Indre Viskontas is a soprano who specializes in singing opera. She’s also a neuroscientist. Her work has combined the mysteries of the human brain and its mechanisms with those of music, two fields the overlap of which is fascinating. In an interview with Nautilus, the Canadian singer spoke of the chemistry that’s evident between musicians who connect with each other (and the brain circuits that are part of that connection). It’s a chemistry that can be felt when they play together, which makes a group of musicians fantastic and reflects an evident harmony.

Viskontas’s story includes having grown up in a music-filled home in Toronto, where her mother is the head of a choir. In addition to singing opera and being part of other musical ensembles, she holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California. The descendant of Lithuanian immigrants, she runs a small opera company, is the host of Cadence, a series of podcasts on the relationship between music and mind, and she’s a professor of humanities and science at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. All this makes Viskontas an unusual researcher in that her knowledge derives directly from her artistic and creative experience.

A feeling that comes from playing with other musicians, one that Viskontas calls a “magical feeling,” that’s led her to study the interactions between musicians at the brain level. When a group of musicians is in sync, she argues, there’s an exchange of information that feeds everyone who’s part of that interaction. What happens on an unconscious level when the  feeling occurs is perhaps one of the reasons that humankind is so fascinated by art.

From the neurological field, Viskontas explains that when one artist is in sync with another, parts of the brain are activated. These regions do not exhibit activity when we’re alone. Viskontas explains this with a simple metaphor: when you forget a name and try to remember it, it’s blocked because at that moment, one’s cognitive resources are going in a different direction. The same thing happens when we’re alone, at those moments when a critical inner voice is activated. When we’re accompanied by another, the inner voice disappears because our intentions and attention are devoted to monitoring and responding to someone else. It’s a hard thing to achieve when you’re a solo performer.

In the same interview, Viskontas relates that she often found more looseness in her voice when presenting herself in public (accompanied by other musicians), than during rehearsals. In neurological terms, Viskontas explains it this way: the left hemisphere of the brain, that responsible for understanding language (also known as the Wernicke area) is connected to the area responsible for the production of the language (or the Broca area) by a fibrous tract called the arched fascicle. So, when we try to repeat a word someone else has said, the brain message travels through both areas across this fascicle. In normal people, this tract is much thicker on the left side than on the right. This is a generally true, except in singers who in developing their vocal skills make the tract thicker. They exercise it by creating more connections in that area. This makes the singers better at listening to something and reproducing it vocally. All this explains the fact that when one performer is interacting with another, he or she is using and reinforcing these brain connections. It’s something that involves conscious control of the body and automatic responses by the body and brain.

Viskontas’ current work includes a series of experiments that are part of The Ensemble Project. It’s aim is to investigate the ways in which musicians can achieve more evocative and moving performances together. Tests include observing musicians playing with or without different variables—whether or not they look into their eyes, directing their bodies toward other musicians or not, or playing with or without gestural expressions. The results indicate that, in most cases, musicians playing together achieve more intimate performances when they are not seeing each other, because they have to rely on auditory cues for the performance, allowing them to avoid distractions, and achieve greater concentration.

Some recent neurological studies have indicated that music can incite the production of brain chemicals related to social relationships. Other research indicates that interpreting music generates the production of happiness-related substances, such as Serotonin and Dopamine. Still other studies have indicated that musical improvisation, in jazz specifically, deactivates those parts of the brain that evaluate our behavior, and activates those related to inner motivation.

All this leads us to a surprising conclusion: music generates social bonds between those who perform it, and when those bonds are stronger, the music sounds better. Viskontas’s studies seem to indicate that when musicians are connected to each other when performing a piece, they create a more intimate connection with the audience.

The brain is social because people are. Viskontas’s research is not intended to reduce musical sentiment to mere impulses and neurological mechanisms but does explain some of them. Moreover, her work makes evident a part of human nature that might be extrapolated to many other aspects of life, in addition to the universe of music. When we’re in sync with others, not only can the critical voice be silenced, but our emotions generate brain connections we couldn’t make alone. The connection with others is so important that it goes beyond the realm of music. It’s a first step toward endless possibilities that include making the world a better place, always with the help of others.

