I’m doing a presentation at the Norwegian Academy of Music, where I seem to be the token neurologist at SymbolicSound’s annual meeting in Norway. Leaning in, I’m explaining why a computer toy that presents musical reflections of their own voice could be a good thing for moody kids. I dress up my topic like a good neuro-centrist, showing brains with bossy arrows connecting neural sub-stations. Composers, entrepreneurs, performers, sound geeks of various stripes, the audience can relate to the brain as an assemblage of managers, analysts, middle-men, and impulsive assholes.
I know I made an impression, because for the rest of the meeting, other presenters keep gesturing towards me, as I sit in a middle row of the amphitheatre—“I’m sure this is over-simplifying for the neurologist, but … “ Oh please!
The theme of my talk was obvious enough: this musical toy makes sense, because children, like other human beings, use music as an emotional prosthesis, a technology of the self.
The meeting theme is “Augmented Reality.” It takes a neurologist to augment a smooshy reality like people using music to self-soothe by portraying that process as a dance between our higher self, sitting up in the Dorso-lateral frontal cortex (try Mapquest), and that old reptilian ring called the Limbic cortex, ensconced under the temporal lobe. Slide: a graphic scheme showing the Brain-as-Battleship, its control rooms blocked out in yellow and orange, against a blue background. I’m augmenting my point, showing the cooperative potential of networks that serve emotional self-regulation and those serving music appreciation. I’ve been a clinician long enough to know that there’s a mysterious comfort in the attribution of emotional tipping points to the nervous system rather than to that swampy place called psychology. “The Brain Did It” is often the best lullaby I can sing to parents of children with behavioral challenges, and the geeks can well imagine the indelible, impeccable sense of normalcy conveyed by neurobiologic accounts of screwed-up life as we know it. We all want to be normal, with the neuro-program, right?
Music therapists often work with folks’ emotional distress. For example, “I’m storming … I feel my storming in this music … oh, it’s beautiful … I’m starting to feel at peace with this storm … .” Part of how the therapists do that is entrainment, a rhythmic hooking that pulls, transitions, repeatedly, the physiology of the upset person from one autonomic plane to another. And they will often say that to work their emotional alchemy on you, they have to know your specific tune preferences, otherwise the magic may not work. This lock and key specificity is similar to some moth species’ approach to sex—-only that special one can match. It’s personal.
But there’s a more ubiquitous sound that enables healing: the sound we make ourselves, if only we’d name it music. John Mantegna and I are encouraging, catalyzing that brave little step, by interpolating a dumb computer with a speaker that can trick you, once you speak, into witnessing your own creativity, as you hear yourself extemporized, adumbrated, musified. The vocal reflections game offers autonomy, competence, and relatedness in a flash of un-rehearsed, partially earned, musical eloquence.
The technology I’m describing makes a nice chimera of music therapy ideas, aiming to promote self-regulation by helping a child to rehearse the play-book: (1) catch— notice that you might be going haywire; (2) shift–make a choice to step back and watch yourself not flying into rage; (3) initiate–attend to something new; (4) sustain–keep on with the new focus and don’t slip back into the angry place.
And here’s the special sauce: entropy. Because the child with dysregulation suffers from a failure of signal detection: they fail to “catch,” to notice that they are poised atop an angry slide which is all downhill. Stochastic resonance theory holds that there is an optimal level of noise that will improve signal detection, and we just have to find out what it is. So we’ll throw in some salubrious entropy, evoke the artist-as-joker in our little study. After all, Stochastic Resonance theory has held true for neural systems ranging from crayfish to humans; and even some neurologists.