Mozart Sonatas Can Help Treat Epilepsy: A New Study from Dartmouth

Many and bold are the claims made for the power of classical music: not just that it can enrich your aesthetic sensibility, but that it can do everything from deter juvenile delinquency to boost infant intelligence. Making claims for the latter are CDs with titles like Baby Mozart: Music to Stimulate Your Baby’s Brain, a case of trading on the name of one of the most beloved composers in music history. Alas, the proposition that classical music in general can make anyone smarter has yet to pass the most rigorous scientific trials. But recent research does suggest that Mozart’s music in particular has desirable effects on the brain: his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major on epilepsy-afflicted brains in particular.

For about 30 years the piece has been thought to reduce symptoms of epilepsy in the brain, a phenomenon known as the “K448 effect” (the number being a reference to its place in the Köchel catalogue). Recent work by researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) and Dartmouth College’s Bregman Music and Affective Sound Lab has gone deep into the workings of that effect, and you can read the results free online: the paper “Musical Components Important for the Mozart K448 Effect in Epilepsy,” published just last month in Nature. What they’ve found suggests that the K448 effect is real: that the piece is effective, to be more specific, in “reducing ictal and interictal epileptiform activity.”

Writing for non-neuroscientists, Madeleine Mudzakis at My Modern Met explains that when the researchers “played the tune while monitoring brain implant sensors in the subjects,” they detected “events known as interictal epileptiform discharges (IEDs). These brain events are a symptom of epilepsy and are harmful to the brain.” But “after 30 seconds of listening to the sonata, the subjects experienced noticeably fewer IEDs,” and “transitions between musical phases lead to larger effects, possibly because of anticipation being created which culminates in the pleasant nature of a shifted tune.” These neurologically soothing qualities may also have something to do with the pleasure all Mozart aficionados, epileptics or otherwise, feel when they hear the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major — or what they don’t feel when they hear Wagner, whose music was here employed as the control that every proper scientific experiment needs.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: The Real Perceptual Disorder That May Have Shaped Lewis Carroll’s Creative World

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland isn’t just a beloved children’s story: it’s also a neuropsychological  syndrome. Or rather the words “Alice in Wonderland,” as Lewis Carroll’s book is commonly known, have also become attached to a condition that, though not harmful in itself, causes distortions in the sufferer’s perception of reality. Other names include dysmetropsia or Todd’s syndrome, the latter of which pays tribute to the consultant psychiatrist John Todd, who defined the disorder in 1955. He described his patients as seeing some objects as much larger than they really were and other objects as much smaller, resulting in challenges not entirely unlike those faced by Alice when put by Carroll through her growing-and-shrinking paces.

Todd also suggested that Carroll had written from experience, drawing inspiration from the hallucinations he experienced when afflicted with what he called “bilious headache.”  The transformations Alice feels herself undergoing after she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bottle and eats the “EAT ME” cake are now known, in the neuropsychological literature, as macropsia and micropsia.




“I was in the kitchen talking to my wife,” writes novelist Craig Russell of one of his own bouts of the latter. “I was hugely animated and full of energy, having just put three days’ worth of writing on the page in one morning and was bursting with ideas for new books. Then, quite calmly, I explained to my wife that half her face had disappeared. As I looked around me, bits of the world were missing too.”

Though “many have speculated that Lewis Carroll took some kind of mind-altering drug and based the Alice books on his hallucinatory experiences,” writes Russell, “the truth is that he too suffered from the condition, but in a more severe and protracted way,” combined with ocular migraine. Russell also notes that the sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick, though “never diagnosed as suffering from migrainous aura or temporal lobe epilepsy,” left behind a body of work that has has given rise to “a growing belief that the experiences he described were attributable to the latter, particularly.” Suitably, classic Alice in Wonderland syndrome “tends to be much more common in childhood” and disappear in maturity. One sufferer documented in the scientific literature is just six years old, younger even than Carroll’s eternal little girl — presumably, an eternal seer of reality in her own way.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Do We Dream?: An Animated Lesson

Why do we dream? It’s a question science still can’t answer, says the TED-Ed lesson above by Amy Adkins. Many neuroscientists currently make sense of dreaming as a way for the brain to consolidate memory at night. “This may include reorganizing and recoding memories in relation to emotional drives,” writes computational neuroscientist Paul King, “as well as transferring memories between brain regions.” You might imagine a defragging hard drive, the sorting and filing process happening while a computer sleeps.

