March 1, 2013
This weekend our Sonic Tour of the Brain will make its debut performance at the Barbican, part of the Brain Waves Weekender!
You can listen to download, and (we hope) enjoy the auditory tour of the mind here.
If you are enjoying this tour in the heart of the Barbican Mezzanine – lucky you! We hope you are basking in the glow of our wonderful brain, constructed by Bristolian model maker Roseanne Wakely.
In this 20 minute audio tour, we explore the question… what does the brain sound like? Most people can imagine what the brain looks like, feels like, and maybe even smells like – but few might have ever thought about what it sounds like.
We have chosen a dozen different recordings, each of which illustrates a different aspect of how the brain works, and how we try to understand it.
1. Surgical Saw: This is the real sound of a brain being sliced open with a piece of cheese wire at a hospital in the Ukraine. Many thanks to Geoffrey Smith, director of The English Surgeon, and Angela Saward, Curator of Moving Image & Sound at the Wellcome Library, for providing this track.
2. Wobbling Jelly: This is not the sound of a real brain, but of a block of jelly, which food artisans Bompas & Parr, in association with sound artist Douglas Murphy made in a soundproof studio. This is what a real brain would sound like, as it has the consistency and texture of jelly.
3. Epileptic Seizure – This is the sonified version of an EEG, recorded in the 1960s. The patient in question was a small child in the 1960s (name withheld for privacy reasons). Many thanks to our benefactors The Wellcome Trust for providing us with this original piece of historical material.
4. Auditory Nerve – This is a single cell nerve recording, taken using a glass needle, stuck into the auditory nerve of a hamster in the 1960s.
5. Cochlear Implant – This is not the real sound of a cochlear implant, but a simulation of what one may sound like to its users.
6. Mosquito Frequency – All of us will lose our ability to hear tones of higher frequencies as we age, due to the thickening of the basilar membrane, the bedrock of the cochlear spiral. Ain’t that but a crying shame. The sound of 17,000Hz will be heard by only the younger audience members. Can you hear it? Editor’s note: We promise that it’s not a fake.
7. Neverending Scale – The Shepard Scale is often compared to an Escher staircase - and even those of us who have heard it over and over find the concept difficult to understand, let alone explain in clear language. The best source I have found online that explains the nature of this illusion is this clip from Bang Goes The Theory.
8. Shepard-Risset Glissando – A variation on the Shepard Scale, but as a glissando. Creepy stuff! Try listening to it over and over and over – we promise it never stops feeling weird. If you look at this youtube clip, which visualises the sound waves, it might make a bit more sense.
9. Binaural Illusion – Our brains use the tiny time differences between sounds reaching our right and left ears to calculate the source of the sound in physical space. Enjoy.
10. Phantom Words – These come from Prof Diana Deutsch of the University of California, who is the master of sonic illusions – some have called her the grand dame of auditory neuroscience. She is one cool cat – and a fantastic example of a scientist who is not only a woman, but also achieves things that are, for lack of a better descriptor, spectacularly original. They can find all the examples of her work online for free on her website.
11. Reconstructed Speech – Dr Brian Pasley is using sophisticated software and intracranial recordings of the brain to reconstruct what words subjects heard, and to reproduce them with computer algorithms. You can read the original paper in PLoS Biology here.
12. Music of the Hemispheres – Prof Dan Lloyd has translated the activity of fMRI recordings of the brain into music – you can watch this video and read more about his work here. Honestly – his theory is really without any rivals, artistically or philosophically. Whether you agree with his hypothesis – that “we are all symphonies” or not – you will at least find the videos and short films edifying.
13. Remix: The Music Of The Mind – An original remix created for us by composer Dean Williams – made entirely from the sound samples from the rest of this tour. You can download that entire track and learn more about how he made this unprecedented musical score here.
This has been the Guerilla Science Sonic Tour of the Brain – we perhaps might not have been able to explain exactly what the brain sounds like, but we hope, there are many different ways of approaching the question.
By Zoe Cormier – hopelessly devoted audiophile, and co-founder of Guerilla Science.
Toronto musician Dean Williams scored the final track for our Sonic Tour of the Brain mixtape – a remix of all the recordings we used for our auditory tour of the mind. You can listen to his unprecedented composition here. Learn more about just how he made this spectacularly singular score by using your eyes, not your ears, here…
When Guerilla Science asked if I was interested in composing a small bit of music to accompany their project The Sonic Tour of the Brain, my answer was immediate, profane, and in the affirmative. I was delighted to get a chance to apply some daubs of art to their science and be, if only briefly, aboard their motley caravan of learning and revelry.
I was handed a folder of sound files – some quite strange and beautiful – oddly distant-sound EEG recordings of epileptic seizures; a single auditory nerve firing; bubbling up from a sea of static, to the unsettling sound of computers attempting to recognize words being spoken via MRI technology, to the just plain visceral – a bone saw in use; gelatinous material sloshing in a tray.
Really more an exercise in Frankenstein science than biology, my task was to stitch together something vaguely musical from the sounds at hand.
My self-imposed limitation was to use nothing but the supplied source material – the sounds you hear exhibited in Guerilla Science’s ‘Sonic Tour of the Brain’ – no synthesizers, no drums, no fife or guitar for that matter – just this oddly unsettling collection of sounds. I applied effects such as digital delay, reverb, and equalizers/filters to add a bit of flair.
The use of the bone saw in the opening is a bit apparent, but snippets of it were also used to create the rhythmic clicking in the first few seconds. The first kick drum you hear is a slowed down sample of the ‘brain-like’ substance sloshing in a tray, as is the snare that enters 4 bars later. The ‘melodic’ elements that come in soon after are actually a single EEG blip from the recording of an epileptic seizure, pitched and stretched somewhat to be recognizable as something musical. The chords that swell up shortly after are actually layered loops of the 12000hz frequency tone used to illustrate hearing loss as one ages. One of the most useful pieces of sound in creating percussive sounds was the long recording of the box of matches being used to illustrate binaural sound positioning – this was used to construct a ‘drum kit’ from around the 1:12 mark onward. My apologies if you’re able to hear the quick burst of the ‘mosquito tone’ at about 1:44 – I sadly can’t, as years of hard living have left me unable to hear that frequency.
To be sure, the task took on a life of its own, as I sat highly caffeinated and thoroughly creeped out, bathed in the ghost-light of my monitor, listening to reverberating pulses, struggling neurons, seizures and surgeries; my own brain adding phantom notes and I adding these phantom notes as real notes to the composition. All said this was constructed over two 6-8 hour sessions. It was, in layman’s terms, pretty goddamn fun.
Whether or not this was a success in the final accounting is not for me to say – while the brain is unlikely to adhere to a 4/4 rhythm or progress in such a logical arc, if nothing else, you can be assured that what you hear are some of the sounds that it makes. Please know I am sincere in my hope that it triggers the synapses responsible for enjoyment in the sloshing pan of jelly you carry around atop your neck.
By Dean Williams – composer, writer, and nerd.
August 26, 2010
We met Wayne Coyne – lead singer of the Flaming Lips – on the way back to the car.
“Wow check this out,” he said, and stopped to chat with us over the brain, the centrepiece for the Synaesthesia Game. Turns out he had also made a giant brain himself for Hallowe’en, about a storey tall. For a man who wears giant hands so he can spray the audience with laser beams, this is hardly surprising.
“Hang on, let me get a photo – I’m going to tweet this.”
And so he did.
Sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – being unable to escape the internet, even in a wet field in Wales, is a pretty cool thing.
August 25, 2010
In a lovely pop up presentation with a quivering jelly brain (plus a dozen miniature pannacotta brains), neuroscientist Guy Billings took us through the anatomy of our marvelous cerebrums.
It truly is an amazing construction – and we certainly do not use “10 per cent” of it, as popular myths would have us believe.
Rather, we use the entire thing – as a number of unfortunate individuals have discovered. At the mercy of curious mid 20th-century neuroscientists, famous individuals such as HM had small chunks of their cortex removed in misguided attempts to cure severe depression, epilepsy and other crippling conditions.
As we discovered, those little bits were quite necessary. HM was left with no short term memory – as Guy put it, “a human goldfish”, unable to remember anything for longer than a few seconds.
Thankfully the rest of us in the garden in Wales had ours intact, and could enjoy carving up a pannacotta model in lieu of the real thing to learn about the structure of the most complex object in the known universe. Safer, and tastier, than the real thing.