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The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory

[ 1 ] April 1, 2010

Leading researchers from around the world present their latest research into the neuroscience of memory at New York University.

Neuron by neuron, we snap together mental structures, constantly evolving palaces of memory that we carry with us until we die.

- George Johnson, In the Palaces of Memory

"The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory," a symposium held at New York University last weekend, brought together some of the foremost neuroscientists from around the world who are investigating the way our brains store, retrieve, and make use of our collected experiences.

"The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory," a symposium held at New York University last weekend, brought together some of the foremost neuroscientists from around the world who investigate the way our brains store, retrieve, and make use of our collected experiences.

As we move through the world, our senses measure the raw data of our experience: a touch is registered by slight changes in pressure on our skin’s surface; a shrill siren rattles the hair cells within our ears. We experience our environment through these physical interfaces—and, like a sponge onto water, we soak up this raw data for everything it’s worth. From the moment our nervous system coalesces, we measure the world with these evolved systems so that we can begin to predict its tendencies and find useful patterns amid the chaos.

Far from storing individual memories in individual cells, the picture of memory in the brain that has emerged in the last half-century of active research is one of a widely distributed and dynamic system involving networks of neurons throughout the brain. In the mid-20th century, Donald Hebb set forth the influential idea that cells which fire together will wire together; Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning research in the 1960s illustrated the beautiful symphony of neurotransmitters and proteins on the cellular level that accounts for these experience-based changes to the physical structures of the brain—the gradual remodeling of our palaces of memory.

Now, as we face this 21st century of ever-intensifying research into the central nervous system, memory—like consciousness and sleep—remains one of the essential questions about the brain. How, on the most basic levels, does a constellation of cells and synapses store a lifetime of information? What are the mechanisms that cause memories to fade, shift, or be rewritten over time?  How much sleep do I need tonight to remember writing this tomorrow?

This past weekend, some of the leading memory researchers from around the world gathered at New York University for a two-day symposium entitled “The Mysteries and Marvels of Memory,” hosted by the NYU Center for Neural Science. Assembling the experts into thematic triads with twenty-five minutes allotted for each presentation, the organizers smartly moved the program from presentations on Saturday morning about the “building blocks of biological learning machines” to more specialized avenues of research into memory erasure, long-term storage and retrieval, and functional localization of memory in the hippocampus and other structures in the brain as presented in Sunday’s talks.

As all investigations of complex biological systems evolved over millions of years should, Seth Grant of the Sanger Institute in Cambridge began the symposium with a riveting exploration of “The Origins of the Synapse and Evolution of Adaptive Behavior.” According to his research, we should think of the brain as a structure that evolved millions of years earlier than we currently believe, with primitive organisms containing proteins and molecular arrangements that Grant’s genomic research indicates were precursors to the synapse. These primitive systems were scaled up to form the complex nervous systems we now call a “brain.” His talk helped to cement the idea that our vastly complex nervous system grew from very simple structures that evolved for basic solutions to tractable environmental pressures. We must understand that there is a “deep ancestry of synaptic evolution,” as Grant put it.

Henry Markram, director of The Blue Brain Project at EPFL in Lausanne (and whom I’m working with on a 10-year documentary film project), followed with a whirlwind tour through his latest research into the balance of nature versus nurture on the level of neurons and synapses. Markram is using multicellular patch-clamp recording techniques to measure the activity of up to twelve cells at once, allowing him and his team to grasp, with increased resolution, the role of these cells with within a larger network. The take-home message is that we should perhaps think more about the dynamics at the synapse and less about the constant branching of axons and shifting of cellular structures when it comes to memory. The brain, with its vast networks of interconnected neurons, may be more hard-wired than we often believe, with slight modulations to chemical release accounting for the storage of experience more so than the dramatic reshaping and extension of axons to connect with new cells every time a memory is formed.

