If you set the human mind to music, what would it sound like?
That’s what researchers from the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu, China are trying to discover. In their second study using human brain imaging to create music from brain waves, the researchers are “composing” music that could one day aid in improving diagnoses of brain disorders and new treatments for those conditions.
In their previous study, lead researcher Jing Lu and her colleagues used brain signals taken with electroencephalography (EEG) and translated them into musical notes. How? They used the height, or amplitude of the waves taken with EEG to determine the pitch of the notes and the length of airwaves to map out the duration of the notes. The intensity of the tone came from the average power change of EEG.
When the researchers played their first brain wave composition, however, the music was hard on the ears and too abrupt, so they turned to another imaging technique to enhance the process.
In the second study, the scientists added in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which records brain activity during specific tasks, such as when participants view pictures or think about specific things or experiences. By combining the EEG and fMRI images and recordings, they created new tunes that a panel of 10 musicians agreed sounded more acceptable to the human ear.
“Due to the quick change of the EEG state, the intensity of EEG music changed quickly and abruptly and this is not the usual case in man-made music,” the authors write. “We chose another brain information, the fMRI signal, serving as the intensity information source. As the EEG-fMRI intensity evolution is smooth and leisure[ly], the result[ing] EEG-fMRI sounds more close to manmade … music.”
Because fMRI also gave researchers a better reflection of neural activity in the brain, the hope is that the “music” generates more than a unique playlist. The findings could enhance understanding of how music therapy could help certain neurodegenerative or developmental disorders. “The ultimate aim of our study is to unravel part of the secret in the brain. In addition, we may find some applications in brain music therapy,” says Lu in an email.
Lu says her team wants to investigate, for example, whether the music generated by the brain itself is more effective than man-made music for music therapy. “I think music therapy might be used on people who are experiencing anxiety or down in spirits,” she says.
That work is already being done, with some success. Neuroscientists at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate studies a form of neurotraining called “Brain Music” that uses music created from an individuals’ own brain waves to treat anxiety, insomnia and headaches. The notes created from the brain waves are supposed to encourage two natural mental states — relaxation, for those highly stressed and in need of better sleep, or alertness for better concentration and decision-making.
But not everyone agrees that the brain’s compositions hold such therapeutic promise. David Sulzer, a neuroscientist and professor at Columbia University Medical Center, has long translated brain patterns into music for performances. He says that while making music from brain waves is fun, he doesn’t see strong evidence that it can be used clinically to treat anxiety just yet. “It’s not really clear to me why using EEGs to trigger relaxing music would be better than listening to some kind of new age music, or whatever it is that might relax you personally,” says Sulzer. “That would seem to me a little more realistic because you have an idea from your experience that it will work. Making [brain waves] into music is interesting to me because it’s a different way to make music, but to get people to use it for anxiety is a stretch for me and I think there needs to be more evidence.”
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
–Alexandra Sifferlin is a writer and producer for TIME Healthland. She is a graduate from the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.