TRF1 Speaker Q&A – Aniruddh Patel

Aniruddh Patel is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Tufts University, who studies music cognition (including rhythm and timing) in humans and other species. He earned his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. Before joining Tufts he was a Senior Fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego.


How can we determine the brain’s code for time?

Evolution rarely has just one way of solving a problem. It seems very unlikely that there is a single code for time in the brain. For example, the mechanisms behind circadian rhythms, musical beat perception, and spatiotemporal sequence learning in primary visual cortex are likely to be quite different. It the coming years it will be interesting to see which timing mechanisms are the most ancient and widespread in animal brains and which are more recently evolved and specialized in certain species.


What will your talk at the 1st Timing Research Forum Conference focus on?

New findings on monkey synchronization to a beat. One of the surprises in research on timing and rhythm has been the finding that when monkeys are trained to tap to a metronome, their taps do not anticipate metronome events, unlike humans. Instead, the taps lag metronome events by 200-300 ms. In contrast, when humans (even those with no musical training) tap with a metronome, they spontaneously align their taps very close in time to metronome events, indicating accurate prediction of metronome events.  This difference has been important for debates over possible species differences in beat-based timing abilities. Are monkeys capable of predictive temporal synchronization with a metronome? We recently found that if monkeys were trained to move their eyes to a spatialized visual metronome, and were given a reward for each predictive saccade, they could learn to synchronize to a metronome in a predictive way. They could also generalize this predictive synchronization to novel tempi, which is a key feature of human synchronization to a metronome. It remains to be seen if they can demonstrate predictive and tempo-flexible synchronization to an auditory metronome, which is the most widely studied form of sensorimotor synchronization in humans. I will discuss what our new findings suggests in terms of the evolution of human beat-based timing abilities.


What according to you are the most pressing and fundamental questions in timing research?

I’m clearly biased by my interest in music cognition, but I think that that understanding how the auditory and motor system interact in rhythm perception (i.e., in pure perception, with no overt movement) is a fundamental issue, and one that also has clinical significance for helping individuals with motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.


What current topics/techniques or new advances in timing research are you most excited about?

Cross-species research aimed at developing an animal model for beat perception. An animal would allow us measure and manipulate the neural circuits involved in beat perception in fine-grained detail.


What advice do you have for students and postdoctoral researchers interesting in investigating the brain’s code for time?

Develop your questions and hypotheses by triangulating between a few distinct areas of research, e.g., behavioral research on humans, neurobiological studies of non-human animals, and cross-species / evolutionary studies of rhythm and timing.