Northeastern University professor bridges neuroscience and music to understand and improve the brain

Psyche Loui, an assistant professor of creativity and creative practice at Northeastern, is studying how music could be used to help people focus better or recover certain faculties that were compromised by memory loss. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

We, as humans, like listening to music—well, those of us without musical anhedonia, a neurological condition that prevents people from enjoying the art form. But music can actually have a positive physical impact on our well-being, one that runs even deeper than that feeling you got when Ariana Grande dropped her latest album.

Psyche Loui, an assistant professor at Northeastern who studies music’s effect on cognitive health and the brain, has found that many of the sensations we experience by listening to or producing music can be quantified. And such quantification, she says, can help imagine practical applications of music, introducing both pleasant benefits and potential medical intervention.

Psyche Loui has begun to study the effects of music therapy on mild cognitive impairments, which can be an early sign of dementia. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Neuroscientists have already found that people who have musical training reap cognitive benefits from playing an instrument, such as increased connectivity between regions of the brain. And one of Loui’s projects tracks jazz musicians, classical musicians, and people without a musical background to see if even more differences—like the time it takes to react to something unexpected—might have to do with genre-specific training.

Now she is working with to create music that optimizes the brain’s efficiency, even in the short term. This music contains energy at specific frequencies; your neurons, when you’re focused on something, fire at a similar rate. And through a phenomenon called entrainment, the music can then trigger your brain to modulate at that rate, which can help you focus.

“If you are listening to music, it’s quite easy to clap at the same rate,” says Loui, “and so you can imagine how if you’re doing a task that’s at the same rate, you will just be better at that task.”

We agree that it might be helpful to listen to an example.

“Could you hear?” Loui asks at the end of the first track, a trance-like, instrumental tune you might hear in the moments before a movie’s triumphant battle scene. “Part of it sounds a bit like a train. It goes ‘ch-ch-ch-ch…’”

I agree, it did, though at first I’d jotted down the word “helicopter.”

Psyche Loui, who has played the violin since she was 7 years old, has found that many of the sensations we experience by listening to or producing music can be quantified. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

She plays a second song.

This one sounds exactly like the first, but without the droning putt-putt-putt in the background. And that, Loui says, is precisely what makes the track ineffective. The second clip is the placebo, lacking the modulation for the brain to lock onto.

To further explore the deep, visceral potential of music, Loui has also begun to study the effects of music therapy on mild cognitive impairments, which can be an early sign of dementia. The researchers—who include Suzanne Hanser of Berklee College of Music and Dr. Maiya Geddes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital—hope to coax participants into deepened states of relaxation by asking them to listen to curated playlists, a process that Loui says could help participants recover certain faculties that were compromised by memory loss.

Manoj Bhasin, who co-directs the Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics, and Systems Biology Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, will analyze the blood of participants to look for any changes to the genome as a result of the intervention.

Bhasin’s group has previously found that research participants who meditated for eight weeks experienced genomic changes in their bodies, says Loui, but introducing music as the stimulus for the meditation will be a first. “It’s really new and exciting,” she says.

Loui operates at a busy intersection. “Like I have nothing to do…” she begins, laughing, “I’m also helping to develop a combined major in music and psychology, and that will be the first in the country.”

Soon, Northeastern students will be able to follow in her footsteps. But it wouldn’t be the first time the university stood at the forefront of experimenting with music.

The Bohlen-Pierce scale, a little-used and mathematically based musical system that Loui is excited to use in future research, has only been corralled into, studied, and celebrated at a symposium one time—in 2010, at an event co-hosted by Northeastern.

Since most people aren’t familiar with the scale, music based on this system would be brand new, participants hearing it like babies first hearing their mothers’ voices. With this clean slate, future experiments could analyze how and when people become familiar with unfamiliar music—“and then learn to love it,” Loui says.

So maybe, one day, with Loui’s help, you won’t be able to find the perfect playlist only for fueling a workout or your ‘00s Indie Dance Party, but to help you focus better, improve your health, or show you something new, just when you thought you’d exhausted Spotify’s reserves.

Thank you. Next.

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