But the brain is not a computer. Important questions remain. Why do dreams have such a powerful hold on us, not only individually, but — as a recent project collecting COVID dreams explores — collectively? Are dreams no more than gibberish, the mental detritus of the day, or do they convey important messages to our conscious minds? Several millennia before Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, “Mesopotamian kings recorded and interpreted their dreams on wax tablets.” A thousand years later, Egyptians catalogued one hundred of the most common dreams and their meanings in a dream book.




The ancients were convinced their dreams carried messages from beyond their consciousness. Many modern theorists beginning with Freud have seen dreams as purely self-referential, and neurotic. “We dream,” the lesson notes, “to fulfill our wishes.” Instead of messages from the gods, dreams are symbolic communication from unconscious repressed drives. Or, “we dream to remember,” as some contemporary neuroscientists claim, or “we dream to forget” as a neurobiological theory called “reverse learning” argued in 1983. Dreams are exercises for the brain, rehearsals, nighttime problem solving … the lesson touches briefly on each of these theories in turn.

But whatever answers science provides will hardly satisfy human curiosity about the content of our dreams. For this, perhaps, we should look elsewhere. We might turn, for example, to the Museum of Dreams, “a hub for exploring the social and political significance of dream-life.” Philosophical and scientific theories of dreaming are all speculative. “Rather than seek a definitive explanation, the Museum’s goal is to explore the generative and performative nature of dream-life — all the remarkable ways people have put their dreams to work.” Before we share and, yes, interpret our dreams with others, they remain, in Toni Morrison’s words, “unspeakable things unspoken.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Take an Intellectual Odyssey with a Free MIT Course on Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

In 1979, mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and composer J.S. Bach walked into a book title, and you may well know the rest. Douglas R. Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize for Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, his first book, thenceforth (and henceforth) known as GEB. The extraordinary work is not a treatise on mathematics, art, or music, but an essay on cognition through an exploration of all three — and of formal systems, recursion, self-reference, artificial intelligence, etc. Its publisher settled on the pithy description, “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.”

GEB attempted to reveal the mind at work; the minds of extraordinary individuals, for sure, but also all human minds, which behave in similarly unfathomable ways. One might also describe the book as operating in the spirit — and the practice — of Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, a novel Hesse wrote in response to the data-driven machinations of fascism and their threat to an intellectual tradition he held particularly dear. An alternate title (and key phrase in the book) Magister Ludi, puns on both “game” and “school,” and alludes to the importance of play and free association in the life of the mind.




Hesse’s esoteric game, writes his biographer Ralph Freedman, consists of “contemplation, the secrets of the Chinese I Ching and Western mathematics and music” and seems similar enough to Hofstadter’s approach and that of the instructors of MIT’s open course, Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey. Offered through the High School Studies Program as a non-credit enrichment course, it promises “an intellectual vacation” through “Zen Buddhism, Logic, Metamathematics, Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence, Recursion, Complex Systems, Consciousness, Music and Art.”

Students will not study directly the work of Gödel, Escher, and Bach but rather “find their spirits aboard our mental ship,” the course description notes, through contemplations of canons, fugues, strange loops, and tangled hierarchies. How do meaning and form arise in systems like math and music? What is the relationship of figure to ground in art? “Can recursion explain creativity,” as one of the course notes asks. Hofstadter himself has pursued the question beyond the entrenchment of AI research in big data and brute force machine learning. For all his daunting erudition and challenging syntheses, we must remember that he is playing a highly intellectual game, one that replicates his own experience of thinking.

Hofstadter suggests that before we can understand intelligence, we must first understand creativity. It may reveal its secrets in comparative analyses of the highest forms of intellectual play, where we see the clever formal rules that govern the mind’s operations; the blind alleys that explain its failures and limitations; and the possibility of ever actually reproducing workings in a machine. Watch the lectures above, grab a copy of Hofstadter’s book, and find course notes, readings, and other resources for the fascinating course Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey archived here. The course will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Scientists Create an Interactive Map of the 13 Emotions Evoked by Music: Joy, Sadness, Desire, Annoyance, and More

Most of our playlists today are filled with music about emotions: usually love, of course, but also excitement, defiance, anger, devastation, and a host of others besides. We listen to these songs in order to appreciate the musicianship that went into them, but also to indulge in their emotions for ourselves. As for what exactly evokes these feelings within us, lyrics only do part of the job, and perhaps a small part at that. In search of a more rigorous conception of which sonic qualities trigger which emotions in listeners — and a measurement of how many kinds of emotions music can trigger — scientists at UC Berkeley have conducted a cross-cultural research project and used the data to make an interactive listening map.

