observing their emotions and stage presence. In a car, listening to music, yet again we are distracted. Perhaps the rhythmic advantage seen in congenially blind individuals is linked to the decrease of other distracting stimuli, allowing the brain to solely focus on the rhythm.

In addition to rhythm, a recent study conducted Arnaud et al., 2018 analyzed whether patients with early stage blindness had a difference in pitch perception. Pitch perception was tested for fifteen congenially blind adults and fifteen sighted adults with each individual identifying a native and non-native vowel as a baseline. The study then asked participants to identify pitch differences in these vowels and discovered that blind subjects had a higher discernment ability for pitch differences for native vowels, music stimuli, and pure tones (Arnaud et al., 2018). Interestingly, older participants indicated an improved ability to identify instrumental noise over speech sounds. This reminds me of research I did several years ago on Alzheimer’s patients and music, and how songs with strong emotional attachments were played for patients with dementia to recall memories. Music in all its glorious forms seems to touch us deeply and intricately in a way that is not fully understood but is unequivocally challenged amongst people of all stratospheres.



Arnaud Laureline, Gracco Vincent, Menard Lucie (2018). Enhanced perception of pitch changes in speech and music in early blind adults. Neuropsychologia. 117, 261-270,

Levitin, D. J., Grahn, J. A., and London, J. (2018). “The psychology of music: Rhythm and movement,” Ann. Rev. Psychol. 69, 51–75.

Zhang, Linjun & Jiang, Wenling & Shu, Hua & Zhang, Yang. (2019). Congenital blindness enhances perception of musical rhythm more than melody in Mandarin speakers. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 145. EL354-EL359.



Ray Charles

Stevie Wonder

A band at Fête de la Musique




Coffee: For Optimal Results Find Your Caffeinated Balance

I love my coffee black. No sugar, no cream, just the rich, complex flavor of the world’s most beloved bean. It’s part of my daily ritual, either in the morning or afternoon or on special days both. When the first taste hits, I feel the smooth bitter taste swirl in my mouth, the notes of fruit or chocolate, the acidity, and the warmth blend together, and my mood is elevated. I am more alert, the coffeeshop I am sitting in enters the periphery and the assignment or tasks in front of me take precedent. After coffee, I feel more in control of my day, more optimistic, and generally happier and bubblier.

Coffee also opens the door to a unique world that transcends language. Every city, including Paris, has their own haven of coffeeshops, equipped with a variety of beans and a melancholy playlist perfect for work. Given its wide appeal, it unsurprising to discover that researchers are curious about its effects. Recently, Haskell- Ramsay et al, 2018 studied the acute effects of black coffee on cognition and mood amongst young people (20-34 years old) and older adults (61-80 years). Mainly Haskell-Ramsey et al, 2018 wanted to know whether it was the caffeine in the coffee that was causing these increased mood benefits or the behavioral components of drinking coffee. In order to test this, a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, counterbalanced-crossover study was used on 72 participants under three conditions: intaking 220 mL water mixed with 2.5 g coffee flavouring (placebo),220 mL regular coffee (without milk and sugar) containing 100 mg caffeine, and 220 mL decaffeinated coffee (without milk and sugar) containing ~5 mg caffeine.

Participants took cognitive assessment tests and mood measurement tests via the Computerized Mental Performance Assessment System (COMPASS) before drink intake and 30 minutes after. This metric is common in caffeine research and includes learning object locations and driving in PC simulations (Stalmach et al, 2014). Additionally, a saliva swab was taken and a caffeine research visual analogue scale was used to identify participant’s emotional and energy state prior to coffee intake. The researchers took rigorous measures in ensuring the participants were in proper testing conditions prior to intake. No coffee was consumed 24hours before the experiment, a proper breakfast was eaten at least one hour before the participants came to the lab, and a food diary were maintained (Ramsey et al, 2018). Further screening occurred the day of the study to make certain everyone was eligible.

