Category: Column

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.

Illustration by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

 

I’ve spent a lot of time in this column so far talking about studies carried out in humans, usually using techniques like fMRI, EEG, or PET scans. However, a lot of neuroscience research, my own included, happens in what we call ‘model organisms’, one of the most common being the humble mouse. In conversations about my research, I’ve frequently gotten a variant of this question: “Why are you working on mouse brains if you want to understand how humans work?”

Since  I’ll be covering research done in lots of non-human species this semester, I wanted to take a column to talk about why I believe it is necessary to use animals in neuroscience research, and what they can tell us about the brain that human studies cannot.

Basically, it comes down to two things: in mice you can investigate the brain more directly at a much smaller scale, and you have much more causal control over the conditions of your experiments. First, let’s talk about the matter of scale.

In humans, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, was a massive breakthrough in neuroscience. To this day, it is considered the highest degree of spatial resolution possible to monitor real-time neural activity in living humans, except for the rare electrodes allowed by a neurosurgery patient. In humans, fMRI is as far as you can ‘zoom in’ on the behaving brain.

However, like with any technique, there are downsides to fMRI. While most popular science articles call fMRI results ‘neural activity,’ fMRI is actually measuring the amount of oxygen that the blood in your brain is using, which serves as a proxy for neural activity. In other words, the assumption is that the more oxygenated blood a brain region is going through, the more neurons are firing in that region.

The other huge issue with fMRI is scale. An fMRI scan is like a 3D video, and just like a movie has pixels, there’s the smallest possible unit of detection in fMRI – the voxel. Its name comes from a combination of the words ‘volume’ and ‘pixel,’and it essentially is a pixel, just in three dimensions. The highest current possible resolution of a single voxel averages the oxygenation of approximately 100,000 neurons over one second, which means that the activity of 100,000 cells is reduced to a uniform greyish box on the display.

While that’s a pretty small percentage compared to the ~80 billion neurons of the brain, an fMRI still can’t tell you what specific kinds of neurons are activating, or anything about the pattern of activity below a voxel scale. So how do we understand neural circuits at a more detailed level?

That’s where mice come in. Mouse brains have most of the major features of human brains – they even have a neocortex that is structured almost identically to our own. In mice, it is much easier to observe these smaller scales, which span from from single neurons to the simultaneous observation of thousands of neurons at a time.

Mice are particularly well-suited to this task because of the immense control an experimenter can have over a given experiment. Every aspect of a lab mouse’s life is regulated from birth to death, which is impossible to control for in human studies.

Beyond behavioral control, genetic techniques enable causal manipulations at a cellular level. Thousands of mouse strains have been specially made to manipulate the expression of particular genes, optogenetic techniques enable researchers to turn on or off specific neuronal populations during behavior, and two-photon imaging paired with calcium labeling lets us observe the activity of individual neurons in real time.

These advantages of experimental control and fine-scale observations are only possible in animal models. While mice have their disadvantages too, namely that without language behavioral motivations becomes difficult to interpret, their use clearly contributes to neuroscience overall. Discoveries in mouse models help guide human researchers to better theories, better treatments, and ultimately, a better understanding of ourselves.

 

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Monday was opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The evening was a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be loud. Half-drunk, piss-colored prosecco glasses hovered through the Met lobby. Red-headed twins in matching green dresses pranced down the stairs. Muted elegance hid in an alcove, a sentry with a light-blue, fluffy overthrow. Folks met colleagues with half-hearted smiles, and lovers embraced joyously. Noise echoed throughout the space, filled with exclamations of “You…look superb”, clacks of skyscraper heels, Italian murmurs, Russian rumors, small talk on the summer weather. Press congregated in an impenetrable, baseball-diamond formation. A gaggle of photographers snapped ferociously.

Eventually, an unseen magnet dragged us from the velvety mulling spaces into the theater. The performance began promptly 20 minutes late with a rendition of the National Anthem. Maestro James Levine conducted. The audience largely did not sing along.

Of course, there was an opera to be had tonight: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). For those who don’t know Norma, here is a quick summary:

Norma is a priestess in Gaul (think France) during Roman occupation. She had two kids with a Roman governor, Pollione, but now he’s seeing Adalgisa, another priestess. Adalgisa tells Norma about Pollione, which makes her (understandably) furious. Act 1 ends in a heave.

Norma considers killing her children—Hello Medea!—but draws her dagger away at the last moment. Adalgisa enters and Norma is apparently A-Okay with her and Pollione: she even suggests that they run off to Rome together. Adalgisa is aghast. She hopes to reconnect Norma and Pollione.

Segue to a rather boring male chorus. The Druids want to revolt. But it’s not time yet, says Norma’s dad Oroveso. Snooze.

Final scene. Norma learns that Pollione will stay with Adalgisa. She strikes the war gong three times, the Druids fire up a frenzy (torches!). The drama blusters to a close: Norma tries to get back with Pollione, he refuses, she decides to kill herself, Pollione joins her and they walk into the pyre together (How sweet!).

For this vocal masterclass disguised as an opera, a producer could simply put a white backdrop on the Met’s stage without too much injustice. That said, I thought the staging admirably captured Bellini’s late romantic aesthetic. Dark, disorientating pines and scattered, encroaching moonshine complemented the characters’ interactions.

Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As an audience member proclaimed at intermission, though, “people care mostly about the voices in this work.” Tenor Joseph Calleja (Pollione) was casual, reserved, despite the heady topic (love). He infused more devotion as his character was whirlpooled into the tragedy. Soprano Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had a silvery tone when she sang high. Her acting felt spontaneous and intense. Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) embodied tender, moving Romanticism in her famous aria, Casta Diva. Throughout the marathon, Radvanovsky executed rocket-powered scales, winding phrases, and dancing grace notes—markers of the bel canto style–with ease.

Although I haven’t seen it posited elsewhere, the bel canto singing style extends to instrumentalists at well. In Casta Diva I was impressed by the flutist’s phrasing and tone, which built a solid foundation for Radvanovsky. In an exposed clarinet and flute duet in the first act, the intonation was sparkling clean. Their effort created an appropriate holiness. Overall, the orchestra’s fortes just felt way too safe. More sound! (Please.)

Cadenzas—extended, solo passages usually for one or two musicians—allow singers to showcase their vocal prowess. Duet vocal cadenzas are especially difficult to execute because both singers must be perfectly synchronized in their tempo alterations and dynamic choices. Radvanovsky and DiDonato had to perform several of these duets. In the first act, their intonation suffered in their upper register. However, they solved the problem in the second act, summoning the pristine beauty of the bel canto style.

Although I have several reservations about the plot, one scene stands out for its drama. When the Druids find Pollione in their temple, they bring him to Norma to kill him. Instead, Norma tries to convince Pollione to return to her. He refuses; Norma indicates that she will kill Pollione’s lover. She recalls the Druids and announces that a guilty priestess shall burn on the pyre. They implore, “Who is she?” Norma hesitates. The Druids ask again, “Who is she?” Norma, “It is I.” The singers captured the tragedy of the moment with intense, palpable stillness. When the orchestra reentered on their soft sostenuto, the mood was solemn, desolate. Radvanovsky pleads and prays, her accepted devastation processes to its infernal . Here, I believe the production succeeded: the prolonged silence followed by the tragic orchestra created a poignant ping that made me empathize with Norma’s fate. Such pathos proves that a moving Norma is not just about the singers, rather how different operatic elements–orchestra, staging, choreography, ensemble–interact with each other. The experience can only be endured through a live performance.

 

Norma runs through December 16, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live October 7, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

For anyone in MusicHum, this opera presents the perfect opportunity to see an archetype of bel canto. Tickets in the boonies aren’t as cheap as they once were: the best you can do is a $25 rush ticket the day of the performance on the Met’s website (rush tickets are cheaper than student tickets.). Information and ticket listings on metopera.org.

 

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Photo Courtesy of Columbia University.

Welcome back Columbia! From all of us at the Columbia Lion and from here at Uniquely Human, we hope all your summers were fruitful and relaxing. As we get back into the swing of classes, I wanted to write an update on the future of this column and what to expect going forward. First and foremost, Uniquely Human will be continuing its regular release schedule of every other Monday, starting today, so expect a new release two weeks from today.

As a neuroscience student here, I hear about all the impressive, exciting, and paradigm-shifting research coming out of Columbia labs. But no matter how interesting the research, many average Columbia students don’t know what’s coming out of their own institution. Scientists often only share their research in journals aimed solely at other scientists in their subfields. The most interesting conversations about neuroscience are ones that neuroscientists have with each other.

I want to change that.

This is your university, and this research is mostly paid for with your tax dollars. I think you have a right to understand what discoveries in neuroscience are coming out of Columbia, and how they may affect your lives in fascinating and surprising ways.

I believe the best kind of science happens when it’s in communication with the public. In these tumultuous times, now more than ever it’s critical that everyone knows what valuable contributions neuroscientists are making to how we understand ourselves. I think these kinds of conversations are most interesting when they’re had across disciplinary lines – with other scientists, with writers, philosophers, artists – and you, reader, have a worthy perspective to contribute.

So this semester we’ll be thematically shifting our focus away from our series on education and the brain. In its place, I’ll be reviewing the latest and greatest discoveries coming out of Columbia neuroscience using straightforward language, hopefully humorous analogies, and with an eye for the big picture implications. When possible, I’ll be interviewing researchers directly to get the best information directly from the researchers to you.

As always, the contents of this column are mostly dependent on what I want to write, which means not every column will be about Columbia neuroscience discoveries; there will be stories relating neuroscience to both campus and worldwide events.

As always I am happy to take requests. This is only a column in conversation when I can hear your voice. If you have questions that you want answered from a neuroscientific point of view, I’ll do my best to answer them. I can’t wait to share this amazing research with you all, and I hope to see you here next week for our first true installment in our series.

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Image via Stocksnap

It’s finals season, which means it’s time to pull out your finest procrastination techniques. For those of you who have little success with this throughout the rest of the year (I’m looking at you, Butler all-nighters), I’ve put together a little how-to for you, focused on the best way to procrastinate: film.

1. Re-watch the classics:

There are some fantastic new titles on Netflix these days, including the classic Forrest Gump, Diane Keaton’s Something’s Gotta Give (fun fact: my mom based our kitchen off that movie), and the tear-jerking Schindler’s List. On Amazon, you can laugh at Caddyshack, delve into the world of Indianna Jones, or dance along to Footloose. If you’re looking for a two-hour study break, I’d definitely recommend watching one of those great films.

2. Binge a comedy:

If you haven’t watched all of Friends in one full reading week, do you really go to college? And if you have, have you done the same with Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother, Arrested Development, and 30 Rock? By the second season of each, you can just leave it on on the background of your computer while you “work,” and the jokes will just soak into your skin like delightfully comforting rays of sun.  

3. Watch a chick-flick:

I know, I know, you’re too mature for the ridiculously over-dramatic and non-realistic world of chick-flicks. But let me tell you, there’s nothing as comforting as taking a break from your hours of studying to watch Jay Mohr win Jennifer Aniston’s heart in Picture Perfect, or listen to Hugh Grant’s deliciously attractive accent in any of his films. I’m telling you, chick-flicks will make you smile, and I have a feeling you haven’t been doing enough of that this week.

4. Head down to Broadway:

Yes, it’s reading week, but it’s also one of the only times you’re in New York without class, so take three hours to go downtown and see a fantastic Broadway show. This month, Matthew Perry is making his playwriting debut in The End of Longing, and shows like The Lion King, Wicked, and The Book of Mormon are still going strong. For cheaper tickets, check out off-broadway’s Avenue Q or The Fantasticks, which closes this month after over 50 years on the stage. (Protip: download the app TodayTix or head over to the TKTS booth for discounted prices).

5. When all else fails, watch The West Wing:

It’s the greatest show to ever be on television. You’ll thank me.

Have a great summer, everyone! Keep on watching!

Yael