Could melody analysis spot the bum notes in our brain patterns?

Music in the brain.

The culmination of Steven Spielberg's 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind gave us one of the great moments in sci-fi movie history. It starts with a simple, unforgettable five-note melody – the musical phrase used by US government scientists in an attempt to communicate with a huge UFO that has just descended on the rocky Wyoming countryside. There's a hushed pause as the last note drifts in the night air, followed by a deafening blast as the alien vessel gives its rumbling response. Before we know it, the two parties are bouncing arpeggios off one another; a beautiful, joyful symphonic conversation.

As well as providing a wondrously optimistic antidote to the end-of-days mentality of today's chrome-plated alien blockbusters, that final sequence perfectly articulates the idea of melody as a universal language, one that might be used to explore previously unfathomable mysteries.

In many ways, the human brain is almost as alien to us as the extraterrestrial visitors of Close Encounters. Our relationship with our brains is a little like the relationship most of us have with our PCs – we use them intuitively and we understand the surface processes, but we've only the most basic understanding of how everything works under the hood.

With researchers still struggling to get to grips with the brain's inner workings, the treatment or management of an incredibly varied disorder like epilepsy remains an uphill struggle for medical institutions. One of the keys to better management of epilepsy is the ability to forecast impending seizures, the disorder's main cause of death. Clinical studies in this area predominantly focus on the use of electroencephalogram (EEG) data, which records the brain's electrical activity, but the difficulty involved in accurately interpreting this data is a recurring problem.    

A just-launched European research project, spearheaded by the Italian Association for the Research on Brain and Spinal Cord Diseases (ARCEM), aims to prove that the universal language of melody could provide a solution to this problem. The project has pulled together neuroscientists, IT specialists, musicians and music analysts in an attempt to predict impending seizures using a method called data sonification.

Data sonification is the process of expressing visual data, like EEG read-outs, in the form of melodies. The project is investigating whether tying EEG data sets to musical melodies could help researchers, and eventually doctors, to spot the abnormal brain activity that prefaces a possible seizure.

What advantages does turning EEG data into melody streams bring over the current methods of studying visual brain pattern data to predict epileptic seizures? According to the project team, turning visual data into audio melodies could help researchers to sequence and conceptualise the brain's activity over time, increasing the possibility of catching the hidden signs that could signal a seizure. These signs would be expressed as an abnormal or jarring sound in the melody, essentially turning seizure prediction into a clinical search for a bum note.

Data sonification also brings a more human advantage – our intrinsic ability to spot the off-key note in a melody. The ear is naturally attuned to audio patterns and detecting irregularities within them. The project team believes that expressing EEG data musically could help doctors and researchers identify seizure-indicative anomalies more easily than looking at graphs and read-outs.

Unfortunately, it'll be a while before we find out if this intriguing approach will bear fruit in the field of epileptology. The project has only just begun to gather the huge volumes of EEG data needed to validate the data sonification technique; the team hopes to present some preliminary results by the end of 2013.  

Although it's too early to prove the effectiveness of data sonification for predicting seizures, there's something beautiful about the idea that music, the universal language, might hold the key to furthering our understanding, not of visitors from another planet, but of the inner recesses of our own minds. Spielberg would be proud.

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Photograph: Getty Images


Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.