The results were fascinating. For rapid visual information processing, object location learning, and alertness, caffeinated coffee showed statically significant difference than decaffeinated drinks. Consumption of caffeinated coffee also resulted in mood elevation and other cognitive tasks, and these benefits were seen across age groups. In the conclusion, the authors discuss that the benefits of coffee last between 4-6 hours (Stalmache). However, testing of mood and cognitive behavior were measured between 30 minutes to 120 minutes. I would be curious in future studies to see if these benefits declined, specifically if caffeine crashes led to the opposite of the positive effects of this study. Additionally, I would be interested to compare drinks with the same caffeine content to coffee and see if the mood and cognitive metrics changed. Coffee contains many chemical compounds that could be attributing to these positive effects compared to an energy drink, tea, or caffeine pill (Carrillo et al, 2000). Lastly, this study limited caffeine intake to 100mg. Does taking more than 100mg contribute to these heightened emotional and cognitive states or could it have a backfiring affect?

To better understand the beneficial parameters of caffeine and its effect on the body, Santos et al, 2016 studied the behavioral response when zebra fish were given different caffeine dosages. 144 adult zebrafish of both sexes were given one of 12 caffeine dosages: the lowest being 0.5 and the highest being 150.0mg. Caffeine was added directly to a tank containing twelve zebra fish and then observed for 60 minutes (Santos et al, 2016). For total distance traveled and freezing behavior, both were enhanced with caffeine exposure of 10 and 25mg/L, but decreased when fish were in water containing 50mg/L. Caffeine’s role in the nervous system, specifically alerting the body and enhancing performance, mainly occurs at an intermediate dose- too little no enhancement, too much a backfiring. This study is limited in its scope, however, because the zebrafish likely have never been exposed to caffeine before. However, human can be regular coffee drinkers. These studies did not account for the behavioral and mood differences found in those who regularly consume coffee as opposed to occasionally or never. The different dosages and level of dependency after years of drinking can affect the benefits of caffeine (Meredith et al, 2013).

Furthermore, these two studies focused on direct consumption of caffeine either in black coffee or directly placed in the tank, but would cream and sugar affect the effectiveness of caffeine? At home, I was a fiend for black coffee, hot or iced, but in Paris, I have become a latte gal, even indulging in the occasional espresso or flat white. Espresso based drinks such as a latte or flat white feel like a spurt of energy hitting me all at once. While coffee tends to be a slower burn, a slightly elevated state steady throughout the day. Regardless of form, coffee makes everything undeniably better, and in the right quantity can improve function. The Parisians may love wine, but I would take a latte over a bottle any day of the week.


Carrillo, J.A.; Benitez, J. Clinically significant pharmacokinetic interactions between dietary caffeine and medications. Clin. Pharmacokinet. 2000, 39, 127–153.


Haskell-Ramsay, C., Jackson, P., Forster, J., Dodd, F., Bowerbank, S., & Kennedy, D. (2018). The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients, 10(10), 1386.


Meredith SE, Juliano LM, Hughes JR, Griffiths RR. Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda. J Caffeine Res. 2013;3(3):114–130.


Santos, L. C., Ruiz-Oliveira, J., Silva, P. F., & Luchiari, A. C. (2017). Caffeine Dose-Response Relationship and Behavioral Screening in Zebrafish. The Question of Caffeine.


Stalmach, A.; Williamson, G.; Crozier, A. Impact of dose on the bioavailability of coffee chlorogenic acids in humans. Food Funct. 2014, 5, 1727–1737.


Oat Milk Latte

Almond Milk Latte

Van Gogh Case Study: Is Creativity Linked to Mood Disorders?

Vincent Van Gogh’s genius is undeniable now. His paintings are revered around the world and sell for multi-million dollars. His brushstrokes, thick and globular, severed tradition and gave rise to a new, unique sect of art. Moreover, his paintings broke convention. They showed the emotional depth of humanity through rich texture, raucous colors, and depictions of labor. Yet, one may say Van Gogh’s prolific work came at the cost of his sanity.  For much of his most productive working years which overlapped with his time in Provence, his health deteriorated. He often experienced hallucinations, episodes of mania, and a dangerous blend of depression and paranoia. When absorbed in his work, he could be in isolation for weeks, even months at a time, barely interacting with neighbors. On the occasion, he did venture in town it was mostly to look for more alcohol. Rarely sober, Van Gogh became a burden on the people of Provence, his only confidante being his family, particularly Theo, his brother, and his brother’s wife, Joan. Theo took immense sympathy on his brother who seemed always plagued with emotional turmoil and believed in his work but found his pieces hard to sell.

