Category Archives: Uncategorized

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



Riots at the Rite- and in the Brain?

There are few things more important in my life than music.  Its propensity to evoke emotion, inspire, and educate are, in my opinion, unparalleled compared to any other art form.  I started playing music at six years old, and I cannot think of something that has shaped my development as fundamentally as music has.  For me, learning certain pieces, such as Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major for piano or Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto in D Minor, represents memorable steps in my growth as both a musician as a person.  Another work that comes to mind when I think of pieces which have contributed to growth is Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird.  Composed as a score for a ballet of the same name, Firebird is the first of three momentous ballet scores by Stravinsky, the other two being Petrushka and the iconic Rite of Spring.  These ballets, especially Firebird and Rite of Spring are some of the most notable works of 20th-century music if not of music in its entirety.  These works burst onto the music scene and sent shockwaves throughout the artistic world, as they are some of the first, and most notable, pieces containing the jarring atonality and complex polyrhythms that have come to define the music of the early 20th century.  It was not only the music that was cutting edge but also the ballets.  Like the music, the choreography, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring, was extremely avant-garde, as it dispelled of traditional ballet movements and ushered in primitive hops and jumps.

A still image from The Rite of Spring’s iconic Sacrificial Dance (image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts)

Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, despite the acclaim these pieces have since garnered, they were not received particularly well upon their premiere.  In fact, the premiere of The Rite of Spring has become infamous for the alleged riots that occurred during its first performance.  Although accounts of the riots at The Rite are varied in intensity with some accounts stating that audience members tore their seats out of the theatre and others stating there was merely angry murmuring and yelling from the audience, it is unquestionable that the performance was met with extreme disgust from the audience (Taruskin, 2012).

Composer Igor Stravinsky (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

To this day, it baffles me how something as seemingly innocuous as attending a ballet could incite such visceral reactions.  However, research from the Watching Dance Project, a group comprising of researchers from four UK universities, is seeking to examine just that.  In a 2016 paper entitled Spectators’ Aesthetic Experience of Sound and Movement in Dance Performance: A Transdisciplinary Investigation, researchers investigated how an audience’s experience of sound and movement impacted their perception of the performance (Reason et al., 2016).  To do this, the researchers paired a short dance production with three different soundscapes: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, an ambient noise track, and an electronic music composition by Ian Wallman (Reason et al., 2016).  Subject’s reactions to the different music accompanying the dance were analyzed both qualitatively, through interviews and discussions, and quantitatively, via fMRI analyses (Reason et al., 2016).

The study found that audience member’s reactions to the dance performance were effected by different musical backings (Reason et al., 2016).  One subject, called David, stated, “different backing music or lack of music inspired different emotions at each time … you change the music, you don’t change the dance, you repeat the dance, and it’s got a totally different emotional effect” (Reason et al., 2016).  In addition to evoking different emotional responses, different musical backing tracks led to audience members perceiving identical performances differently (Reason et al., 2016).  A common theme in discussions post-performance was how the performance paired with the Bach concerto seemed more beautiful and flowing, while during the ambient noise and electronic noise repetitions, participants noted the dance seemed more intense and uncomfortable (Reason et al., 2016).

Interestingly, despite the apparent differences in perception of the dance with different musical backing, the fMRI data showed a large amount of overlap in brain regions active during all performances (Reason et al., 2016).   Bilaterally, in both visual and auditory cortex, fMRI data showed that activity was highly synchronized (Reason et al., 2016).  The four areas with the most evident overlap were the parietal cortex, the dorsal premotor cortex, and the ventral premotor cortex, and the superior temporal gyrus (Reason et al., 2016).  However, not all brain activity was synchronized across the three different performances.  During the Bach-accompanied performance, regions in the right cuneus, left lingual gyrus, cerebellum, and superior temporal gyrus, exhibited increased activation in comparison to the other performances (Reason et al., 2016).  During the ambient noise-accompanied performance, there was increased activation in multiple areas including Brodmann areas 7, 17, 18, 19, 22, 37, and 41 (Reason et al., 2016).

fMRI data showing areas of neural activation in audience members when viewing the dance performance accompanied by Bach (yellow) as opposed to the ambient track (purple). Brown= areas of overlapping activation. (Reason et al., 2016)

Many of the cortical areas that showed increased activation during the ambient-accompanied performance are associated with visual, auditory, and somatosensory processing (Reason et al., 2016).  Researchers hypothesize that this could be due to the synchronicity between the sounds of the ambient track (dancer’s breaths and footfalls) and the motion of their bodies (Reason et al., 2016).  Researchers also believe these findings could serve as preliminary data to support the hypothesis that auditory and visual perceptions of dance can influence one’s aesthetic perception of a performance (Reason et al., 2016).

The research presented by the Watching Dance Project in this research study showcases some interesting differences in an audience member’s perception of a dance performance when accompanied by different musical backing both in terms of personal experience and neural activity.  However, there is more research to be done, as fMRI studies face inherent limitations due to the technique’s relatively poor spatial resolution.  Perhaps these data presented by the Watching Dance Project researchers can serve to elucidate why Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiere induced such infamous riots.  I for one will definitely keep tabs on this group’s research, as I find their intersectional approach to music, dance, and the brain fascinating.




Reason, M., Jola, C., Kay, R., Reynolds, D., Kauppi, J., Grobras, M., … Pollick, F. E. (2016). Spectators’ aesthetic experience of sound and movement in dance performance: A transdisciplinary investigation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(1), 42-55. doi:10.1037/a0040032

Taruskin, R. (2012, September 14). ‘Rite of Spring? Cools Into a Rite of Passage. Retrieved from


when senses combine

As we have studied the different sensory systems here in Paris, I personally have been the most intrigued by how those systems interact with each other. In everyday life, information from each sense frequently combines with and affects information from other sensory systems. Among other examples, studies have shown that the smell of food can affect its taste (Burdach et al., 1984), someone’s mouth movements can affect what we hear them saying (McGurk and MacDonald, 1976), and the form of a nonsense shape can predict what we will name that shape (Köhler, 1929).

The kiki-bouba task is one particularly famous version of this shape-symbolism example where participants are asked to match names with nonsense shapes. This version of the shape-symbolism task comes from a 2001 scientific study. In this paper, two scientists found that, when asked to match the names bouba and kiki to the shapes shown below, 95% of people called the jagged shape “kiki” and the rounded shape “bouba” (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001).

