The Soundtrack of the Mind

Professor Dan Lloyd and student researchers use brain scan data to compose ”music of the hemispheres.”

The music coming out of Professor Dan Lloyd’s computer sounds like 20th-century classical, maybe an experimental 12-tone composition by Schoenberg. There are deep arrhythmic chords sprinkled with 16th-note arpeggios in the higher registers. The overall effect is harmonious, playful, and entrancing. But this isn’t a piece of classical music. This is Dan Lloyd’s brain.
“Think of each area of the brain as producing a particular tone,” explains Lloyd, Brownell Professor of Philosophy, who has written a piece of computer software to translate MRI brain scans into musical scores. “When that area of the brain is more active, that tone gets louder.”
Professor Lloyd is a philosopher who studies the mind and human consciousness. He is using the tools of neuroscience — MRI brain scans, neural mapping — to find biological clues to the greatest philosophical question of all: What is the mind?  How can a physical organ— the brain— be the seat of consciousness, the arena for every feeling, perception, choice, and judgment?
Faced with this question, a conventional researcher might gather quantities of brain scan data and construct computer models to find recognizable patterns in the chaos of neural activity.  But Lloyd took a different approach. He knew that it would be very difficult to obtain a holistic “global view” of brain activity with the human eye. But what about the human ear?
With the help of summer research assistants Brian Castelluccio ’12, Amelia Wattenberger ‘12, Oladayo Odeleye ’11, Elsie Arce ’12, and Amy Poon ’12, Lloyd assigned each area of the brain to a different octave on a virtual scale. Castelluccio, a neuroscience student and member of Trinity’s Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP),.  plays several brass instruments, and he tested dozens of synthesized instruments before settling on the clarity and adaptability of the piano.
“My brain sounds very different from the brains of some of my students,” says Lloyd.  “We each seem to have our own internal dynamics that turns into our own musical score.”
To highlight the differences, Lloyd cues up two tracks: one from a healthy volunteer and one from a patient with mild dementia. The healthy brain explores the harmonic range evenly from top to bottom, beeping and blipping in a relaxed tempo. The brain affected by dementia speeds along at a vivace pace, favoring certain registers and ignoring others altogether.
The audible differences between the two pieces of “brain music” are obvious even to untrained listeners. Lloyd explains that the music of dementia patients shows much more “self-similarity” than healthy brains, a tendency to repeat the same musical motif over time. Which leads Lloyd to wonder, what if repeating musical motifs could be linked to underlying biological conditions?
“Just as someone is trained to listen with a stethoscope for abnormal noises, clinicians can be trained to listen for certain dimensions of sound,” says Lloyd, who has only begun to tap the potential of this brand-new line of research.
For his sophomore research assistant, the chance to work with a nationally recognized scholar on such a deeply interdisciplinary project is nothing short of exhilarating.
“I saw Professor Lloyd give a lecture and signed up for his lab immediately, because it just seemed like the ideal liberal arts combination of art, science and technology,” says Castelluccio.
Learn more about student research opportunities like the Interdisciplinary Science Program and the Trinity College Health Fellows Program.