Moving from the extreme bottom-up approach to one focused on behavior as well as cells, Joseph LeDoux’s talk, entitled “Building Blocks of the Fear Learning Machine,” related the latest insights from his research into the structural underpinnings of fear and memory in the brain  (we previously profiled LeDoux’s research into emotional memory and fear learning here), which continue to suggest that memory is much more dynamic and flexible than once thought—updating, revising, and re-filing of memories are processes that LeDoux’s talk as well as a bevy of other researchers at the symposium handled in neuroscientific terms.

Marie Monfils, who once worked in LeDoux’s lab, presented new work from her UT Austin lab, where she is investigating the interaction of reconsolidation and extinction in fear memory. Some of the latest insights from LeDoux, Monfils and others concern the process of bringing a stored memory back into conscious awareness so that it can be “updated” and sent back into storage, re-colored (hopefully for the better, in the case of traumatic memories) so that next time it’s hauled out of the closet it feels nicer to put on. The esteemed researcher Yadin Dudai, who gave the keynote address for the symposium entitled “The Engram Shaped and Reshaped: Lessons from the Rat Neocortex,” may have put it best: “The best memory is the memory you never use. Once you use it, it becomes unstable.”

This research could have significant clinical implications– but the symposium made it clear that more work needs to be done before we can tease out any such approaches to the vast and tangled system that is memory in the brain. Todd Saktor of SUNY Downstate Medical Center presented intriguing research into the activity of PKM, a protein which acts as a sort of housekeeper to aid in the storage of long-term memory in the brain, maintaining the synapses that link together the constellations of cells that encode our past experiences (for more, see this article about a study involving PKM).

Saktor and others are interested in what happens when PKM is inhibited, thus preventing the normal levels of housekeeping in networks of memory-encoding neurons. In the work done so far, there is promising evidence that blocking PKM seems to effectively erase certain memories in animal models by letting synapses fade into inactivity. This research, combined with new insights into other drug agents such as Propanolol that modulate fear memory, suggests that clinical applications of these new avenues of memory research–perhaps even for PTSD– may be approaching in the years to come.

In similar lines of research, Sheena Josselyn of the University of Toronto spoke of the need to find “the bare minimum of neurons needed to encode a fear memory” in order to finally define an engram; Bong-Kiun Kaang of the Seoul National University gave a talk entitled “Dynamic Nature of Long-term Memory” that elegantly moved between explanations of protein degradation and the degradation of long-term memories stored within these networks of proteins, cells and synapses. On Sunday, speakers shifted to considerations of larger structures and behavioral applications of memory research: Charan Ranganath of UC Davis spoke of research into improving episodic memory through behavioral training, and others spoke to new findings about the hippocampus, a key control center of all memory systems in the brain.

Paving the road from behavior to cellular structures and back again is a pursuit that linked all the talks at the symposium, and will surely continue to be the singular goal of this developing field. On the whole, the research continues to point to the flexibility and widely distributed nature of memory. Like steam rising through a house, our experiences come to fill the complex chambers of our brain throughout our lives, billowing about in every conscious moment and subject to constant rearrangement, re-emergence, and dissipation. One day we may be able to use new techniques to erase the unwanted, ensure the consolidation of the necessary, and re-color the pained. But perhaps the best thing we can do for now is try to get eight hours of sleep.

Pondering Life Out There

[ 5 ] March 25, 2010

Astrophysicist Fred Adams + Indie Rocker Claire Evans in Brainwave 2010

Musician Claire Evans (left) and astrophysicist Fred Adams discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

Musician Claire Evans (left) and astrophysicist Fred Adams discuss the possibility of extraterrestrial life. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

“Do you think it’s the nature of life to destroy itself?” asked Claire Evans, one half of the indie rock band Yacht and author of the blog Universe.

“No I don’t think so. I’m more inclined to believe that life is plentiful but communication is rare,” answered astrophysicist Fred Adams, author of the acclaimed book The Five Ages of the Universe.

For just over an hour, Evans and Adams engaged in one of Brainwave’s most intelligently handled discussions of a topic that can easily veer into the overly-speculative. This is the third incarnation of the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which pairs astronomers, physicists, and neuroscientists with a variety of artists, journalists, and other figures from the humanities (check out our ongoing coverage of the series).