The “kiki” and “bouba” shapes
From Hamburg et al., 2017

In the years since this initial paper has published, many subsequent studies have been done to try to understand why so many people make the same sound-shape connections (e.g. Cuskley et al., 2015). Scientists believe that one reason many people label the nonsense shapes similarly is because the actual soundwaves mimic the rounded and jagged shapes of the letters in the names. (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001).

To match the sound of a word to what it looks like, our brains need to be able to integrate and compare auditory and visual information (Król and Ferenc, 2019). This ability is one example of what is known as multisensory integration. In general, multisensory integration is when information from more than one sensory systems is combined to create one unified representation (Stein and Stanford, 2008).

Multisensory integration begins when we are infants and continues to develop throughout childhood (Flom and Bahrick, 2007; Barutchu et al., 2009, 2010). Previous researchers have shown that multisensory integration is important for cognitive abilities like target detection, reaction time, and the development of other cognitive skills (e.g., Diederich and Colonius 2007; Lippert et al., 2007; Dionne-Dostie et al., 2015).

Previous research has also shown that multisensory integration is impaired in children with intellectual disabilities and individuals with autism spectrum disorder (Hayes et al., 2003; Oberman and Ramachandran, 2008). Interestingly, the kiki-bouba task is one of the ways researchers test for multisensory integration. Since the kiki-bouba task involves matching auditory information (the names) and visual information (the shapes), abnormal results can indicate multisensory integration problems.

In their recent study, Hamburg et al. used the kiki-bouba task to assess multisensory integration in adults with Down syndrome. Down syndrome occurs when someone has an extra copy of their twenty-first chromosome (for reviews, see: Antonarakis et al., 2004; Kazemi et al., 2016). It the most common genetic cause of intellectual disability in the world, but there it can affect a range of cognitive abilities (Asim et al., 2015). Many of the cognitive abilities that are impacted by Down syndrome involve brain structures that develop relatively late (Edgin, 2013). Since multisensory integration also develops throughout childhood, the authors predicted that this ability could be affected by Down syndrome.

Trisomy 21

To test this prediction, Hamburg et al. first evaluated participants with Down syndrome on several background questions about general cognitive ability and everyday adaptive abilities. Then these participants and typically-developing control participants completed the kiki-bouba task. The authors then calculated the overall correct response rate for both groups of participants. Based on the previous evidence, matching “kiki” to the pointy shape and “bouba” to the rounded shape was considered a correct answer.

The data showed that, among individuals with Down syndrome, the correct response rate on the kiki-bouba task was 72.5% compared to 90% in the typically developing age-matched controls. The authors therefore concluded that multisensory integration deficits are relatively common in individuals with Down syndrome. Additionally, for the participants with Down syndrome, the authors found that there was a significant relationship between individuals’ kiki-bouba task score and both their general cognitive ability score and their everyday adaptive abilities.

The authors found that individuals with Down syndrome who had lower scores for general cognitive ability and everyday adaptive abilities scored close to chance (correct response rates around 57%) while those with higher ability scores scored levels comparable to the typically developing controls. The authors concluded that sound-shape matching ability might be relatively common in the Down syndrome community but are mostly seen in individuals with lower cognitive abilities.

Personally, I enjoyed completing the kiki-bouba task in class as a fun example of multisensory integration. The idea of using this interesting task as an experimental test is exciting but, of course, there are limitations to this approach. Some studies suggest that, across different cultures, there may be differences in sound-shape mapping and other forms of multisensory integration (Bremner et al., 2013; Chen et al. 2016). These differences make the use of the kiki-bouba task as an experimental test concerning as cultural differences could confound results.

Furthermore, in the Hamburg et al. paper the authors noted that the decrease in correct response rate was primarily seen in individuals with Down syndrome who are categorized as severely intellectually impaired. As the authors acknowledge, it is hard to know how much of this effect is due to Down syndrome as opposed to severe intellectual impairments. These possible causes are especially hard to parse because there is little to no research about multisensory integration in individuals who have intellectual disabilities not due to Down syndrome. In the future, further research would have to be done with more precise control groups so that these factors could be dissociated.

While the study is far from conclusive, it is interesting to think about testing for multisensory integration in patients with cognitive conditions. In the future, understanding patients’ ability to combine information from their different senses could help medical professions better understand and support these individuals.



Antonarakis SE, Lyle R, Dermitzakis ET, Reymond A, DeutschS (2004). Chromosome 21 and down syndrome: from genomics to pathophysiology. Nat Rev Genet. 5:725–38.

Asim A, Kumar A, Muthuswamy S, Jain S, Agarwal S (2015) “Down syndrome: an insight of the disease”. J Biomed Sci. 22:41.

Bremner AJ, Caparos S, Davidoff J, de Fockert J, Linnell KJ, Spence C (2013) ‘Bouba’ and ‘Kiki’ in Namibia? A remote culture make similar shape– sound matches, but different shape –taste matches to Westerners. Cognition 126: 165– 172.

Burdach KJ, Kroeze JHA. and Koster EP (1984) Nasal, retronasal and gustatory perception: an experimental comparison. Percept. Psychophys., 36: 205—208.

Chen YC, Huang PC, Woods A, Spence C (2016). When “Bouba” equals “Kiki”: Cultural commonalities and cultural differences in sound-shape correspondences. Scientific Reports, 6:26681.

Cuskley C, Simner J, Kirby S (2015). Phonological and orthographic influences in the bouba-kiki effect. Psychological Research

Desai SS (1997). Down syndrome: A review of the literature, Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, Oral Radiology, and Endodontology, 84(3): 279-285

Diederich A and Colonius H (2007). Why two ‘Distractors’ are better than one: modeling the effect of non-target auditory and tactile stimuli on visual saccadic reaction time, Exp. Brain Res. 179: 43–54.

Dionne-Dostie E, Paquette N, Lassonde M and Gallagher A. (2015). Multisensory integration and child neurodevelopment, Brain Sci. 5: 32–57.

Edgin J (2013). Cognition in Down syndrome: a developmental cognitive neuroscience perspective, WIREs Cogn. Sci. 4, 307–317.

Flom, R. and Bahrick, L. E. (2007). The development of infant discrimination of affect in multimodal and unimodal stimulation: the role of intersensory redundancy, Dev. Psychol. 43: 238–252.

Hamburg S, Startin CM, Strydom, A (2017). The Relationship Between Sound–Shape Matching and Cognitive Ability in Adults With Down Syndrome. Multisensory Research 30: 537–547

Hayes EA, Tiippana K, Nicol TG, Sams M, Kraus H (2003). Integration of heard and seen speech: a factor in learning disabilities in children, Neurosci. Lett. 351, 46–50.

