Music to Make You Shiver at the World Science Festival

The ORBITER team is in New York City for the World Science Festival. This is the second part of our coverage, with highlights from Saturday, June 2.

Mari Kimura, a violinist and composer, opened a panel discussion on music and the brain one of Saturday’s panel discussions on quite an unusual note—literally.

Kimura, a music prof at Cal-Irvine and soloist with symphonies around the world, played a short movement of an original piece titled “ALT,” which she jokingly said stands for “alternative” music—and that a former colleague said means, “I’ve never heard Anything Like That.”

The descriptions were apt, as Kimura wielded her instrument sometimes like a weapon, sometimes like a feather, with a series of strange notes, squeaks, and squawks, occasionally rhythmic, often not, with both tenderness and bravado. It was beautiful and brash, a work that left a room of listeners not quite sure how to respond. Some of the applause was enthusiastic, some hesitant.

But the question was, “Did it make you shiver?” It certainly did.

Moderator John Schaefer, host and producer of WNYC’s long-running new music show “New Sounds,” called Kimura’s piece “ghostly.” Which was an appropriate way to open a seminar titled, “Notes on The Folds: Why Music Makes Us Shiver.”

The event, held at New York University’s Global Center, explored how music affects our brains, strengthens neural networks, stirs memories and emotions, and underscores what it means to be human. A snippet of what each panelist had to say:

Kimura said that when she performs, “a subtext of emotions” always goes along with it, even if she’s playing a piece for the thousandth time.

Psyche Loui, a musician and professor in psychology and in neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan University, said that music that makes us shiver “comes down to fulfillment and violations of our expectations,” a description apt for Kimura’s composition. “Familiarity and context help determine how a piece will affect the listener.”

David Poeppel, professor of psychology and neural science at NYU, observed how “we have our own private interpretations of what we hear. We all hear ‘man bites dog’ the same way, but not a piece of music.” As if to prove his point, Poeppel played a clip of “Kentucky Avenue” by Tom Waits, whose gravelly voice is certainly an acquired taste. Noting that the song is an ode to Waits’ childhood, Poeppel said, “All music is an acquired taste. Appreciation can be learned, once we have some context.”

Meagan Curtis, a psych prof at Purchase College and a classically trained singer, noted that music allows us, among other things, “to explore negative emotions without actually going through it. It’s like the thrill of being scared in a movie theater without actually experiencing it.”

Edward Large, director of the Music Dynamics Laboratory at University of Connecticut, said our brains are wired to feel “intrinsic rhythms that oscillate with certain music.” He noted that research has shown that Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” was rated No. 1 on “groove” by experts, in that it’s virtually impossible to listen to the song without at least nodding your head and/or tapping your foot. (It’s true. Try it.)

Who’s the “slave” here?

Did you know that the word “robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor” or “slave.” (The word was first used to describe a fictional humanoid in a 1920 Czech play called R.U.R.)

Oh, the irony of the word’s origins. Because a Saturday panel explored the possibility of exactly the opposite meaning: Would we humans ever become slaves to the robots we create?

Most of the participants in a panel discussion believed it wasn’t likely. But the idea did come up during the event, “To Be or Not to Be Bionic: On Immortality and Superhumanism.” A young girl, maybe 10 years old, asked a question about the future when robots rule the world. Not if, but when.

While the panelists admit that such a scenario is remotely possible, they were pretty much in agreement with statements from Max Tegmark and Hod Lipson, who both believe we humans will stay one step ahead of the robots and not let that happen.

“This is what we at M.I.T. call ‘safety engineering,’” said Tegmark. “We imagine what could go wrong, so we make sure it goes right. We need to continue to stigmatize bad uses of AI technology. We can teach AI even the most basic human values and ethics.”

Lipson believes AI might some day develop “consciousness,” but doesn’t think it will ever reach the phase “where it doesn’t need us anymore.” He recommends that scientists keep forging ahead in developing AI because “I believe the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

World Science Festival | Brian Greene, Steven Pinker, and others on a panel on the Believing Brain

No believers?

An evening discussion titled “The Believing Brain: Evolution, Neuroscience, and the Spiritual Instinct” explored some fascinating territory. Moderated by WSF founder Brian Greene, the panel featured the likes of Steven Pinker, Barbara King, Zoran Josipovic, and Lisa Barrett.

The 90-minute discussion included a number of valuable insights, but with one glaring omission: Not a single one of the five scientists on stage publicly claimed any kind of religious faith, even after Greene asked each where they stood. Several said they were atheists, and a couple had variations on the “spiritual but not religious” theme. To not have a single panelist claim some kind of religious faith—any faith—seems an odd oversight.

Turned out that the most lively part of the conversation during the evening was when King and Barrett got into an argument about whether or not certain species of animals (particularly elephants and primates) truly, actually grieve when one of their kind dies. King is convinced that they do, and Barrett accused her of “embellishing” her research. Sparks flew, glares ensued, and there was a snappy comeback or two. But even after they resumed conversation, an audience member yelled, “Can we PLEASE get back on topic?”

They did. But again, a religious perspective was not represented. Disappointing.

The ORBITER team covering the World Science Festival includes Mark Moring, Tara Collins, Timothy Dalrymple, and Amelia Turner. See also our first blog, and our interview with WSF founder Brian Greene.

Leading Image: Psyche Loui, Mira Kimura, and John Schaefer. All photos by Tara Collins.









Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine