Opera star, neuroscientist discuss music and the mind

Bovard Auditorium was filled to capacity with music lovers and neuroscience enthusiasts Monday night — including many who were passionate about both. The Music as Medicine event was hosted by USC Visions and Voices, the Los Angeles Opera and USC Dana and David Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute, as part of the Provost’s Series on Wicked Problems, which grapples with how universities can tackle issues such as poverty, disease and cyber security. On this night, the focus was on how music can help manage pain as a form of medicine, featuring a conversation about the connection between music and the brain.

Antonio Damasio (left) and Renée Fleming (center) have built their careers in neuroscience and music, respectively, bringing valuable insight from both industries to the discussion. Daniel Zhu | Daily Trojan

To start the evening, four L.A. Opera vocalists of various ranges performed short pieces accompanied by one of L.A. Opera’s pianists. The performances were followed by a brief conversation with guests Renée Fleming and Antonio Damasio.

Fleming is a world renowned vocalist who specializes in opera, and has won multiple Grammys for Best Classical Vocal Performance and Vocal Solo. Additionally, she was awarded the 2011 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2012 National Medal of the Arts and an honorary doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. She became interested in the science behind her profession several years ago, and since then has become a dedicated scientist — involved in studies such as singing while receiving an MRI so researchers could monitor which parts of the brain were active.

After Fleming’s presentation, there was a “musical interlude” where L.A. Opera’s pianist returned to the stage and played Chopin’s “Nocturne no. 9” while the audience observed parts of the brain reacting to the piece on a screen.

Damasio, the founder of Brain and Creativity Institute and USC Dornsife’s own professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy, continued the conversation by covering his research at USC, where he and his wife Hanna Damasio have made advances to the study of neuroscience. One of their many successes involved experimental neuroanatomy and the idea that the mind functions in conjunction with the body, not separately.

When Damasio was asked how he became interested in music by moderator Christopher Koelsch, CEO of L.A. Opera, Damasio said, “I grew up with it, there was never really a time where I was not involved in it.”

Damasio has published multiple books: Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, and Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain and most recently, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.

Toward the end of the event, Assal Habibi, USC assistant professor of research psychology, took the stage and detailed an ongoing research project led by the Brain and Creativity Institute. This study began over five years ago with young children in the Los Angeles community who were separated into three groups: one involved in an after school music program, one involved in after-school soccer, and one involved in neither activity. The researchers tracked the progress of these children annually with a variety of assessments, testing everything from memory to impulse control. The results showed that the children who were involved in the music program improved in math and reading, and had greater impulse control, pitch discrimination, attention and working memory relative to their peers.

A video shown by Fleming, the movie trailer for “Music Got Me Here,” showed the progress a young man, Forrest, made after a snowboarding accident caused severe trauma to his brain. He was not able to speak for nearly two years, but through extensive music therapy, he not only survived, but was able to both speak and sing again.

It was an enlightening evening for music lovers, showing how your favorite songs have the potential to do more than just please the ears.

The next event in the Provost’s “Wicked Problems” Series, in which a USC faculty team will lead a conversation on how to improve average lifespan in an urban environment, will take place on April 17.