Kazemi M, Salehi M, Kheirollahi M (2016). Down Syndrome: Current Status, Challenges and Future Perspectives. International journal of molecular and cellular medicine, 5(3), 125–133.

Köhler W (1929). Gestalt psychology. New York: Liveright

Król ME, Ferenc K (2019) Silent shapes and shapeless sounds: the robustness of the diminished crossmodal correspondences effect in autism spectrum conditions. Psychological Research 1-10.

Lippert M, Logothetis NK, Kayser C (2007). Improvement of visual contrast detection by a simultaneous sound, Brain Res. 1173: 102–109.

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Stein BE, Stanford TR (2008) Multisensory integration: current issues from the perspective of the single neuron. Nat Rev Neurosci. 9:255–266.



Bouba and Kiki Shapes: Figure 1 from Hamburg et al., 2017

Trisomy 21:

Ballet on the stage and brain

I recently attended a performance of the Swan Lake ballet by the Universal Ballet of Seoul at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. While watching the ballerinas execute perfect pirouettes and fouettes, all I could do was watch in amazement as I remembered my struggle to even do adequate double turns in ballet class. It was not just me either; it seemed that everyone in the audience was just as enthralled at every dizzying turn and every gravity defying leap. When the performance concluded, the applause reverberated around the hall as the principal ballerinas bowed repeatedly. This moment of collective audience admiration made me think of a moment that contrasted dramatically. In Paris of 1913 at the opening performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with an accompanying ballet performance, audience members were so shocked at the strange, stamping movements that they began to riot. While we mainly discussed the auditory elements of the performance in class, it was actually the dance choreography that provoked the scandal (Chua, 2007). I wondered what made people react positively or negatively to dance and whether there was a science behind this.

Graceful and well-balanced ballerinas from Swan Lake


A 2012 neuroimaging study investigated the brain responses to dance that one perceives as aesthetically pleasing vs unpleasing. The images demonstrated that the active engagement of sensorimotor brain areas, which are those covering the primary sensory and motor areas of the brain, is more implicated with observing dance movements perceived as pleasing. This suggested that the motor system plays a role in the appreciation and enjoyment of dance (Cross and Ticini, 2012). This link between motor system and aesthetic perception was further investigated in a 2015 study by Kirsch et al. of how motor familiarity relates to a viewer’s aesthetic appraisal of it. Twenty-two participants were trained for 4 days with difference dance sequences. Every day they had to physically rehearse one set of sequences, just passively watch a second set, listen to the music of the third set, and were unexposed to a fourth set. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, which detects brain activity based on blood flow in areas of the brain, was obtained prior to and directly after training as participants watched videos of dance stimuli videos. They were then asked to aesthetically rate the observed dance (“How much did you like the movement you just watched”) and also to assess their physical ability to reproduce the movement (“How well could you reproduce the movement you just watched?). Results indicated that participants reported increased enjoyment for movements they had themselves physically practiced or even just passively observed for four days. The left superior temporal gyrus (STG), which is important in the interaction of the auditory and motor system, had the most change in activation, suggesting that STG activation may reflect how auditory, visual, and motor experience become associated with each other to produce a more enjoyable experience. These results also suggested that with increased exposure to a movement sequence, whether it be through physical performance or just listening to the soundtrack, people reported greater aesthetic perception of the dance movements (Kirsch et al., 2015).

A potential confounding variable I thought of after reading about this experiment was their use of only hip-hop dance and pop songs. I think the personal feelings people may have regarding this genre of dance and music may influence the degree of activation in the brain. For future directions, I believe that it would be interesting to look into a variety of dance styles and music for greater confidence that results are accurate. As a future direction, I wonder whether they’d be able to stimulate the STG to create greater preference for certain dance movements over others. This would indicate the STG plays a role in creating pleasant experiences linked to watching dance.

Area lit up in image on the left shows the STG where brain activation corresponds to increased liking


This finding of how perception of dance is influenced by what people are exposed to was investigated in another study that looked at how ballet has evolved between the 1960s to 2000s. The same ballet poses were extracted from productions of The Sleeping Beauty and transformed into a standardized form of either stick figures based on principal body segments or quadrilateral shapes which connected the endpoints of each limb. Twelve dance naïve volunteers, meaning without significant experience of performing or attending dance, viewed the stick figure and polygon images and then judged which images they preferred. Results showed that there was a significant tendency for production year and aesthetic evaluation to be correlated, meaning subjects were most likely to prefer the forms from the most recent ballet production possibly due to inadvertent exposure to media within their culture (Daprati et al., 2009).


The standardized forms (B) shown to subjects based on ballerina (A)

All in all, I think that the research into dance preference can serve to inform us about why the audience reacted so vehemently to the performance of Rite of Spring all those years ago; they had never been exposed to such a form of dance before and were not comfortable with how dance was being represented on stage as much of our aesthetic perception comes from what we have seen or been exposed to before. Perhaps this is why as modern performances became more commonplace, the Rite of Spring became an iconic performance that was replicated countless times to audiences that began to applaud instead of riot.




Chua, D.K.L. (2007) Rioting with Stravinsky: a Particular Analysis of the Rite of Spring. Music Analysis, 26, 59-109.

Cross, E.S. & Ticini, L.F. (2012) Neuroaesthetics and beyond: new horizons in applying the science of the brain to the art of dance. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11, 5-16.

Daprati, E., Iosa, M. & Haggard, P. (2009) A Dance to the Music of Time: Aesthetically Relevant Changes in Body Posture in Performing Art. PLOS ONE, 4, e5023.

Kirsch, L.P., Dawson, K. & Cross, E.S. (2015) Dance experience sculpts aesthetic perception and related brain circuits. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 1337, 130-139.

Image 1:

Image 2: Kirsch et al., 2015

Image 3: Daprati et al., 2009

Send Me Your Location

Les Français parlent rapidement à Paris. This translates to the French speak very fast in Paris. A major and obvious change since coming to France has been the language. After being here for a month, I feel as though I’m able to grasp more and more, especially since I’ve been learning French for a long time. However, I still encountered many difficulties such as people automatically speaking to me in English after realizing I’m not a native French speaker. On the other hand, even my friends, with little to no French background, have grasped some French and learned to communicate efficiently most places we go. Either by hearing phrases a lot or communicating with others by gesturing, the French and the Americans can communicate even with a language barrier. It occurred to me how even though the world has so many languages, humans can still communicate universally with one another. If humans can use language to communicate, does language exist in other species too? Well, it depends on how you define language.