Evans and Adams took the stage on Sunday to offer their own answers—ranging from speculative to evidence-based—to the question of the existence of other life-forms in the universe, and the chances of ever communicating with them. At several key moments, the pair smartly folded the discussion back onto questions about human nature and the desire to reach out into the cosmos to find beings after our own image.

Evans, whose thoughtfulness and breadth of knowledge on the subject is evidenced by both her writing and her eloquence during Sunday’s discussion, began by explaining Fermi’s Paradox—which asks the simple question: Where is everybody? In a universe this expansive, this full of stars and planetary systems—why have we not encountered extraterrestrial beings?

Evans and Adams tackled the handful of obstacles that keep Fermi’s question the paradox that it is. For one, any communication arriving from another star’s planetary system would take thousands upon thousands of years to arrive on earth, and perhaps more, forever bound to the speediest known constant: the speed of light. With the closest star being two thousand light years away from our own sun, we may finally hear—if anything—the radiowave-riding soap opera soundtrack from a bygone civilization millenia after their demise (not to anthropomorphize too much—a tendency the speakers noted is our human habit in discussing extraterrestrial life).

Do we assume that because we’ve evolved brains that allow us to peer into the depths of the cosmos that there must be other brains out there peering back? Can life evolve spontaneously in another planet’s environment? Given that we’ve only been human for one million years, and technological humans for perhaps several thousand, the slice of time in which we’ve found ourselves asking these questions is the narrowest of pieces in the cosmic pie.

“It could be that there is vastly more intelligent life out there than us, but they just don’t care to talk to us, just as we don’t care to talk to ants or cockroaches,” Adams mused.

In reality, Adams noted that some life may exist on ice-covered planets or moons just as it does at the bottoms of our own oceans—extremophiles fed not by the warmth of the sun but by hydrothermal vents from the deep.

What about the ending to the story of life on our own planet? As our own sun heats to become a red giant in three billion years, life on this planet—if it’s still around—will come to an end.

To the delight of the audience, Adams lucidly explained the possibility of ejecting Earth from the solar system to avoid the exploding sun by means of harnessing a large asteroid and whipping it around the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, then grazing past Earth just close enough to pull our planet out of its orbit. Falling away from the sun on spaceship Earth, deep-sea microbial life could continue unharmed for eons more. For any humans who are still around (now we’re getting speculative), the ending could be poetic.

“I thought it would make for a beautiful science fiction story. Every day waking up and seeing the sun further and further away, until your entire planet is frozen,” said Evans. The briefest of hushes swept across the room.

A Celebration of Smell

[ 2 ] March 15, 2010

noseThe March 13 Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City—suggestively titled “What Does Ecstasy Smell Like?”—brought on stage the Columbia University neurobiologist Stuart Firestein and the elite perfumier Christophe Laudamiel, each an expert on our wonderful sense of smell.  Although asnomia is nothing to sneeze at, blindness and deafness have inclined clinical medicine towards the eye and the ear. But the fact remains that they are just one-third of six holes-in-the-head from which our brain, in its dark, wet box, receives information about the outside world.

Dr. Firestein of Columbia University, where he offers a course titled “SCNC 3920: Ignorance,” leads a research laboratory that uses the vertebrate olfactory neuron, which has been shown to regenerate, as a model to explore important questions.  As it turns out, flavor is sensed through the nose, despite the fact that we insist that we feel its sensation on the tongue.  This confusion may be the result of the proximity of the two corresponding cortical regions—the olfactory sensory cortex and the taste sensory cortex.

Mr. Laudamiel, who has been called “the enfant terrible of contemporary perfumery,” demonstrated a keen knowledge of neuroscience and chemistry.  The Frenchman once explained a process involving neurons that ended in “Voila.”  He made a scent called “Human Existence” for the movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.  Mr. Laudamiel also collaborated on a “scent opera” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2009.  I learned a lot about perfumery from hearing Mr. Laudamiel speak.  Watch out for the new scent from The Beautiful Brain: Homo sapiens.

There are a few scientific reasons why smell, controlled by the olfactory system, is unique.  There are 350 olfactory receptors in the back of the nasal cavity.   These receptors actually interact with matter from the outside world.  (“A rose by any other name would smell like molecules.”)  From these neurons, information travels through only two steps—synaptic sites—before arriving at the deepest parts of the brain, including the amygdala and the entorhinal cortex.

Interestingly, the popular myth of the “pheremonal sense,” known as the vomeronasal system, does not seem to be active in adult human beings.  Located near the sinus, the vomeronasal organ contains a few hundred pseudogenes, defunct relatives of genes that cannot make proteins and therefore cannot be expressed in the cell.

So, we know that Ecstasy does not smell like pheromones.

What Time Is It? Charlie Kaufman and Brian Greene in Dialogue

[ 6 ] March 9, 2010

Charlie Kaufman (left) and Brian Greene discuss the nature of time at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City as part of Brainwave 2010. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum)

Charlie Kaufman (left) and Brian Greene discuss the nature of time at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City as part of Brainwave 2010. (Photo: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum)


CHARLIE KAUFMAN, middle-aged screenwriter, and BRIAN GREENE, middle-aged physicist, walk onto the stage.  They shake hands.  The audience applauds.  The two men are seated.  They will discourse about the nature of time.


When did time first appear in your thoughts?

For both men, it naturally follows from the idea of death.  Indeed, KAUFMAN and GREENE are like-minded, both deep and brilliant.  Most of the words (numerous like galaxies) are spoken by GREENE, to the rapt and eager attention of the audience.  After all, he is describing, with lucid explanations, fathomable analogies, and expressive hands, what seems to be a holy grail of human understanding: fundamental, objective truth about the universe.  “I am in awe of your knowledge,” admits KAUFMAN humbly.

KAUFMAN, at once funny and serious, asks intelligent and informed questions, demonstrating an impressive understanding of difficult concepts.  “You said it better,” GREENE grants once.  The display on-stage at the Rubin is one of gifted intellects, whose coming together is for the genuine benefit of the audience.  The following, from the March 6 Brainwave event, would be the key moments in the film:


Mr. Greene defined time as: “the mechanism by which you can notice change.”  He suggested that it may be a derivative idea, an emergent property, not elemental to the first equations of physics.  The equations certainly do not distinguish between past and future.  In fact, all moments of time are in existence.  We can imagine an expanse of space before our eyes, but not time.  This is merely a limit of our representative imagination.  It is just as “real,” even “material,” as this computer, or the Pacific Ocean.

Why do we experience a sequence—a passage, a flow—of time?  Mr. Greene offers an evolutionary explanation.  Establishment of a now (including an imprinted past in the form of memory) distinct from a future leads to predicting and anticipating, planning and striving, brain-initiated functions that encourage acquisition of energy until the replication of DNA, and thus survival in nature.  Mr. Greene insists that there is no mathematical distinction between present and future.  There is no unique NOW.  (“And is that, is that what they’re thinking these days?” said Mr. Kaufman, mind blown, to a laugh).

Words ultimately fail here– although Mr. Kaufman’s, writer that he is, were often perfectly selected.  “Now is a function of a brain.  If there is no brain, I think there is no now.  It just is, whatever that means.”  (“Do you guys . . . smoke a lot of pot?” the novelist and Kaufman-collaborator Susan Orlean humorously asked during the question period).  Let it be known, too, that quantum physics complicates this picture.


Mr. Kaufman more than once pointed out the limitations of our brain, of its scientific method, its theories, its equations, and even math itself.  Mr. Greene pointed out that some believe that math exists independent of the human brain.  Some even believe that the world is a mathematical structure, and our reality is draped over it.  Mr. Greene’s own opinion has changed over the course of his career.

“This room is not this room, it’s our interpretation of the light waves,” reminds Mr. Kaufman.  This line of thought (“It’s all I’ve got,” revealed Mr. Kaufman, trying his hardest to do the duty of skepticism) amounts to the only valid caveat— subjectivity— to the accepted discoveries of physics.  But Mr. Kaufman said he believed that human beings can make objective progress in their understanding.  Mr. Greene shared his doubt that we can ever know everything.


