Listening to the brain listening

A few different ways of ‘listening in’ on the brain as it’s processing sound have appeared recently, both using EEG technology (electrodes measuring brain electrical activity, either from the scalp or inside the brain itself).

Firstly there is the ‘frequency following response,’ which is generated in the brainstem. The brainstem is a ‘low level’ part of the brain, responsible for sending signals from sensory nerves (from the ears, skin etc) to cortical areas for further processing. However, some types of auditory processing fo occur in the brainstem – things like direction, basic pitch processing, and basic loudness processing occur in the brainstem (although pitch and loudness also require cortical input). Anyhow, the frequency following response (FFR) is an electric signal generated in the brainstem by repeated short sounds (like a word or short musical note). In order to measure this response, it’s necessary to present 1000’s of repetitions of exactly the same sound, and average the recordings. By specially analysing the resulting electrical waveforms, it’s possible to determine the pitch, timbre, and other features of the original sound that was heard by the participant in the experiment. In fact, if you play back the FFR recording of a word over a loudspeaker, you can actually understand the word!

This review paper by Nina Kraus in Physics Today includes some auditory examples (scroll to the bottom of the article).

I’m not sure how I forgot to post about this.  Late last year a producer from SBS’s pay-TV arts channel “STVDIO” came and shot some footage around the institute. He was making a documentary on all of the Synapse residency artists. As well as the project here at the Institute, I think there were around 5-6 other projects where artists of all types were made ‘residents’ at various scientific institutions.

Check out some of the other projects on the STVDIO site here:

Or watch the movie about us below (if my embedded movie works).


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