A language world map

There are many ways to define it, which is why many scientists cannot agree on whether some animals have a “language” or not. Language is used for the “purpose of communication is the preservation, growth, and development of the species” (Smith and Miller 1968). If we use this definition, most animals have language because most animals communicate with each other. However, what makes human language unique is that humans have voluntary control of language, while animals use language instinctively (Hedeager 2010)

Another language-related skill unique to humans is vocal production learning (VPL), or the ability to change how and what we say in response to auditory inputs (Janik and Slater 2000; Petkov & Jarvis, 2012). Interestingly, VPL has also been shown to occur in two species of bats, Phyllostomus discolor (P. discolor) and Rousettus aegyptiacus (R. aegyptiacus).  Bats are known to communicate through a process called echolocation. Echolocation is the ability to use a biological, built-in sensor to navigate and detect objects. For example, a bat releases high frequency sounds to detect potential prays, and if the sound reflects back from the prey, then it uses this information to hunt. Humans can hear between 10 and 20,000 Hz, while bats detect low-frequency sounds of 1,000 to 200,000 Hz. Frequency is the number of wave cycles that a sound travels in a set time (Biointeractive 2019). Now that we know a little about how bats communicate, we can examine some language-related genetic similarities that are present between us and bats.

One particular study, Rodenas‐Cuadrado et al. (2018), found evidence that three genes, or parts of the DNA passed from parent to offspring, were found to be shared by both bats and humans. FoxP2, FoxP1, and CntnaP2 are well-known genes that are associated with human language (Abrahams et al. 2007). Mutations in the FoxP2 or FoxP1 genes can result in language impairments in children. Mutations in CntnaP2 is known to cause speech and language problems in autism, epilepsy, and intellectual disability (Rodenas‐Cuadrado, Ho, & Vernes, 2014).

R. aegyptiacus

P. discolor

Within the study, two species of bats’ brains were studied to determine how much of the three genes were expressed, or active, via immunohistochemistry, a technique to visualize proteins in brain slices (ProteinAtlas 2019).

P. discolor vs. R.aegyptiacus brains’ slice dissections

Red arrows point to the three language genes found in P.discolor and R. aegyptiacus

The researchers organized the results of the three genes found in the bats’ brains by brain region. FoxP2, FoxP1, and CntnaP2 were all found in the cerebral cortex, an area involved in cognitive function, or being able to process sensory output (Rodenas-Cuadrado et al., 2018). FoxP1 and FoxP2 both were abundantly present in the striatum of the brain (Rodenas-Cuadrado et al., 2018).  The striatum is involved in echolocation in bats (Tressler et al., 2011) and voluntary motor control in both humans and other species (Hikosaka et al., 2000). Another aspect that the researchers looked at was juvenile (2.5 months old) vs. adult (> 1-year-old) bats. They found that juvenile bats had more gene expression than the adults, which can tell us that the juveniles are still developing to enhance their communication and echolocation. A limitation would be the lack of looking at which brain areas are active when echolocation itself is occurring. This could possibly be done using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tool, where a scan detects certain brain areas activated based on oxygen flow. However, the researchers did examine multiple brain slices, which strengthens the claims where they demonstrate that the three genes are expressed.

FoxP2 in juvenile vs. adult P.discolor cerebral cortex

Seeing that this study by Rodenas-Cuadrado et al., (2018) examined how bats and humans share three essential language-related genes has made me think that bats and humans are more related than I originally thought! Most animals share a common ancestor who acquired these three language-related genes, but various factors and time brought many changes between species. However, knowing that bats share some language-related genes can open up research on bats and other species to explain how they communicate. Whether it be someone traveling to a foreign country where a different language than their own is spoken or bats using echolocation to communicate, communication is essential to life. Language can mean a lot of things, but in its most basic sense, we all share the process of communicating with one another.


Rodenas-Cuadrado, P. M., Mengede, J., Baas, L., Devanna, P., Schmid, T. A., Yartsev, M., … Vernes, S. C. (2018). Mapping the distribution of language related genes FoxP1, FoxP2, and CntnaP2 in the brains of vocal learning bat species. The Journal of comparative neurology, 526(8), 1235–1266. doi:10.1002/cne.24385


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Rodenas‐Cuadrado P., Ho J., & Vernes S. C. (2014). Shining a light on CNTNAP2: Complex functions to complex disorders. European Journal of Human Genetics: EJHG, 22(2), 171–178.

Tressler, J., Schwartz, C., Wellman, P., Hughes, S., & Smotherman, M. (2011). Regulation of bat echolocation pulse acoustics by striatal dopamine. The Journal of experimental biology, 214(Pt 19), 3238–3247.

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Petkov C. I., & Jarvis E. D. (2012). Birds, primates, and spoken language origins: Behavioral phenotypes and neurobiological substrates. Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, 4, 12.

Language map from

P. discolor bat image from

R. aegyptiacus bat image from

Last three images all from Rodenas‐Cuadrado et al. (2018)

Sandpaper is to Ruki as Satin is to Lula

In class we discussed the phenomenon that is the bouba/kiki effect. This study was developed in 1929 by Kohler but has been repeated with different variations since then. Try it yourself here: which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?

Which is bouba and which is kiki?

You probably said the sharp angular shape was kiki and the bubbly curvy shape was bouba, right? You’re not alone, when this study was repeated by Ramachandran and Hubbard in 2001, 95% of people picked the left shape as kiki and the right shape was bouba (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). This experiment contributed to the ongoing science of understanding synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition where a person experiences sensations in one modality when another modality is stimulated (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001).

How someone with grapheme-color synesthesia might perceive the alphabet and numbers

A modality is a way of experiencing something; for example if a person with synesthesia heard the note C, he/she may associate that note with the color red. There are many types of synesthesia, the most common being grapheme-color synesthesia during which a person correlates a letter or number with a specific color.