Van Gogh’s mood disorder, which today, could be categorized as bipolar, is one not uncommon in artists. Many artists whether it be writers, musicians, actors, struggle with a type of mood disorder. Examples include Virginia Wolfe, Sylvia Plath, Beethoven, and Georgia O’Keeffe. These names represent only a small handful which makes me wonder if there is a link between creativity and mental disorder? And if so, what is it? Is there a neuroscientific correlation between creativity and mood disorders?

Prolific writer died of suicide

Music Genius many hypothesize had bipolar disorder

Famed visual artist Georgia O’ Keefe dealt with depression and anxiety

Before identifying a specific creative link, it is important to define creativity and distinguish what brain regions are responsible for creativity. Creativity is an ability to view problems or generate possibilities in a novel and unique way (Glück et at., 2002). This ability has been linked to personality traits such as flexibility and divergent thinking (Caroli et at., 2009). In recent years, several studies have further tried to understand the link between bipolar disorder and creativity and have generated several interesting insights. Burkhardt et at., 2018 had 38 participants partake in several formalized diagnostic testing as well as interviews to determine whether individuals were bipolar. Subsequently, they took creativity assessments which included the Barron-Welsh Art Scale (BWAS) and the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ). Results showed that those who tested for bipolar (no distinction was made in this paper between type I and II) had significantly higher scores on the creativity tests. Interestingly, the study notes that an increased creative capacity does not equate to higher creative achievement (Burkhardt et at., 2018).

Another study focused on the structural correlation between creativity and bipolar disorder (Tu et at.,2017). Here, they separated their 59 participants into bipolar 1 and bipolar 2, all of which went through fMRI scanning. Under the fMRI, participants completed two traditional creative tests: The Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults and the Chinese Word Remote Associates Test. These tests challenge the participant to make as many unique associations with a word and/or uses for an object. For example, a component of the Torrance Test could ask list all the uses of a paperclip you can in five minutes. The quantity and quality of nontraditional answers determines one’s creativity score.

Results of this study showed that divergent thinking in people with bipolar I and II was linked to gray matter volume in the right medial frontal gyrus. It is crucial to acknowledge that patients in this study were taking a variety of medication: mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants-all of which could have tampered with the result. Nonetheless, the results are important in indicating the significant role the medial prefrontal cortex plays in creative thinking in people with bipolar as opposed to the more distributed neuroanatomical pattern for creative people without bipolar disorder (Tu et al.,2017).

While more extensive research needs to be conducted to understand the extent and depth of creativity’s correlation with bipolar disease, these two studies highlight a definite link between them. Given this knowledge, how does one go about treatment? The implications of treatment, such as potentially stunting creativity, may affect whether an artist decides to accept it. These insights will most importantly lead to more ethical debates and a greater understanding of neuroanatomical overlaps, especially in regards to mood, emotions, and capabilities. Perhaps, the creatives of the future will not have to suffer to Van Gogh’s magnitude.



Burkhardt, Eva & Pfennig, Andrea & Breitling, Gwendolin & Pfeiffer, Steffi & Sauer, Cathrin & Bechdolf, Andreas & U. Correll, Christoph & Bauer, Michael & Leopold, Karolina. (2018). Creativity in persons at-risk for bipolar disorder-A pilot study. Early Intervention in Psychiatry. 10.

De Caroli, Maria & Sagone, Elisabetta. (2009). Creative thinking and Big Five factors of personality measured in Italian school children. Psychological reports. 105.

Glück, Judith & Polacsek-Ernst, Roland & Unger, Floortje. (2002). How Creatives Define Creativity: Definitions Reflect Different Types of Creativity. Creativity Research Journal, v.14, 55-67 (2002). 14.

Tu, Pei-Chi & Kuan, Yi-Hsuan & Li, Cheng-Ta & Su, Tung-Ping. (2017). Structural Correlates of Creative Thinking in Patients With Bipolar Disorder and Healthy Controls—a Voxel-Based Morphometry Study. Journal of Affective Disorders. 215.



