The musical MIND

Cellist Norbert Lewandowski performs with an image of his active brain projected behind him.

Think of art and science as two realms that overlap. Both are concerned with interpreting human experience. While one relies on empirical data and the other depends on emotion and intuition, both explore the phenomena of the world in an effort to advance our understanding and enhance our sensibilities.

One local doctor, a self-described dreamer, decided that science could become part of the artistic experience with no ulterior motive, no purpose other than an aesthetic one.

His idea was triggered by a cello recital and a spark of curiosity. He wanted to know: What in the world was going on in the performer’s brain?

Jacobo Mintzer, executive director of the Clinical Biotechnology Research Institute at Roper St. Francis and an Alzheimer’s Disease expert, had attended a spring solo recital by Norbert Lewandowski, principal cellist in the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.

The recital included contemporary works that relied on sampling and digitally rendered audio. Lewandowski had recorded himself playing various parts, as required by the musical score, then performed live in conjunction with the recorded lines.

Mintzer was mesmerized by the music and impressed with the cellist’s power of concentration and emotional investment. “He was not reading the notes,” Mintzer recalled. “Most of the time, he would play with his eyes closed, and that was kind of curious to me.”

It got the dreamer-scientist thinking about synapse geometry and the structural plasticity of the brain.

Then, in one of those episodes of art-science overlap, Mintzer’s creative impulse got ahead of his medical acumen, prompting him to make an imprudent phone call.

“Next day, I called the CSO (Charleston Symphony Orchestra) and told them I could record what’s going on in his brain and incorporate it in the show.” He was thinking: Why not create images of the musician’s brain at work then project those images during a performance, adding an interesting visual component to what would otherwise be an essentially abstract aural experience?

And here is where the realm of philosophy overlapped, like a partial eclipse, the realms of science and art.

Next came a practical challenge: how to scan Lewandowski’s brain.

In a happy coincidence, the cellist spends five weeks each summer playing with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. Not far from the City Theatre, just across the Monongahela River, is the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, where Oscar Lopez is director of the Alzheimer Disease Research Center and where James T. Becker is the local magnetoencephaleographer.

Lopez told Becker that their colleague Mintzer has this crazy idea about music-making and brain imagery.

“The more I thought about it, the more interesting it became,” Becker said. “It’s a very provocative idea.”

His magnetoencephaleography machine, or MEG for short, measures neuron activity with surprisingly little distortion, he said. It’s “bleeding-edge technology” that traces brain activity at a very high rate of 1,000 samples per second.

After a few firings of his synapses, Lewandowski decided this brain project could be fun, so he showed up in Becker’s laboratory, strapped a giant helmet on his head and sat there, very still, hermetically sealed in a sterile room with thick walls, for hours, staring at a projected dot.

Becker didn’t want motor commands in the brain to sully the samples. So he had the cellist listen to a recording of himself performing Andy Akiho’s “Three Shades, Foreshadows” (made shortly before at Carnegie Mellon University) and imagine he was playing along. It’s essentially a percussion piece played on the cello, Lewandowski said. There’s lots of plucking and tapping and banging and bowing in weird places.

He endured the MEG, then an MRI to get images of his brain. Then he went on a much-deserved vacation while the engineers and medical scientists crunched the data and assembled the images, shipping it all to Susan Bowyer at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Bowyer is a MEG physicist who transformed the pile of stuff she got from Pittsburgh into a long series of 4,400 GIF snapshots which she assembled chronologically to create a moving picture of Lewandowski’s brain, converted into a video file then synched the file with the audio recording.

What moved was not the brain — that had been anchored in place — but the gracious flares of thought inside, color-coded to indicate intensity. Blue signified mild, green modest, yellow active and red hot.

At Roper St. Francis recently, the results were presented at a special “concert.” Lewandowski performed “Three Shades, Foreshadows” as the prerecorded accompanying tracks played through speakers on either side of him, just as the composer intended. Behind him, projected on the wall, was his brain.

As he played, the brain lit up, its activity represented by myriad bursts of color that blossomed around the periphery, which responds to auditory and visual input and is responsible for memory, planning and other processes, and through the center, including the Papez circuit and limbic networks, which are responsible for emotions and abstract sensations.

“What we learned is that you can distinguish a very clear pattern, which points to involvement of areas of the brain that one expects should be active (such as the auditory areas), but also that the firing of the neurons looks like another instrument playing the music,” Mintzer said. “So what we discover is that now the brain can be used as a visual expression of music.”

And this pleases Mintzer, the dreamer, to no end.

“We want to create an environment where people will understand that biotechnology can be used also to provide a new tool for human expression.”

Becker said he likes that science can become art, too, but he also sees some practical applications.

For instance, understanding the rhythm of the brain could shed light on the way humans operate. In Lewandowski’s head, activity ebbed and flowed, not always in conjunction with the musical patterns. The colors bloomed often during quiet musical moments, then subsided as the cellist attacked his instrument with vigor.

Mintzer and Becker agreed that this was likely because Lewandowski was anticipating the music, thinking ahead and preparing himself for the attack, then giving his mind a brief rest before the next flurry of activity.

“I could easily imagine that as they (musicians) are getting ready to do something, especially something complex, that they would want to clear their mind, if only for a moment,” Becker said.

Examining relationships between patterns of activity could allow researchers to build a map of functional connections.

Brain activity sometimes is a response to random stimuli and sometimes a response to prescribed inputs. Measure it either by telling the subject to think what he wants, or to conduct a specific task (physical or mental). Is there a difference?

“With Norbert, it was in the middle of these two,” Becker said. “We gave him the music and told him how to listen to it.”

The next step is to determine whether a specific neural network is activated (planning, motor, emotion), and if so, which one, and when, and why.

And will a different musician respond to the same music similarly?

It’s known that music has an incredible power to reach even people with severe brain disorders resulting from Parkinson’s disease and stroke, as discussed by the late Oliver Sacks in his book “Musicophilia.” What more can music teach science?

“From a purely pragmatic point of view, one of the things that makes this exciting is the possibility to use music and musical training as a form of cognitive/brain stimulation ... as a way of helping people in early stages of dementing disorder, or people of a certain age who want activity to stimulate the brain to delay deterioration, or to assist in recovery from stroke,” Becker said.

Jenny Dorris, a percussionist and research associate at Carnegie Mellon, is working on a study about music’s effect on the aging brain, Becker noted.

The idea is to teach elderly people to play the marimba to get both mental and physical exercise.

Would it sharpen their cognition? Would it delay dementia?

And what happens to the brains of two musicians when they play the same music together? Do their neurons fire in synchrony or are there differences?

And what about larger groups of players? Is there a sort of mind meld?

“There are a huge number of possibilities of places it can go,” Becker said, brimming with the enthusiasm of an explorer. “We have people ready, willing and able, we just need to generate the wherewithal to make it happen.”

By which he meant, mostly, the funding.

Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at