Since the original bouba/kiki experiment, many studies testing a variety of associations between different modalities have been published. In one paper, the authors Etzi et al. study the association between nonsensical words and physical touch. Twenty five subjects in their early 20’s, who were blind folded and wore ear plugs, were asked to describe and rate the experience of having different textures rubbed on their arms. Samples of different textures included cotton, satin, tinfoil, sandpaper, and abrasive sponge. The hairy part of the skin was targeted since there is evidence that a certain type of fiber only found in hairy skin is associated with feelings of pleasantness (Loken et al., 2009). Participants were then asked to rate the tactile simulation with a variety of nonsensical words, adjectives, and emotional descriptions. Scales of nonsensical words such as kiki vs bouba, ruki vs lula, and adjectives such as loud-quiet, beautiful-ugly, feminine-masculine were used. When describing emotion, participants were presented with an emotion and asked to rate whether the texture represented this emotion “not at all” or “very much”. Analysis of results show that rougher materials such as sandpaper and abrasive sponge were rated as more “kiki”, “ruki”, and “takete” while smoother materials such as satin were rated as more “bouba”, “lula” and “maluma” (Etzi et al., 2016). This may be explained by the fact that phonemes /t/, /k/, /p/, are “strident and plosive” consonants while /l/, /m/, /n/ are sonorant and continuant consonants (Nielsen and Rendall, 2013). Another interesting result was that smoother textures like satin and cotton were described more as “feminine” and “beautiful” while rougher textures like sandpaper were described as “masculine” and “ugly” (talk about gender norms am I right?) (Etzi et al., 2016). Overall, this study concluded that there is an association between nonsensical words and perceptions of tactile textures.

While this study provides more evidence into cross modality correspondences, there is a weakness. Hairy skin was targeted for stimulation since there would be greater fiber response; however, people have different amounts of body hair which may affect the tactile stimulation experience between participants, skewing the results. There are still many different cross modal associations that have yet to be studied that would be interesting future experiments. By understanding the different associations, we are able to better understand just how interconnected the brain is.

The significance of cross modal associations is more ubiquitous than you might think. When we go to the store to pick up groceries and maybe a bottle of wine, activation of our different senses gives us subconscious reactions to these different stimuli. The shape of that one wine bottle may be associated with harsh, rough, loud words while the shape of another may be associated with soft, flowy, harmonious words. The words that we associate with that shape will influence which bottle we decide to buy.

Different wine bottle shapes

The decisions we make when shopping are based on product design and how we perceive an object from our different senses. So next time you’re shopping for wine, instead of going for the cheapest option, examine the shape, the texture, and feel of the bottles. Introspect and ask yourself, how does the design really make you feel?


Etzi, R., Spence, C., Zampini, M., & Gallace, A. (2016). When sandpaper is ‘Kiki’ and satin is ‘Bouba’: An exploration of the associations between words, emotional states, and tactile attributes of everyday materials. Multisensory Research, 29(1-3), 133-155.

Hanson-Vaux, G., Crisinel, A.-S., & Spence, C. (2013). Smelling shapes: Crossmodal correspondences between odors and shapes. Chemical Senses, 38(2), 161-166.

Löken, L. S., Wessberg, J., McGlone, F., & Olausson, H. (2009). Coding of pleasant touch by 477 unmyelinated afferents in humans. Nature Neuroscience,12, 547-548.

Nielsen, A. K. and Rendall, D. (2013). Parsing the role of consonants versus vowels in the 510 classic Takete–Maluma phenomenon, Can. J. Exp. Psychol. 67, 153–163.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia- A window into perception, thought and language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3-34.

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Feel the Music

Hello everyone, one last time! I can’t believe my time studying here in Paris is coming to a close already. It feels like I just arrived and now I only have one day of class left. This whole trip has been such an amazing experience, and I had the opportunity to see so many parts of this beautiful city! One of my recent experiences was Fête de la Musique, which was one of my favorite days here in Paris. Fête de la Musique is a city wide festival where anyone and everyone can play music on the streets of Paris. Walking around for 6 hours, I had the chance to hear many people share their music with the city. It was even more exciting when I found a band or individual playing a song that I recognized! One band played Stand by Me by Ben E. King and later I got to hear Wonderwall by Green Day.

Two men playing Stand by Me by Ben E. King on the streets of Paris

Another recent experience involving music was our class excursion to an exhibit at the Philharmonie de Paris. The exhibit called Exposition Electro was about electronic dance music, including history of the music and interactive pieces relating to the music. It was such an interesting exhibit. I really found my place in a back room that allowed you to make different beats with percussion instruments (I used to play percussion, so I spent a good chunk of my time in this room)

The Percussion room in the exhibition. You could make the instruments play on different beats to create your own music.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit however was an image with a quote on a wall, rather than a musical piece. The quote read “Can a song without words say anything?” After seeing this quote, I started to really think about the way in which music impacts us. I contemplated the way I feel when I listen to music I love, or how I felt in the percussion room. Then, during Fête de la Musique I thought about how everyone in the city was spending a night enjoying and being immersed in music. To answer the question posed by the wall, I believe that the underlying emotion I, and many others, feel towards music allows us to connect to a song even without any words or explicit meaning. But, why is it that we can extract meaning and emotion out of music?

Our auditory cortex is the brain region where all sound information is processed (Purves et al., 2001). The information we hear from our ear is transmitted to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain, which is found near your temples. The auditory cortex takes the noise we hear and converts it into sounds that we can understand (Purves et al., 2001).

Location of the auditory cortex

Now, just because we can comprehend the sounds and words being said to us, that doesn’t automatically mean we feel emotion towards it. This emotion comes from a connection to different parts of the brain. One study by Koelsch and colleagues (2005) used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a measurement of brain activity based on blood flow to those areas, in order to determine the activity of both the auditory cortex and possibly other brain regions. fMRI was taken during the presentation of both pleasant and unpleasant music. The study found that unpleasant music activated brain regions known to be important for negative emotional processing along with the auditory cortex. The study also found that pleasant music activated a structure called the insula (Koelsch et al., 2005), which has been seen to be important for overall emotional processing (Phan et al., 2002).

Another study done by Koelsch and colleagues (2018) expanded on the knowledge of the 2005 study. The newer study also used fMRI to see activation of brain regions during music that should evoke joy or fear. The authors found that there was actually emotional processing within the auditory cortex, as well as connectivity with other emotion related areas. For example, there was a high connectivity with the limbic system (Koelsch et al., 2018). The limbic system includes structures such as the hypothalamus (important for controlling hormones in the body), the thalamus (processes different information from our senses), the amygdala (important for emotional memory, especially fear), and the hippocampus (important for personal memories). The limbic system is known for being important to emotional responses, and having the body respond accordingly by hormone release, changing breathing levels and heart rate, in order for a person to feel the emotion (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007).

Brain structures and location of the Limbic System

The conclusion in both of these studies is that there is high connectivity between the auditory cortex and emotional areas. There is always a level of uncertainty when using fMRI. Since fMRI measures blood flow to a brain area, the image doesn’t necessarily show us the activity of the neurons in that brain region. Therefore, future studies could look more directly at the role of specific structures involved in emotion in music. For example, if a structure important for emotion is damaged, does that change our ability to emotionally respond to music? However, overall these data point towards a strong connection between sound processing and emotional processing, which helps explain our emotional connection to music.

Music has always been a really important part of my life, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to interact with some musical parts of Paris. To me, it is so fascinating that random notes and sounds can make us feel so many different emotions. With and without words, music has the ability to affect our lives profoundly.






Koelsch, S., Fritz, T., Cramon, D. Y., Müller, K., & Friederici, A. D. (2005). Investigating emotion with music: An fMRI study. Human Brain Mapping,27(3), 239-250.

Koelsch, S., Skouras, S., & Lohmann, G. (2018). The auditory cortex hosts network nodes influential for emotion processing: An fMRI study on music-evoked fear and joy. Plos One,13(1).

Phan, K., Wager, T., Taylor, S. F., & Liberzon, I. (2002). Functional Neuroanatomy of Emotion: A Meta-Analysis of Emotion Activation Studies in PET and fMRI. NeuroImage,16(2), 331-348.

Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Auditory Cortex.

Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The limbic system. Indian Journal of Psychiatry,49(2), 132.


Image 1-3: Taken by me

Image 4:

Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Neuroscience. 2nd edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001. The Auditory Cortex.

Image 5:

Limbic System. (2017, June 07). Retrieved from

I don’t like the taste of this anymore!!

In class, we discussed gustation and the different mechanisms associated with taste processing. Later, we participated in an amusing activity. We taste tested different snacks! In this activity, we were given chips of different flavors and had to taste and guess the flavor. The first chip smelled like barbeque, but I thought that was too easy of a guess. After tasting it, I was left uncertain of the flavor because it wasn’t particularly gross or tasty. Upon receiving a suggestion card that revealed the flavor as “mustard,” I still was not convinced I knew the flavor. When the options of pickle, cheeseburger, and mustard were given to me, I immediately thought it could be cheeseburger because it distinctly tasted like the aftertaste of a McDonald’s cheeseburger (the one in the kid’s meal). The next two flavor of chips were easy to guess because they both tasted exactly like their said flavors, cheese and ketchup.

After the chip taste test, Dr. O’toole gave us a supplement, and the effect of that supplement was that we had a harder time tasting sweet. To test how well it worked, we tried a piece of chocolate, and I do not enjoy the taste chocolate. However, it was not as bad as I expected because the sweetness of chocolate that I hate was not perceived by me. Instead, I really just felt the texture more than usual, but maybe that was due to that specific type of chocolate.

Anyway, during this activity, it occurred to me that the flavors we tasted were savored by some and despised by others, and some people started to enjoy certain chips. This observation triggered an intriguing thought. In what situation does one change taste preference? When I thought of this idea, I dove into scientific literature to find an answer to my question, and I stumbled upon a pilot study that investigated changes in taste and food preferences in breast cancer patients.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and the prevalence is increasing (DeSantis et al., 2015). To decrease the fatality and to remove cancerous tumors from individuals, treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and/or targeted hormone therapy are administered (Andre et al., 2006). Moreover, patients who underwent chemotherapy have reported changes in taste preference before treatment (Mattes et al., 1987). Different interactions between learned food aversion and basic side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs can limit what a person wants to eat and can alter taste (Mattes et al., 1987).

5 basic tastes

Based on previous research, Kim et al. (2019) decided to investigate how cancer treatment plays a role in appetite reduction and change in taste preference. In order to test this question, the authors administered taste detection thresholds and recognition thresholds and compared the results between breast cancer patients and healthy subjects (control group) for sweet, salty, bitter, and sour solutions. The taste detection threshold is the lowest point at which one can distinguish the solution from water, and the recognition threshold is the lowest concentration that one can recognize and correctly identify the solution (Keast and Roper, 2007). If one has high sensitivity to a specific taste, then there will be reduced detection thresholds and recognition thresholds of that taste, and vice versa. The changes in taste thresholds and food preferences were monitored before and during treatment in the breast cancer patient group.

Both detection and recognition thresholds were measured in both the experimental and control group at baseline. The baseline data showed that the experimental group had lower sweet and salty detection and recognition thresholds and higher sour recognition threshold compared to the control group. The bitter thresholds (detection and recognition) were similar between both groups. The results of this study showed that as treatment progressed, the detection thresholds and recognition thresholds in breast cancer patients for sweet declined significantly compared to the threshold at baseline. The other tastes’ thresholds (detection and recognition) were not affected. For food preference, at baseline and during treatment, the patients had a consistent preference for mild and soft dishes (Kim et al., 2019).

Taking these results, Kim et al. (2019) concluded that at baseline, sensitivities to sweet, salty and sour were different in breast cancer patients compared to healthy individuals. Furthermore, as cancer treatment progressed, sensitivity to sweet increased and the other tastes were unaffected when compared to baseline. The results provide useful information to better understand what cancer patients can be sensitive to in regards to food. Overall, this information can be used to accommodate them so that their food intake can increase even during treatment to lower malnutrition rates commonly seen in cancer patients.(Kim et al., 2019).

I found this paper quite intriguing because it showed how certain conditions in life can impact what you do or don’t want to consume, therefore changing one’s taste preference. I never took the time to think about how changes in taste preference can impact health in several ways. There are so many other fields to explore preferential changes in taste anywhere spanning from general aging to food neophobia in autism spectrum disorders. Wow, who would have that a simple activity would unravel such a deep avenue of thought?!



Andre, F., Mazouni, C., Hortobagyi, G. N., & Pusztai, L. (2006). DNA arrays as predictors of efficacy of adjuvant/neoadjuvant chemotherapy in breast cancer patients: Current data and issues on study design. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Reviews on Cancer, 1766(2), 197–204.

DeSantis CE, Bray F, Ferlay J, Lortet-Tieulent J, Anderson BO, Jemal A (2015) Cumulative     logistic regression with food preference score as an ordinal variable was used to         compare the preference of BC patients and CTRLs. The analyses were adjusted for        age.1.International Variation in Female Breast Cancer Incidence and Mortality RatesCancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 24 (10):1495–1506

Keast, R. S. J., & Roper, J. (2007). A Complex Relationship among Chemical Concentration,       Detection Threshold, and Suprathreshold Intensity of Bitter Compounds. Chemical      Senses,32(3), 245–253.

