I was delighted to be invited as an artist to the BNA Neuroscience Festival in Edinburgh as part of the ASCUS ‘Artists are Present’ initiative. With over a thousand delegates from around the world and lectures from two Nobel laureates I was honored and privileged to be in attendance.
The preliminary lecture by Prof. Susumu Tonegawa opened both the proceedings and my mind. His team’s investigations into the processes behind memory are cutting edge, complex and exciting. However, what really struck me was how clearly the scientific method - propelled by high-octane curiosity - drives the research. Unexpected results, ‘What ifs’, and new hypothesis that sometimes seem contradictory yet explain the data are the plot components - the narrative arch is constructed from the raw data. In fact, every lecture or seminar that I attended had this in common. Naturally, technical language left me behind at points but I was always able to get the punch line. In the case of a science conference the punch line is not just something that I never knew before, but likely something that nobody ever knew before.
I also attended the ‘the social life of voices’ symposium, which was of particular interest to me as a composer. Professor Joachim Gross (Glasgow University) talked about evidence for the coupling of speech rhythms and brain wave rhythms and how understanding the meaning of the words is a requirement for this to happen. Dr. Carolyn McGettigan and her team at Royal Holloway have been investigating how the plethora of non-verbal cues (and other contexts) and non-speech vocalisations such as laughter interact with our understanding of speech. As you can imagine, these topics would be just as at home at a music conference.
These empirical insights do not contradict what I know about – for example -setting words to music or operatic dramaturgy. They enhance it. As artists we can learn a lot about the world that we live in and the art that we create for it from the science community and in exchange we can provide an opportunity for scientists to extend the reach and impact of their research and perhaps extend the narrative of their work into the wider world.