The study’s creators, a group including psychology professor Dacher Keltner (founding director of the Greater Good Science Center) and neuroscience doctoral student Alan Cowen, “surveyed more than 2,500 people in the United States and China about their emotional responses to these and thousands of other songs from genres including rock, folk, jazz, classical, marching band, experimental and heavy metal.” So writes Berkley News’ Yasmin Anwar, who summarizes the broader findings as follows: “The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: Amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.”

Many listener responses can’t have been terribly surprising. “Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ made people feel energized. The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’ pumped them up. Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ evoked sensuality and Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwoʻole’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ elicited joy.

Meanwhile, heavy metal was widely viewed as defiant and, just as its composer intended, the shower scene score from the movie Psycho triggered fear.” The cultural influence of Hitchcock, one might object, has by now transcended all boundaries, but according to the study even Chinese classical music gets the same basic emotions across to Chinese and non-Chinese listeners alike.

Still, all respectable art, even or perhaps especially an abstract one such as music, leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation. You can check your own emotional responses against those of the Berkeley survey’s respondents with its interactive listening map. Just roll your cursor over any of point on its emotional territories, and you’ll hear a short clip of the song listeners placed there. On the peninsula of category H, “erotic, desirous,” you’ll hear Chris Isaak, Wham!, and a great many saxophonists; down in the netherlands of category G, “energizing, pump-up,” Rick Astley’s immortalized “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Alien Ant Farm’s novelty cover of “Smooth Criminal.” Anwar also notes that “The Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran’s inescapable hit, “sparks joy” — but if I have to hear it one more time at the gym, I can assure you my own emotional response won’t be quite so positive.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

De-Mystifying Mindfulness: A Free Online Course by Leiden University

From Chris Goto-Jones–now Dean of Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria–comes a free course which was named ‘one of the best online courses of all time’ in 2020. The course description for De-Mystifying Mindfulness reads:

Interest in meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation has grown exponentially in recent years. Rather than being seen as mystical practices from ancient Buddhism or esoteric philosophy, they are increasingly seen as technologies rooted in evidence from psychology and neuroscience. Mindfulness has become the basis for numerous therapeutic interventions, both as a treatment in healthcare and as a means of enhancing well-being and happiness. For millions around the world, mindfulness has become a life-style choice, enhancing and enriching everyday experience. Mindfulness is big business.




But, what actually is mindfulness? Is it really good for you? Can anyone learn it? How can you recognize charlatans? Would you want to live in a mindful society, and would it smell like sandalwood? What does it feel like to be mindful? Are you mindful already, and how would you know?

Evolving from the popular Honours Academy course at Leiden University [in the Netherlands], this innovative course combines conventional scholarly inquiry from multiple disciplines (ranging from psychology, through philosophy, to politics) with experiential learning (including specially designed ‘meditation labs,’ in which you’ll get chance to practice and analyze mindfulness on yourself). In the end, the course aims to provide a responsible, comprehensive, and inclusive education about (and in) mindfulness as a contemporary phenomenon.

You can take De-Mystifying Mindfulness for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

De-Mystifying Mindfulness will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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How to Take the Perfect Nap, According to Cognitive Scientist Sara Mednick

Napping is serious business, despite the fact that when some of us think of naps, we think about preschool. We’ve been taught to think of naps as something to outgrow. Yet as we age into adulthood, so many of us find it hard to get enough sleep. Millions currently suffer from sleep deprivation, whose effects range from memory loss to, well… death, if we credit the dire warnings of neuroscientist Matthew Walker. “Sleep,” Walker says, “is a non-negotiable biological necessity.”

In light of the latest research, napping begins to seem more like urgent preventive care than an indulgence. In fact, sleep expert Sara Mednick says, naps are a “miracle drug” that “increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills, and accuracy, enhances your sex life,” helps you lose weight, feel happier, and so on, all without “dangerous side effects” and with a cost of nothing but time.