Kim, Y., Kim, G. M., Son, S., Song, M., Park, S., Chung, H. C., & Lee, S.-M. (2019). Changes in taste and food preferences in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy: A pilot study. Supportive Care in Cancer.

Mattes, R. D., Arnold, C., & Boraas, M. (1987). Learned food aversions among cancer     chemotherapy patients. Incidence, nature, and clinical implications. Cancer, 60(10),2576–2580.<2576::AID           CNCR2820601038>3.0.CO;2-5


Food for Thought: The 5 Basic Taste Categories

Synthetic Synesthesia??

Over the course of the past five weeks in Paris, we’ve had countless unforgettable experiences. These experiences have provided a variety of sensations. Whether it be hearing the stadium roar as the US women score another goal, tasting a range of wines in Provence, or viewing the perfect blend of colors in Monet’s paintings, our sensory systems have definitely been active, processing and responding to unique, memorable stimuli. However, our discussion of synesthesia in class this past week led me to wonder how different these experiences all may have been for those lucky enough to be synesthetic. 

What someone with synesthesia may see when listening to music (looks like the lights at the Philharmonic)

Synesthesia is a genetic condition in which one sense is combined with one or more others (Watson et al., 2014). For example, a synesthetic person may “hear colors” or “see smells”. Synesthesia affects people in various unique ways. A video we watched in class attempted to recreate one synesthetic’s experience, in which she saw certain colors pop up in the corner of her vision when she played certain musical notes on the violin. Based off the video’s portrayal, synesthesia seemed like a beautiful condition to have. I started to wonder how life would be different if I could combine my senses to create new forms of perception, especially thinking about all the highly stimulating sensory experiences we’d had during the trip. Over the past two weeks, there were two more excursions that really got me thinking about how different they may have been with synesthesia. First, we attended an exhibit at the Paris philharmonic called “From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk”. This was a modern art exhibit which contained combinations of electronic music, dancing LED lights, and cinematic videos. There was a large structure in the middle of the exhibit in which a bunch of poles were lighting up in different colors. Watching these lights move, along with the music playing, made this feel like a synesthetic experience. It was as though the lights were dancing along with the beat of the song. During our last week here, we had another unique sensory experience when we visited Monet’s garden. The scent of nature along with the sound of birds chirping and the large spectrum of colors seen had me thinking about synesthesia again. Could this combination of senses be similar to how synesthetic individuals experience everyday life? 

Taking in the garden

Smelling flowers for the full Monet experience

With all this curiosity, I decided to look into ways to experience synesthesia as a non-synesthetic. Unsurprisingly, the only reported ways of artificially inducing synesthesia involve the use of illegal substances. The most successful drugs in achieving this effect are psychoactive agents such as LSD (acid) and psilocybin (mushrooms) (Luke and Terhune, 2013), which are proposed to work by activating serotonin receptors in our brains (Daniel and Haberman, 2017). 

There have only been four controlled studies done on the effects of these drugs to induce synesthesia, all occurring between 1933 and 1966, but they all have been successful in creating synesthetic experiences in humans (Luke and Terhune, 2013). In one of these studies, from 1963, participants were given a light to moderate dose of either LSD or psilocybin. Additionally, they were played 16 different tones of sound before and after drug consumption. These patients reported experiencing more colors and visual effects (brightening of the visual field, disruption of visual patterns, creation of new visual patterns) when they were played the auditory tones while under the influence of the drugs compared to before being administered the compounds (Hartman and Hollister, 1963). These findings suggest that psychedelic substances can create sensual pairings, in this case auditory-visual, in non-synesthetic individuals. Although these results seem convincing, they can’t be completely conclusive because there is no way to tell the extent to which the patients experienced these synesthesia-like moments as well as difficulty in controlling for a placebo effect, as the participants may have already expected to have these experiences when administered the drugs. 

What would this have been like with synesthesia?

Recent research on psychoactive compounds has found that they may have further implications beyond recreational synesthetic experiences. A 2015 study looked at the effect of psilocybin to reduce suicidal thoughts and attempts (Hendricks et al., 2015). This was done by comparing four separate groups of individuals who had responded to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. These individuals were grouped based on their lifetime use of psychedelic drugs. In their lifetimes, they had either used psilocybin only, psilocybin & other psychedelics, non-psilocybin psychedelics only, or no psychedelics. They were then asked if they had experienced psychological distress in the past month, or suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past year. The most notable finding from this study was that the psilocybin only group had experienced any of these three outcomes significantly less than the no-psychedelics group (Hendricks et al., 2015). These findings begin to suggest that psilocybin may have therapeutic potential. However, this study does have it’s downfalls as all the participants were drug users, whether or not they used psychedelics. Thus, psychedelic users need to be compared to non-drug users to provide more conclusive results. 

These two studies show that while psychedelics could provide synesthetic experiences, we could possibly even see them used to treat mental health in the future, too. One thing is for sure, though: synesthesia was not necessary to fully experience Paris and our various excursions. Whether we were chaotically experiencing visual and auditory stimuli while navigating the crowded streets, or calmly taking in gustatory and olfactory stimuli in Arles, we consistently combined different sensations to create memorable experiences over the course of the program. 


David Luke and Devin Terhune (2013) The induction of synesthesia with chemical agents: a systematic review. Front Psychol. 4: 753

Hartman A. M., Hollister L. E. (1963) Effect of mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide and psilocybin on color perception. Psychopharmacologia 4: 441–451

Jeremy Daniel and Margaret Haberman (2017) Clinical potential of psilocybin as a treatment for mental health conditions. Ment Health Clin. 7(1): 24-28

Marcus R. Watson, Kathleen A. Akins, Chris Spiker, Lyle Crawford and James T. Enns (2014) Synesthesia and Learning: a critical review and novel theory. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8: 98

Peter S Hendricks, Matthew W Johnson, and Roland R Griffiths (2015) Psilocybin, psychological distress, and suicidality. J Psychopharmacol. 9: 1041-1043


Garden pics taken by Harry

World Cup game pic taken by Anika

Synesthesia art:


Get Spotify ASAP

Music has been especially on my mind this past week. Last Friday I had the chance to explore Paris on the day of the Fête de la Musique, a day where people from all cultures and backgrounds sing whatever their heart desires, in different corners of the streets all around Paris. Easily one of the highlights of my time in Paris.

