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brain and harp

From brain to score: a musical piece made from brain waves


Patients with neurodegenerative diseases were the creators of this composition.

Recent decades have seen neuroscience make fascinating discoveries about the function of the human brain – at once, complex and elusive. The ways we learn and use language, the possibilities of abstract thinking, neuronal regeneration, and the effects of trauma on our mental processes; these are but some of the qualities that occur every day, though we’ve only begun to understand how and why.

Among the brain’s functions, one of the most enigmatic is memory. For a long time, it was understood as a kind of “box of memories.” Memories, once lived, were then stored and stayed put and kept alive until forgetfulness finally washed them away. We know now that memory doesn’t really work like this. The brain isn’t a storage unit, like part of a computer. Rather, in a “live file” memories are updated every time they’re recalled. At the same time, their very recall and presentation are also somewhat random.

Walter Benjamin once wrote, in a passage on his childhood in Berlin, that “the time in which we’re exposed to an impression is irrelevant to its fate in memory.” The intensity of an impression, we know now, obeys other masters, among which, the circumstances coupled with an experience seem to be decisive as to whether or not they’re fixed within memory.

In a project that unexpectedly and admirably combined the vividness of memory with the human brain more generally, composer Eduardo Reck Miranda and researchers from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR), at Plymouth University, developed an interface capable of converting brainwaves into musical notations. This was intended to involve patients with neuronal diseases in a creative process.

As we know, one of the consequences of suffering from a neurodegenerative disease is the isolation into which patients can fall. Encephalographic technology has made this new form of communication possible. Contact between patients and from individual patients is made possible, too. Although on the one hand, it was an exercise in collective composition, the patients’ contact with the creative process also meant that the experiment resulted in a moment of introspection and expression.

Music is probably the most emotive of the arts. It’s also one of the arts most able to activate multiple parts of the brain. Both qualities were eloquently brought together in the project which also created a point of contact between mind and that unique disposition of the world to give rise to solitary creative dreams.

Paramusical Ensemble from cinema iloobia on Vimeo.

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