Music on (or projecting off?) your Mind

The Multimodal Brain Orchestra, led by the SPECS research group, recently performed their inaugural performance.  Oh, and there were no instruments.

“…four performers were fitted with caps littered with electrodes that take a real-time electroencephalograph [EEG] – an image of the brain’s electrical activity._45706524_brain_227_170

“There is a first violin, a second violin and so on, except that instead of violins they are brains,” says Dr Mura.

The graphs of those brain waves are projected onto one of two large screens above the orchestra. The performers launch sounds or affect their frequencies and modulations based on two well-characterised effects seen in EEGs: the steady-state visually evoked potential (SSVEP), and the so-called P300 signal.

When expectation is fulfilled, 300 thousandths of a second later, a signal known as the P300  appears in the EEG.

In the Multimodal Brain Orchestra, the P300 signal is registered – with a dot demarcating it on the EEG trace projected to the audience, so that they can see the effect of the performer’s thought – in turn launching a sound or recorded instrument.” (links added).

While research and exciting activities of this kind re-ignite important and fascinating dialogue around consciousness, I was particularly intrigued by the quote of Dr. Anna Mura, a biologist who is also the producer of the project:

“What we want to show here is the use of your brain without your body. Embodiment – we should get rid of it sometimes.”

So, I have to ask somewhat rhetorically: when do you ever use your body without your brain? Sure, there is autonomic activity of certain organs but without brain function they would cease to work. Now, I understand where Dr. Mura is going with this statement, which made me think of the notion of an extended mind, a topic in neurophilosophy and the philosophy of mind, which, according to Neil Levy, has “far reaching” implications for neuroethics. Broadly, the extended mind is that mental states extend beyond the skulls of the brains in which produce them. So for instance, conveying emotion in a music performance through an instrument is a claim of the extended mind. So, according to Levy, the extended mind thesis “alters the focus of neuroethics, away from the question of whether we ought to allow interventions into the mind, and toward the question of  which interventions we ought to allow and under what conditions.”

Further,  Grant Gillett would likely disagree that “we should get rid of” embodiment – actually, it is foreseeable that he would consider the idea impossible, and probably argue that dis-embodiment may only occur in a case where the brain is no longer able to embody the person, as in a condition such as locked-in-syndrome. Gillett would state that human subjectivity, in the brain is inscribed by a history of neurological, social, psychological, environmental, and other processes which embody meaning of being a human being-in-the-word-with-others.

Link to the BBC article here.

Hat tip to Ryan Nadel for “drawing my attention” to the piece.

daniel buchman

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About National Core for Neuroethics

With the remarkable pace of advances in the neurosciences, ethical, legal, policy and social issues are garnering significant attention in both the academic community and the eyes of the general public. Historically, consideration of the social implications of such frontier technology lagged the development of the technology itself. Our vision for the field of neuroethics, and for the new National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is to tackle these challenges head-on, working hand-in-hand with practicing neuroscientists to ensure the close alignment of innovation with societal and individual human values.