Summer 2017 Conference Season

Finally back in London, ON, after a slightly extreme summer conference tour: The Neurosciences and Music IV in Boston; preceded by our homegrown satellite, Neural Entrainment and Rhythm Dynamics (NERD, credit Ed Large for name/acronym combo); cuttingEEG in Glasgow; and the Rhythm Perception and Production Workshop (RPPW) in Birmingham [had a little break in between those last two to drive around Scotland with my dad and brother]. All of it was extremely inspiring, but of course too much info for any one human to retain, so I’ll try to summarize what I felt were some of the highlights.

I’m of course extremely biased, but I loved every minute of NERD. It was full-on day of fantastic 7-min talks on rhythm and entrainment punctuated by thought-provoking discussion periods. There were two major things I took away from NERD (I’ll only talk about one in any detail). First, we’re not all speaking the same language a lot of the time. That’s of course a problem that has been and will be around forever to some extent, and it’s also OK. For example, when I talk about “rhythm” or “beat”, that’s not quite the same thing someone else is talking about when they use the same words. A particularly sticky word at the moment is “entrainment”, which seems to mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, despite being very well defined in the math/physics domains. Even things like “beat salience” or “beat strength” are contested terms, making them hard things to study and talk about. The important thing, I think, is that we make sure we’re operationally defining terms in the papers we’re publishing and the talks we’re giving, so that even if we’re using terms differently, we can talk about the same phenomena. It sounds obvious, but this is done surprisingly infrequently, including by myself I’m sure. The second thing I took away, which I won’t discuss here and which very well may be the subject of a future blog, is that rhythmic/temporal expectation effects on behavior are harder to observe than one might think. More on that later.

There were a million interesting talks and posters at both NeuroMusic and RPPW, but here I’ll focus on timing-related issues. Even though I’ve heard various bits of the data before, I was struck (again) by the idea and accumulating evidence that synchrony is social. We need to be synchronized with each other to successfully navigate conversational turn-taking. Toddlers are more likely to exhibit pro-social helping behaviors towards adults that they have moved in synchrony with compared to someone they have moved out-of-sync with. Babies synchronize eye contact with a singer to the beat of the song the singer is producing.

A relatively new focus was on synchronization between brains. New ways to analyze electrophysiological data (using “intersubject synchronization” or “intersubject correlation”) allow us to assess interpersonal neural synchrony. Traditionally, measures of intersubject synchronization don’t necessarily focus on social situations, but nonetheless show that individual brains are more synchronized with each other (i.e., respond more similarly to the same stimulus) when individuals are more engaged with whatever they are watching or listening to. We presented EEG data that we collected from 60 EEG participants, 20 at a time, in slightly different social situations while viewing/listening to a concert. But I’m not here to self-promote. One really interesting twist on this idea was to use noninvasive brain stimulation to force pairs of brains to be either in sync or out of sync with each other. Despite the situation not actual being social (the individuals making up each pair were not able to see or interact with each other, but did have auditory information about the other person’s behavior), pairs of participants synchronized tapping better with each other when their brains were in sync compared to when their brains were out of sync. The moral of the story is that better neural synchronization leads to better behavioral synchronization, which could in turn lead to stronger affiliation in the social domain.

In general, rhythm and timing were very present topics at the conferences I attended this summer. And it seems like the more we know about how brains are actually involved in behavioral synchrony, the better we stand to understand how synchrony is involved in social situations. I look very much forward to seeing how this research evolved over the next years, and in hopefully being a part of it myself.