 

Image: Public domain

Indre Viskontas is a soprano who specializes in singing opera. She’s also a neuroscientist. Her work has combined the mysteries of the human brain and its mechanisms with those of music, two fields the overlap of which is fascinating. In an interview with Nautilus, the Canadian singer spoke of the chemistry that’s evident between musicians who connect with each other (and the brain circuits that are part of that connection). It’s a chemistry that can be felt when they play together, which makes a group of musicians fantastic and reflects an evident harmony.

Viskontas’s story includes having grown up in a music-filled home in Toronto, where her mother is the head of a choir. In addition to singing opera and being part of other musical ensembles, she holds a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California. The descendant of Lithuanian immigrants, she runs a small opera company, is the host of Cadence, a series of podcasts on the relationship between music and mind, and she’s a professor of humanities and science at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. All this makes Viskontas an unusual researcher in that her knowledge derives directly from her artistic and creative experience.

A feeling that comes from playing with other musicians, one that Viskontas calls a “magical feeling,” that’s led her to study the interactions between musicians at the brain level. When a group of musicians is in sync, she argues, there’s an exchange of information that feeds everyone who’s part of that interaction. What happens on an unconscious level when the  feeling occurs is perhaps one of the reasons that humankind is so fascinated by art.

From the neurological field, Viskontas explains that when one artist is in sync with another, parts of the brain are activated. These regions do not exhibit activity when we’re alone. Viskontas explains this with a simple metaphor: when you forget a name and try to remember it, it’s blocked because at that moment, one’s cognitive resources are going in a different direction. The same thing happens when we’re alone, at those moments when a critical inner voice is activated. When we’re accompanied by another, the inner voice disappears because our intentions and attention are devoted to monitoring and responding to someone else. It’s a hard thing to achieve when you’re a solo performer.

In the same interview, Viskontas relates that she often found more looseness in her voice when presenting herself in public (accompanied by other musicians), than during rehearsals. In neurological terms, Viskontas explains it this way: the left hemisphere of the brain, that responsible for understanding language (also known as the Wernicke area) is connected to the area responsible for the production of the language (or the Broca area) by a fibrous tract called the arched fascicle. So, when we try to repeat a word someone else has said, the brain message travels through both areas across this fascicle. In normal people, this tract is much thicker on the left side than on the right. This is a generally true, except in singers who in developing their vocal skills make the tract thicker. They exercise it by creating more connections in that area. This makes the singers better at listening to something and reproducing it vocally. All this explains the fact that when one performer is interacting with another, he or she is using and reinforcing these brain connections. It’s something that involves conscious control of the body and automatic responses by the body and brain.

Viskontas’ current work includes a series of experiments that are part of The Ensemble Project. It’s aim is to investigate the ways in which musicians can achieve more evocative and moving performances together. Tests include observing musicians playing with or without different variables—whether or not they look into their eyes, directing their bodies toward other musicians or not, or playing with or without gestural expressions. The results indicate that, in most cases, musicians playing together achieve more intimate performances when they are not seeing each other, because they have to rely on auditory cues for the performance, allowing them to avoid distractions, and achieve greater concentration.

Some recent neurological studies have indicated that music can incite the production of brain chemicals related to social relationships. Other research indicates that interpreting music generates the production of happiness-related substances, such as Serotonin and Dopamine. Still other studies have indicated that musical improvisation, in jazz specifically, deactivates those parts of the brain that evaluate our behavior, and activates those related to inner motivation.

All this leads us to a surprising conclusion: music generates social bonds between those who perform it, and when those bonds are stronger, the music sounds better. Viskontas’s studies seem to indicate that when musicians are connected to each other when performing a piece, they create a more intimate connection with the audience.

The brain is social because people are. Viskontas’s research is not intended to reduce musical sentiment to mere impulses and neurological mechanisms but does explain some of them. Moreover, her work makes evident a part of human nature that might be extrapolated to many other aspects of life, in addition to the universe of music. When we’re in sync with others, not only can the critical voice be silenced, but our emotions generate brain connections we couldn’t make alone. The connection with others is so important that it goes beyond the realm of music. It’s a first step toward endless possibilities that include making the world a better place, always with the help of others.

 

Image: Public domain