The principles of quantum physics suggest that “nothing” is coaxed into what’s called a “quantum fluctuation,” producing positive energy that then evolved into the universe.  The “negative energy” perhaps evolved into “something else.”  This is simply a vague idea.  Question three remains the ultimate philosophical question.  Will any human being ever know the answer to this question?  (“Brian!?” Mr. Kaufman said, exasperated, to Mr. Greene).  Note: there may be multiple universes, each its own ineffable, immeasurable “something.”


Namely: is there really such a thing as “free will?”  Nothing in the laws of physics points to free will, said Mr. Greene.  Therefore, like time, it is “a useful illusion.”

In the final line of the film, BRIAN GREENE says: “We are a bag of particles governed by the laws of physics.  And that’s it.”

Upcoming Brainwave events:

  • Saturday, March 13, 4:00 pm: What Does Ecstasy Smell Like?
    Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel + neurobiologist Stuart Firestein
    The famed creator of Elton John Black Candle and Ralph Lauren Polo Blue talks to the Columbia University neuroscientist about how our sense of smell is processed by the brain.
  • Sunday, March 21, 6:00 pm: Is There Life Out There?
    Rock musician Claire Evans + astrophysicist Fred C. Adams
    One half of the indie band Yacht addresses a fundamental question about the universe with the author of The Five Ages of the Universe.
  • Wednesday, March 24, 7:00 pm: What Makes Us Wise?
    Science journalist Stephen S. Hall + neuroscientist Andre Fenton
    The author of Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience deliberates what it is in our brains that makes us “wise” with a neuroscientist and a philosopher.
  • See the full list of events for more, and stay tuned to this site for ongoing coverage of the series.

Debating the Neuroscience of Feng Shui

[ 4 ] March 1, 2010

Dr. John Zeisel and Steven Post onstage at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Dr. John Zeisel and Steven Post onstage at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Feng Shui Expert Steven Post + Neurosociologist Dr. John Zeisel at Brainwave 2010.

The winds are mild
The sun is warm
The water is clear
The trees are lush.
- Guo Pu, The Burial Book

It is no secret that our environment affects us.  But how should we design our surroundings?   The February 24 Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City featured two men who were dedicated to answering this question.  Steven Post, a feng shui expert, represented a tradition (Black Sect) that is open to change.  The neurosociologist Dr. John Zeisel presented work in a field called “neuroarchitecture.”  They engaged in a light and lively discussion, challenging each other and encouraging audience participation.

In Chinese, “feng shui” means “wind-water.”  The ancient tradition seeks to inspire that ineffable power of place.  Although it is called “the original natural science” in China, the truth is that feng shui is based on intuition and spiritual belief.  For example, in his explanation, Mr. Post referred to the “intention of a site” and “invisible beings.” He offered professional anecdotes that illustrated these concepts.  But this is not proof; people who hire feng shui consultants are more likely to experience its effects because they subconsciously want to fulfill their own expectations.  Any valuable experiment would have to be blind.  If people don’t know their surroundings have been arranged in a special way, will they still find more peace-of-mind?  To his credit, Mr. Post many times honored the “rigor and testability” of science and expressed a desire to apply scientific method to feng shui in order to validate or invalidate its ideas.  This willingness to learn and change is a rare intellectual trait.

Dr. Zeisel had a similarly progressive attitude.  Although he has collected clinical data—from his work with Alzheimer’s patients—he never dismissed the unproven claims of feng shui.  Instead of coveting a mystical harmony, Dr. Zeisel simply seeks to design an environment in which the brain can best function and develop.  A particularly interesting discovery has to do with the chiasmatic nuclei, which control our circadian clock.  Damage to these nuclei cause disturbances in temporal routine, such as waking up in the middle of the night or “sundowning” (at the end of the day, patients feel anxious and want to go out).  Studies have shown that if Alzheimer’s patients spend time outside every day, this particular function is normalized.  But although Dr. Zeisel did present empirical evidence, I felt that his inferences exceeded his data.  Dr. Zeisel failed to prove why putting a cafeteria in the front of an office building (rather than the back) would influence behavior.  Or change brain chemistry.  There are intuitive explanations that make sense, but they are ultimately no more reliable than those of feng shui.