Friendship Beyond Borders

I met Eli almost exactly three years ago on a study abroad trip to Dharamsala, India. Tall, lanky and endearingly awkward, he was an easy target to befriend. Over the course of spicy tandoori and excessive amounts of naan, we became dear friends, friends in which comfort equates to honesty and judgment lacks. Despite our busy schedules, we always made time to see each other a few times a semester until of course he had to graduate. A year older and a fellow neuroscience major, Eli decided to take his talents overseas to the University of St. Andrews to complete his masters. Throughout the course of the year, we facetimed until one fateful day I told him of my upcoming plans to study in Paris. Excitedly, we planned to a day to see each other—-two months in advance.

The fateful day arrived this past Sunday, and my excitement could not be understated. I had been experiencing some unexpected culture shock and missing home, so I hoped our meeting would provide some ease and comfort as I continued adjusting to the city. We ended up in the Jewish quarter of Paris. Bakeries lined with challah and plates of hummus surrounded us, and my middle eastern self was having a field day. Eli recommended a falafel place with an exorbitant line which seemed promising. A brief exchange of broken Hebrew and soon we were walking to the Siene in with the biggest falafel sandwiches I had ever seen. The afternoon was spent eating delicious food, lying by the water, and talking about everything and nothing simultaneously. After lunch, we went to a crowded café and indulged in overpriced coffee and refreshing sorbets. And before I knew it, our day had ended. I walked him to the train, bid him au revoir, and left for home with newfound contentment and peace. Sunday brought back a realization I had made at graduation; having close friends is one of the most important and gratifying experiences of life. But what makes a close friend? Is it matter of respect and admiration of differences or similar worldly paradigm that draws us together?

Recent research led by Dr. Carolyn Parkinson set to solve these questions by testing whether within a social network the neural response to naturalistic audiovisual stimuli were more similar amongst close friends. Was my perception of the Parisian skyline more similar to Eli? Was this the real foundation of our friendship?  Parkinson et al., 2018 used 279 first year graduate students to test their theory and constructed a visual social network display for all for them, aka the social spider web (depicted below). Analysis of this image holds a variety of information due to self-reporting but, none was more interesting than the reciprocity rate, the rate in which two people name each other as a friend. A whopping 47.2%, which means probably over half of the “friends” we have aren’t friends (Parkinson et al., 2018).

Delving to the neural level, a subset of these students was placed into an fMRI machine and shown various movie clips in a predetermined order. Would the minds of friends show similar audio and visual firing patterns? If so, could we determine friendships merely by looking at these scans? Response patterns were gathered from 80 anatomical brain regions (Parkinson et al., 2018). Several brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens, inferior parietal cortex, and superior partial cortex showed statistically significant neural significance. The increased correlation with these areas is particularly interesting because the nucleus accumbens is linked to motivation, learning, and affective processing and the reward network while the inferior parietal cortex is playing a role in attentional allocation. These finding provide further scientific evidence of close friendships being rewarding and requiring a high degree of attention.

An additional point of interest is whether there were factors beyond friendship driving similar neural responses. In the control group, the weighted average of neural response similarities and dissimilarities were compared for five factors: nationality, handedness, gender, ethnicity, and age. Age and ethnicity surprisingly showed little similarity in neural responses, while nationality, handedness and gender all were statistically significant in correlation with neural response similarity (Parkinson et al., 2018). The fact that amongst close friend’s nationality has more influence on how they interpret the world over ethnicity is mind boggling. Yet, I would be lying if I don’t perk up when I hear English in the subways. The stark differences in Parisian and American culture has proved to me the substantial role culture plays in determining our behavior and world view. Coming from the South, I have come to expect bubbly greetings upon entering restaurant and now I meagerly whisper a “Bonjour” through a tight smile and quickly avert my eyes. Perhaps of the comfort of Eli’s Sunday’s visit was less to do with us as individuals but in how we saw Parisian life similarly, how in awe we were at the leisurely lifestyle, and how little French we understood. And for four short hours with the Eiffel Tower overlooking, I was home.

Eli back row with grey collar, Me last on left 

From the study


Parkinson C, Kleinbaum AM, Wheatley T. Similar neural responses predict friendship. Nat Commun. 2018;9(1):332. Published 2018 Jan 30.