Who are you? The answer might be in your favorite song

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Imagine you are a successful music producer; you chat it up with the big names in the music business daily. One day, you get a chance to see 10 years into the future and discover that you have become a tenure-track neuroscientist.

Minus the crystal ball bit, that's the path of McGill University psychologist and behavioral neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, the keynote speaker for this year's MU Life Sciences and Society Symposium. The theme of this year's symposium is "From Art to Biology and Back Again."

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What: Sixth Annual MU Life Sciences and Society Program, "From Art to Biology and Back Again"

When: Friday through Sunday, with related events on other days

Where: MU, mostly at the Bond Life Sciences Center, 1201 Rollins Road, at Rollins Road and College Avenue

Admission: Free, registration at

Symposium schedule:

7 p.m. Friday, symposium keynote talk, “This is Your Brain on Music,” with Daniel Levitin, Jesse Hall

All events Saturday and Sunday are in Monsanto Auditorium, Bond Life Sciences Center.


10 a.m. — “The Arts in Human Evolution: the Artification Hypothesis,” with Ellen Dissanayake

11:05 a.m. — “Dialogue with the ancestors: The arts, anticipation and cultural change,” with Kathryn Coe

1:30 p.m. — “Critical Art Practice in the Era of Biological Citizenship,” with Lisa Cartwright

2:35 p.m. — “BioArt,” with Eduardo Kac

3:40 p.m. — Panel discussion, with Ellen Dissanayake, Kathryn Coe, Lisa Cartwright and Eduardo Kac


8:45 a.m. — “Quality versus Speed: What Neuroarthistory Teaches Us about

the Importance of Unconscious Mental Formation,” with John Onians

9:50 a.m. — “Whatever Happened to Selective Attention?” with Barbara Maria Stafford 

11:15 a.m. — “(Re:) Visualizing Bioscience – Re-Picturing Art,” with Patricia Olynyk

12:20 p.m. — Panel discussion, with John Onians, Barbara Stafford and Patricia Olynyk

Related events and exhibits:

2 p.m. Tuesday —“A Knock on the Door,” an interactive theater piece that explores the gender dynamics of a fictional faculty search, performed by Mizzou ADVANCE Interactive Theatre Troupe; Monsanto Auditorium, Bond Life Sciences Center

3:30 p.m.  Tuesday — “This Historical Position of Literary Darwinism,” with Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri-St. Louis; Monsanto Auditorium, Bond Life Sciences Center

2-3:30 p.m. Friday — "Words and Music," a discussion with Dan Levitin and Tim Page; Fred W. Smith Forum, Reynolds Journalism Institute

Through March 16 — “Connecting with Contemporary Sculpture," Museum of Art and Archaeology, Pickard Hall, Francis Quadrangle

Through March 26 — “Anatomical Illustration: Art Informing Science: 1543-1950,” Ellis Library


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What do behavioral neuroscientists do? According to the Society of Neuroscience, a professional organization for neuroscientists, behavioral neuroscientists learn about human and animal brain function by using brain scans to determine which parts of the brain are active during activities such as seeing, speaking or remembering.

Stefani Engelstein, an associate professor of German and director of the MU Life Sciences and Society program, said the program seeks speakers who have an interdisciplinary approach to their work. With the diversity of Levitin's career path as a musician, a music journalist and neuroscientist, students would love listening to him, she said.

Levitin said the transition from music business to neuroscience wasn't the smoothest road. He started college studying science but was also playing in a band and wanted to be a musician. He decided he couldn't do both, and music won the coin toss.

But no matter what job he has done in life, he's used an analytical approach, stripping things down into their basic components to see how they work together. Levitin called it a "quirk of curiosity." The recording studio's mixing panel took the place of the science lab's centrifuge for the next 15 years, while he worked his way up to producer at San Francisco's 415 Records company.

Levitin's career in music started to change in the late 1980s when large conglomerates with no previous music industry experience started buying up music producing companies, including the one where he worked.

They wanted hits and quick profits, not to find and nurture the talents who make the hits, Levitin said. His experience told him that the new business model could not sustain itself long-term; he started sitting in on classes at Stanford University while still working as a producer.

He attended classes in different disciplines, as varied as art, neuroscience and psychology. Among those, "neuroscience classes really caught my interest," Levitin said.

The neuroscientists were coming up with hypotheses they could test with experiments, Levitin said. He said that process appealed to his analytical learning approach. He left his producing job, finished an undergraduate degree at Stanford, then master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Oregon.

Having a musical background influences his research today. He is the director of McGill's Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise. The lab's general focus is to study how people and music have evolved together and affected each other over the course of history.

The lab's researchers learn about musical cognition by determining what areas of a person's brain "light up" or show stimulation on a magnetic resonance imaging device while listening to music. This process helps chart out what brain structures participate in perceiving musical elements such as tone, timbre or rhythm.

But why reduce the musical experience to its component parts? Won't that take something people enjoy because of its magic and mysterious qualities and turn it into a stale chapter in a science textbook?

An emphatic "no" was the reading audience's answer to that question when Levitin's first book, "This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of A Human Obsession," came out in 2006. The book stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. But Levitin said getting to the point where non-scientist readers would want to read the science he tried to communicate in the book was tough.

The publisher read each chapter as Levitin submitted them and kept saying, "It's too dry, it's a textbook," pushing him to give more personal detail to hook readers. That was hard for Levitin. The essence of what the publisher wanted, he said, was "a feature for The New York Times Magazine, but they told me I was just giving them the news section."

Levitin tapped into his teaching experience to help get his ideas across in a way that would inform without turning readers off with technical detail. He teaches introductory psychology to students with no previous background in it. He said the fact that he started learning science in his mid-30s helped as well, because he recalls what it was like to learn the basics.

The experience of writing his second book, "The World In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature," was different from the first. He had an audience, having sold more than 500,000 copies of his first book. He felt at ease putting more about neuroscience into that book.

After learning so much about how the brain processes music, and the effect music can have on the brain, will doctors someday start prescribing music as a medical treatment?

"Yes and no," Levitin said. "We're already living in that day, with musical therapists. But no, I don't think doctors will say 'You're depressed, take two Joni Mitchell songs and call me in the morning.' Everyone recognizes the song that gets them going in the morning."

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