Human intelligence affords extraordinary privileges with respect to the environment.  It is important to understand the interactive relationship between brain and world so that we can maximize our own potential.  More studies are needed to discover the neurological effects of place.  But events like Brainwave, bringing together different perspectives and ideas, are tremendously positive for the discourse.  They are the brainstorms of progress.

Cosmos on the Mind

[ 0 ] February 23, 2010

Philip Glass + Greg Laughlin, Steven Soter + Martin Brauen at Brainwave 2010

Philip Glass (left) joined astronomer Greg Laughlin for a conversation as part of the ongoing Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)
Philip Glass (left) joined astronomer Greg Laughlin for a conversation as part of the ongoing Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

Scale is the first and last concept to dazzle the human mind in any discussion of the cosmos. And so it was this past weekend with the second and third Brainwave dialogues at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, which first paired astrophysicist Steven Soter with Rubin chief curator Martin Brauen on Saturday and then composer Philip Glass with astronomer Greg Laughlin on Sunday. In past years the Brainwave series has focused chiefly on pairing prominent figures from the humanities with leading brain scientists—this year, in a reflection of the current Visions of the Cosmos show in the Rubin galleries, the series includes dialogues such as these which both explore current scientific understandings of our universe as well as illuminate the fascinating presence of some of these same cosmological principles in centuries-old art from the Himalayas and elsewhere.

What may sound like tangents from the mostly brain-themed series turned out to be beautifully coherent explorations of how the human mind wraps itself around the incredibly vast scales of time and space in our universe. Both discussions this weekend started with what we know and what we don’t know, and then moved on to how we have in the past and how we can today represent that information—be it in a time-warping video of a flight through a digital simulation of the entire universe produced by Sotor and Brauen for the Museum of Natural History or in the translation of small ripples in the wavelengths of light emitted by their host star that give away the presence and position of distant planets, light years away, which astronomer Greg Laughlin converts into musical waveforms to generate true “Music of the Spheres” based on hard scientific data.

Two decades ago the planetary system we live in was the only known planetary system in the universe. Speculation of others abounded, but it was not until late in the 20th century that astronomers, using tiny changes in light coming our way from distant stars, discovered the planets that were causing these small oscillations as they passed between the stars they orbited and us.

Laughlin spent the first fifteen minutes of Sunday’s talk bringing the audience at the Rubin up to speed with this current state of planetary science. It was a necessary debriefing—a heavy passage of character development in chapter one—but as Philip Glass sat to Laughlin’s side, silently nodding his head in interest, a grand piano shimmering at the other side of the stage, the audience was eagerly awaiting the car chase everyone expected in chapter two.

For Sunday’s meeting with Glass, Laughlin had prepared the waveforms of our inner planetary system for the sake of demonstration, using data taken from the orbital behaviors of each of the four inner planets to create a sound waveform, tuning the note of our own earth to a low A. He opened his laptop, showed us the graphs and equations he used to generate the waveforms, then opened a sound file and played it for Glass and the rest of the audience.

Philip Glass listens as Greg Laughlin explains his process of converting astronomical data into sounds.

Philip Glass listens during Sunday's discussion as Greg Laughlin explains his process of converting astronomical data into sounds. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

The sound was an atonal, synthesized hum—which, as Laughlin explained, has remained the same for billions of years because of the particularly stable nature of our inner solar system. Later, Laughlin would adjust the parameters of the equations to show what an unstable solar system might sound like—say, if the Earth and Venus were eighty-times their current sizes. The resulting sound was anything but stable—an oscillating, chaotic flurry of chirps and dives, resulting in Venus being cast out of its orbit entirely; the doomed fate of an imagined planetary system falling apart over thousands of years heard here in a ten-second sound clip.