If this sounds like hype, consider the quality of the source — Dr. Sara Mednick, a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and a fellow at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Mednick runs a “seven-bedroom sleep lab at UCI,” notes her site, that works “literally around-the-clock to discover methods for boosting cognition through a range of different interventions, including napping.”

Maybe you’re sold on the benefits and simple pleasures of a nap — but maybe it’s been a few years since you’ve scheduled one. How long, exactly, should a grown-up nap last? The animated TED-Ed lesson above, scripted by Mednick, answers that question with a short course on sleep cycles: how we move through different stages as we snore, reaching the deepest sleep at stage 3 and concluding a cycle with R.E.M. The length of the nap we take can depend on the kinds of tasks we need to perform, and whether we need to wake up quickly and get on to other things.

Mednick expands substantially on her evidence-based advocacy for naps in her book Take a Nap! Change Your Life. (See her discuss her research on sleep and memory in the short video just above.) In the book’s introduction, she tells the story of her “journey from skeptic to nap advocate.” Here, she uses uses a different metaphor. Naps, she says, are a “secret weapon” — one she reached for just minutes before she stood up at the Salk Institute to present research on naps. “I never imagined,” she writes of her journey into napping, “that a healthy solution to facing life’s multiple challenges could be as simple and attainable as a short nap.” Given how much sleep we’re all losing lately, maybe it’s not so surprising after all.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Tibetan Monks Use Meditation to Raise Their Peripheral Body Temperature 16-17 Degrees

Tibetan monks in remote regions of the Himalayas have long claimed near miraculous powers through yogic practices that resemble nothing you’ll find offered at your local gym, though they may derive from some similar Indian sources. One such meditative practice, a breathing exercise known as tummo, tum-mo, or g-tummo, supposedly generates body heat and can raise one’s peripheral body temperature 16-17 degrees—a distinctly advantageous ability when sitting outside in the snow-capped mountains.

Perhaps a certain amount of skepticism is warranted, but in 1981, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson was determined to take these ancient practices seriously, even though his first encounters with western practitioners of tummo produced results he deemed “fraudulent.” Not ready to toss centuries of wisdom, Benson decided instead to travel to the source after meeting the Dalai Lama and receiving permission to study tummo practitioners in Northern India.




Benson’s research became a 20-year project of studying tummo and other advanced techniques while he also taught at the Harvard Medical School and served as president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, where he believes the study of meditation can “uncover capacities that will help us to better treat stress-related illnesses.” The claims of monks who practice tummo have been substantiated in Benson’s work, showing, he says, “what advanced forms of meditation can do to help the mind control physical processes once thought to be uncontrollable.”

In his own experimental settings, “Benson found that [Tibetan] monks possessed remarkable capacities for controlling their oxygen intake, body temperatures and even brainwaves,” notes Aeon. Another study undertaken in 2013 by Maria Kozhevnikov, cognitive neuroscientist at the National University of Singapore, “corroborated much of what Benson had observed, including practitioners’ ability to raise their body temperatures to feverish levels by combining visualization and specialized breathing.”

In the short documentary film above—actually a 7-minute trailer for Russ Pariseau’s feature-length film Advanced Tibetan Meditation: The Investigations of Herbert Benson MD—we get a brief introduction to tummo, a word that translates to “inner fire” and relates to the ferocity of a female deity. Benson explains the ideas behind the practice in concise terms that sum up a central premise of Tibetan Buddhism in general:

Buddhists feel the reality we live in is not the ultimate one. There’s another reality we can tap into that’s unaffected by our emotions, by our everyday world. Buddhists believe this state of mind can be achieved by doing good for others and by meditation. The heat they generate during the process is just a by-product of g Tum-mo meditation

Perhaps centuries-old non-European practices do not particularly need to be debunked, demystified, or validated by modern scientific medicine to keep working for their practitioners; but doctors have significantly benefited those in their care through an acceptance of the healing properties of, say, psilocybin or mindfulness, now serious subjects of study and clinical treatment in top Euro-American institutions. Just as this research is being popularized among both the medical establishment and general public, we may someday see a surge of interest in advanced tantric practices like tummo.

via Aeon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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