A man singing his heart out on the day of the Fête de la Musique

This area near the Seine was packed with people on the day of the Fête de la Musique

As I was reflecting on how music is part of my daily life, I realized that I have spent a whole lot of time listening to music while studying. In Paris, the days I find a seat on the jam-packed metros, I usually find myself thinking about fairly random things. But since on Thursdays we have quizzes, I refrain from day dreaming and try to review the quiz material while listening to music, while also trying to keep an eye on my bag, and while making sure I don’t miss my stop. Multi-tasking at its best (or worst some could argue) … I started wondering about the possible positive or negative impacts of listening to music, on the brain, more specifically in terms of the impact on learning and cognitive ability.

To investigate this, it is necessary to first gain a general understanding of the important research that is showing mixed results for the effects of background music. The “Mozart effect” has been a topic of great debate. It has been shown that those who listened to the Mozart sonata before performing better on tasks evaluating spatial abilities as compared to the control group that hadn’t listened to any music (Rauscher et al.,1993). What was interesting was that the authors claimed that even though in their experiment they had exposed the participants to the music before the task, music should have the same positive effect while learning too (Lehman and Seufert, 2017).

However, other researchers pushed back on these claims and expanded on the previously done research. The arousal-mood hypothesis suggests that it is not listening to the background music that directly impacts spatial and cognitive abilities (Husain et al., 2002). Instead, it is the impact that background music has on arousal and mood, which may affect learning. Essentially, listening to something pleasant may have a positive impact on cognitive performance and learning (Husain et al., 2002).

Contrarily, Rey (2012) makes the argument that background music could actually negatively impact learning. This was definitely not good news for me… When I started thinking about my own experience, I realized that listening to music while studying does make the process of studying slower, but I have been continuing to do it because the music keeps me entertained while studying! Interestingly, since it can be an additional burden on memory, “distracting” background music has been called a “seductive detail” (Rey 2012). Background music can distract from the main academic task and therefore can negatively impact learning outcomes (Jäncke and Sandmann, 2010; Hallam et al., 2002).

As you can tell, the research on background music has mixed results. Even though there are studies suggesting that listening to music during a learning task may be detrimental to learning, there has been an increasing amount of research on the ways in which listening to music in general, not necessarily during a task, can actually lessen the severity of cognitive aging. But in what way exactly does music impact the brain? One study suggested that music can improve memory performance in older individuals, by decreasing their prefrontal cortex activity (Murray and Ranganath, 2007).  Firstly, what is the general role of the prefrontal cortex and how exactly can its activity be measured? The prefrontal cortex plays an important role in decision making, including more complex decisions. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is the part of the brain that the researchers focus on in this study, is engaged during cognitive tasks that require processing structure and relationships between items (Murray and Ranganath, 2007).

The authors measured the activity of the DLPFC using a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system. fNIRS is a non-invasive way to measure brain activity during cognitive tasks (Ferreri et al., 2014). The study by Ferreri et al., (2014) collected fNIRS data, measuring DLPFC activity, from 16 older individuals (around 65 years old) while they were presented with words, with or without a musical background. The adults were better able to remember and describe contextual details when words were presented with music (Ferreri et al., 2014).

The interesting part is that the results from the Ferreri et al., (2014) study were in conflict with previous research that suggests that the DLPFC’s activity usually increases when more structured items are presented (Bor et al., 2003). One of the proposed explanations is that when the DLPFC is deactivated, other brain regions may be activated. The authors suggest that the brain regions that may be activated are the regions of the brain that are implicated in reward (ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens), pleasure and memory encoding (Ferreri et al., 2014). This makes complete sense if you think about it in terms of your personal experience: music most definitely evokes emotion. So, the authors propose that deactivation of the DLPFC is accompanied by activation of these pleasure and reward areas that also play a role in memory encoding, resulting in improved learning and memory performance (Ferreri et al., 2014).

“Pleasure/Reward Pathway”: Depicting the prefrontal cortex, nucleus accumbens and ventral-tegmental area

Access to music is inexpensive and widely accessible, making it a great tool for clinical intervention. There is evidence suggesting that music therapy may be useful in slowing cognitive decline in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Fang et al., 2017). There was even a study that showed that music can actually be used to stimulate recollection of personal memories in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (Chevreau et al., 2017)!

So, as you can hopefully tell, intriguing work is being done on the neurological impacts of listening to music but also the potential ways in which music can actually be used as part of clinical treatment or as a therapeutic tool. So now maybe investing in that Spotify subscription is not a bad idea…

Bor D., Duncan J., Wiseman R. J., Owen A. M. (2003). Encoding strategies dissociate prefrontal activity from working memory demand. Neuron 37, 361–36710.1016/S0896 6273(02)01171-6

Chevreau, Priscilia & Nizard, Ingrid & Allain, Philippe. (2017). Retrieval of memories with the help of music in Alzheimer’s disease. Geriatrie et Psychologie Neuropsychiatrie du Vieillissement. 15. 309-318. 10.1684/pnv.2017.0689.

Fang, R., Ye, S., Huangfu, J., & Calimag, D. P. (2017). Music therapy is a potential intervention for cognition of Alzheimer’s Disease: a mini-review. Translational neurodegeneration, 6,2. doi:10.1186/s40035-017-0073-9

Ferreri, L., Bigand, E., Perrey, S., Muthalib, M., Bard, P., & Bugaiska, A. (2014). Less Effort,Better Results: How Does Music Act on Prefrontal Cortex in Older Adults during Verbal Encoding? An fNIRS Study. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 301.doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00301

Hallam S, Price J, Katsarou G. (2002). The effects of background music on primary school pupils’ task performance. Educ Stud. 28:111–122. doi: 10.1080/03055690220124551.

Husain G., Thompson W. F., Schellenberg E. G. (2002). Effects of musical tempo and mode on arousal, mood and spatial abilities. Music Percept. 20 151–171. 10.1525/mp.2002.20.2.151

Jäncke, L., & Sandmann, P. (2010). Music listening while you learn: no influence of background music on verbal learning. Behavioral and brain functions : BBF, 6, 3. doi:10.1186/1744-9081-6-3

Murray L. J., Ranganath C. (2007). The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex contributes to successful relational memory encoding. J. Neurosci. 27, 5515–552210.1523/JNEUROSCI.0406 07.2007

Rauscher F. H., Shaw G. L., Ky K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature 365611. 10.1038/365611a0

Pleasure Pathway Image. Retrieved from

All other images taken by me