5 Questions to Indre Viskontas (neuroscientist, soprano)

Indre Viskontas is nothing short of a renaissance woman. She completed her PhD in neuroplasticity related to memory formation at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and immediately embarked on an MM at the San Francisco Conservatory. Indre is now the creative director for the Pasadena Opera and is also a faculty member at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For Indre, the intersection of music and the mind has been a constant source of inspiration, and she currently hosts Cadence, a podcast dedicated to how our collective love of music and the mind interact. This subject has also been expanded into a recently released book titled How Music Can Make You Better, released by Chronicle Books. We sat down with Indre to talk about the mind, music, and how they work together.

How do you tackle the act of listening and experiencing music through a neuroscientist’s lens?

We all come to music with a unique set of experiences that inform our listening. In fact, what we consider music, and especially whether or not we find it engaging or moving, depends on how our brains interpret the sounds we hear. Birds singing might sound like music to me but noise to you, or you might tune it out altogether and not hear anything. We tend to think that because we have ears and similar brains that we all hear the same things. But the reality is that our brains create a subjective listening experience for each of us. This fact is especially clear if you talk to someone who has had their hearing restored or enhanced with a cochlear implant or even a hearing aid. Even though the sound waves reaching their ears are the same as the ones that reach ours, how their brains interpret those sounds–and build them into a coherent perception–depends on so many variables, including how new the device is, how much training they’ve had with it, and what is important to them. All the cochlear implant patients that I’ve talked to tell me that understanding language is the key thing they are looking for, and that they are highly motivated to work to train their brains to parse speech sounds from the signals they receive from their implants. While many of them become remarkably proficient with language, music is hard. So that tells us that music is a pretty complex stimulus that requires lots of ‘post-processing’ for our brains to enjoy it.

That’s just one example of how neuroscience can inform my relationship with music. There are lots of other ways that I use it. For example, when it comes to practicing opera, I use what I’ve learned about how skills are developed most effectively, how memory works and even how audiences are moved by music to inform my training and performance. If I get anxious before a show, I can recognize the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and strategize ways to make the symptoms work for me rather than against me. And when I’m interpreting or directing an opera, I can use my understanding of the human brain to inform my ideas and approach. I even use it when I’m working with singers wearing my director hat, because I know what kinds of rehearsal techniques work under varying circumstances.

Indre Viskontas--Photo courtesy TEDx San Francisco

Indre Viskontas–Photo courtesy TEDx San Francisco

How does performing music, from a neurological standpoint, differ from listening to it?

Listening and performing are such fundamentally different behaviors, so of course they have different neural signatures. Performing naturally requires listening, so you could argue that some of the same regions are involved. But the global state of mind is so different. That being said, when we listen actively to music and are engaged by it, our brains do try to mirror what we are hearing. That helps us understand the performer’s intentions. The most dramatic effects are seen in musicians listening to other musicians playing pieces that they would play themselves: their brains look very similar, as they put themselves in the performer’s shoes. Some players and singers even report feeling physical muscle tension when they hear someone struggle with a technical challenge that they can relate to, like a singer who has a lot of jaw tension can induce jaw tension in singers listening to her.

But just because brains look the same in terms of functional activation doesn’t mean that they are behaving in the same way. These regions have a lot of different functions, so overlapping activation alone isn’t definitive. We do see synchronization though of many physiological responses, both in the brain and the rest of the body, like certain bandwidths of brainwaves and respiration and heart rates.

We also see lots of neurological differences–both anatomical in terms of sizes of brain regions and functional in terms of what’s activated–when we compare musicians and non-musicians and even musicians with different levels of expertise. For example, amateur musicians will show larger swaths of activation across the brain when listening to or playing music than novice listeners. But expert musicians will show more finely-tuned activation–fewer hot spots, but more intense activity in them. This difference mirrors what happens physically as skills are developed–initially, we recruit all kinds of muscles, and the job of training is to help us whittle down the actions to only the most important movements. That way, we save our energy, physical and cognitive, for creative expression.

Can music affect our sense of personal identity? 

Absolutely. In fact, our late teenage years are a time during which we are particularly likely to be affected by music. It’s a time when we’re finding our ‘tribe,’ and music is powerful social glue. We see this not only in behavior–music is a part of the vast majority of our social rituals–but also in our hormones. Music increases oxytocin levels in our brains, helping us form attachments to each other. But oxytocin isn’t benign–it can also make us more aggressive to people we think might be threatening our loved ones. So music can bring us together, and help us figure out who we want to be, but it can also drive us away from people with whom we do not identify. It might be our parents, a rival gang, or even, unfortunately, an entire race.

Indre Viskontas--Photo courtesy TEDx San Francisco

Indre Viskontas–Photo courtesy TEDx San Francisco

Does music have ways to heal the mind that we might not know about?

We are starting to learn more and more about how powerful music can be in terms of rewiring the brain. We hold up the musician’s brain as a model of neuroplasticity because we have observed the signature of musical training on many different neurological levels: from a sensory response to sound all the way to larger white matter tracts joining disparate regions of the brain. One of the most dramatic examples of music’s power to rewire is in patients with injuries to the left side of the brain, whose speech is impaired. Many times, they cannot produce specific words on demand but they can often still sing them. With melodic intonation therapy, a type of music therapy that is very effective, the patients recruit the intact right side of the brain to communicate, first by singing the words and eventually regaining speech. As a result, the arcuate fasciculus, a white matter tract that joins the speech comprehension and speech production regions on the left side of the brain, becomes larger on the right side, taking over function.

I’m sure there are plenty of other uses of music that we still need to discover, particularly in terms of reducing anxiety and pain, and dealing with trauma. I also think that music will play a larger role in how we treat patients with neurodegenerative diseases. But because music is so subjective, and can have so many different forms, we need to conduct research that will help us uncover its healing properties and not just assume that playing Mozart is a panacea. It’s not, but that’s also like saying take an aspirin and call me in the morning. We need specific drugs for specific ailments, and the same will be true of how we use music in therapeutic settings.

How do you balance your passion for neuroscience with your passion for music?

I used to find it incredibly challenging, and so I kept my two lives–neuroscientist and musician–separate. But I wasn’t happy with either. So I threw in the towel, and now pretty much everything I do has both a musical and a psychological component to it, and I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride!