ICMPC Day Five – Neuroscience

Day Five, the final day of ICMPC, saw a big neuroscience session which I had been looking forward to all week. Not least because my friend Elisa was talking about her fascinating study neural oscillatory activity during both language and music syntax tasks (Carrus E, Koelsch S, Bhattacharya J (2010) Theta band oscillations during simultaneous processing of music and language – submitted).

I have to admit that I was engrossed in Elisa’s talk, trying to be maximally supportive as you do for a friend; so I completely forgot to write anything down. As a result my exact memory for the details is now very poor! So sorry Elisa. But it is a great study and it was a super talk, and I would recommend anyone to read it as soon as it comes out in print.

Aside from Elisa there were 3 talks of interest for me in this ‘whole morning’ session. Actually there was more than 3; but conference burn out was setting in by this stage so my notes are only full enough to really comment on 3 I am afraid!

The first was by Jessica Grahn and was about individual differences in rhythmic abilities. The second was by John Iverson, about top down control of early rhythmic responses and the third was by Daniela Sammler and was about whether music and action share neural resources. Since this is a lot to get through I will try to be brief!

1) Jessica was interested in the factors that may underlie natural variation in rhythmic abilities. In particular she was interested in the roles of short-term memory and beat detection. She tested the former using both digit and pseudo word spans and the latter using Iverson’s (2008) Beat Allignment Test (or BAT)  and she tested rhythmic ability with a nice rhythmic production test (across short, medium and long lengths).

She found that Digit Span and BAT both correlated with rhythm production although BAT and Digit span were not correlated themselves. So it is likely that both auditory memory and beat perception ability are involved separately in rhythmic ability to some extent. She followed this up with some good old brain scanning and found activation in the posterior temporal gyrus and superior temporal sulcus – areas associated with integration and maintenance of sounds in memory.  A role for working memory I wonder…?

2) John was interested in Beta oscillations, as they seem to be modulated similarly by an imagined beat and a physical accent. He wanted to find out where temporally precise top-down influences on sound evoked responses might come from in the brain. Might is be from attentional orientation to the pulse? What about covert motor activity? Or maybe auditory imagery? Many candidates to consider.

He created very clever stimuli where the beat of a phrase was actually in the same place but by modulating the starting point you could influence where people placed the beat in the phrase. He then tested MEG responses to these stimuli in 7 drum majors. He found evoked Beta across all conditions, suggesting again that this activity can be modulated by an imagined beat. MEG showed beat aligned patterns in pre motor cortex and secondary auditory cortex, suggesting a strong role for covert motor activity in the early processing of rhythmic patters. So the question is now, is there ever such a thing as a ‘purely auditory rhythmic condition’ – is feeling the beat inextricably linked to our motor system?…

3) Daniela presented her new and interesting work (which followed on nicely from John’s in a way) looking at the links between action and language processing. Traditionally comparisons of language and music, which are both sequences of sounds that are composed of smaller elements using a specific grammar, have shown been shown to cause similar neural responses (see below). The question is might the activation of these neural mechanisms generalise to other sequential stimuli? How about a series of sequential motor actions, like reaching out for a cup?

Daniela created clever stimuli based on the idea of disrupting the completion of a sequence. In language and music these types of grammar violations evoke signature ERPs, namely the ERAN (Music syntax violation) and ELAN (language syntax violation), and N5 and P600 (integration). Do you get similar responses if you disrupt a sequence of motor movements? The answer is, a little bit! She did get hints of the above mentioned ERPs although they are smaller in the action sequences than you typically see in language and music.

Then the question of combination: Researchers suspect that music and language syntax systems share neural resources partly because the ERPs mentioned above are reduced when you combine the two types of sequences – the logic being that if you share resources then there is less activation to go around. Would the same happen if you combined action with music? Again, yes…a bit. There is evidence for a reduction in the ERPs in the dual music/action task conditions, but this has not yet reached statistical significance.  All in all a promising result, but the paradigm needs some tweaks to enhance the effects of the action sequences in all cases.

A fine morning’s information intake for me and I am sure everyone else at the conference too.

This will be my last blog about ICMPC this year. I must move on now to read new and emerging literature in the field. All the abstracts from the conference are available here for anyone who would like to browse further. Overall it was a fascinating conference and I very much enjoyed all the presentations I attended. I am sorry for any that I have missed out in this blog – you were all great! Most of all it was great to meet colleagues and to make new friends. Music psychology can seem like a small world sometimes, but this event always brings home the idea that ours is a growing and multifaceted field, within which I am proud to be a small sapling.