After all this, Philip Glass’ first question struck the chord that needed to be struck: “If no one is listening, is there any sound? Can we imagine a huge cosmic ear listening to this? I don’t think so. So we have to imagine that sound and music happens between the thing that makes the sound and the thing that hears the sound.”

So what does it mean to take the observed data from a star or planet and convert it into the narrow waveform that can be heard by our brain, a biologically-evolved, earth-specific structure that exists for a speck of time in the cosmic narrative? It may be that Laughlin’s music of the spheres is just another way to interpret data—a musical graph of sorts, a representation for us to better understand events over nearly incomprehensible timescales. By engaging another of our senses, these sounds can tune our own cosmic ears to a universe that can seem quiet and impenetrable as it marches across our sky.

Glass recently composed an opera about the life and work of Johannes Kepler, one of the originators of the idea of the “Music of the Spheres,” which saw its orchestral climax in Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. Glass is interested in the lives of scientists who were as much dreamers as they were recorders of hard data. So the discussion on Sunday ranged from these historical interpretations of the cosmos in music to the work being presented onstage in the form of sound files on Laughlin’s laptop. Glass pulled the conversation towards the philosophy of what was at hand—the implications of translating such a vastness of time and scale into a ten-second sound file, and Laughlin pulled it towards the possible permutations of planetary systems and how that hard data would affect these sounds. The result was at times stilted– a back-and-forth that never quite reached a true dialogue, yet still danced in the realm of profound, cosmic truths.

Though he never touched the grand piano onstage, Glass’ curiosity in Laughlin’s work and the depth of his thoughts about these issues was inspiring for scientist and artist alike, and one would not be surprised if the music of the spheres, or at least something inspired by it, continues to rear itself in Glass’ own artistic output. These cosmic tones might be the final words in the all-encompassing minimalist language Glass speaks with his music.

“But that sound that we just heard was so bland,” Laughlin told Glass after he played the first clip.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Glass quickly replied.

The idea of representing the physical nature of the universe in music is not so far from that of the images representing Hindu cosmology which curator Martin Brauen presented during Saturday’s discussion with astrophysicist Steven Sotor in what was the most graceful and informative dialogue so far in Brainwave 2010. During the ninety-minute exploration of what we know and don’t know about the universe, Brauen repeatedly wove these Eastern images into the discussion, demonstrating that intuitions of concepts now discussed in theoretical physics—multiverses, infinite space, a center-less cosmos—were represented in beautiful visualizations hundreds of years ago.

Be it imagery or music, any of these representations of the staggering scale of this place we find ourselves in—illustrations that give you that deep, dizzying feeling of smallness, music that translates eons into a few heartbeats of our lives—are sensory experiences still charged with profound value in the 21st century.

“One realizes the magnitude and the size of the universe, and the relative insignificance of our passions,” Sotor said during Saturday’s discussion. “To me, if you internalize that, it’s an inoculation against any kind of fanaticism—it’s incompatible with that. It should inculcate a kind of humility. And I think that’s a good thing—the world needs that.”

Upcoming Brainwave events:

  • Wednesday, February 24, 7 pm: Is Feng Shui All in the Mind?
    Feng Shui expert Steven Post + neurosociologist John Zeisel
    The author of The Modern Book of Feng Shui engages with the noted member of the Academy for Neuroscience in Architecture on how we perceive spatial relationships.
  • Sunday, February 27, 4:00 pm: Is Meditation the Medicine of the Mind?
    Bon meditation instructor Alejandro Chaoul + cancer specialist Dr. Lorenzo Cohen
    Two doctors evaluate the healing potential of meditation.
  • Wednesday, March 3, 7:00 pm: How Do Our Brains Cope with Long-term Stress?
    Tibetan lama Arjia Rinpoche + neuroscientist Bruce S. McEwen
    A survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution talks to the Rockefeller University neuroendocrinologist about how stress hormones act on the brain and if Buddhist practice has anything to teach us about how we can control stress levels.
  • See the full list of events for more, and stay tuned to this site for ongoing coverage of the series.
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