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.