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How the brain processes music, with a little help from Pink Floyd

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL, PT. 2")

PINK FLOYD: (Singing) We don't need no education.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The legendary band Pink Floyd is famous for the kind of lyrics that get lodged in your brain. After years of study and the help of some new technology, scientists were able to recreate one of those earworms from brain waves.

BOB KNIGHT: My name is Bob Knight. I'm a neurologist, and I'm a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

RASCOE: Dr. Knight and a team of researchers used brain activity recordings from a previous study where 29 epilepsy patients with implanted electrodes were played this snippet of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall, Part One."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL, PT. 1")

PINK FLOYD: (Singing) All in all, it was just a brick in the wall.

RASCOE: Years later, researchers reconstructed what those patients were hearing just by looking at that brain activity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: Not bad, right? But you may be asking, how did they do that? Dr. Knight again.

KNIGHT: I think a simple way for people to think about it is if you play the piano - you're a piano player, and you watch somebody play the piano with the sound turned off, and you know what keys they're hitting, you can reconstruct what they're playing. That's what we're doing.

RASCOE: The patients in the study were already having their brain activity monitored to help figure out ways to stop their seizures. They took the data from the listening sessions and, using a machine learning program, figured out what sounds those brain waves corresponded to.

KNIGHT: We basically read the piano keys of the brain.

RASCOE: Now, if you're not a Pink Floyd fan, you may be thinking, this doesn't really speak to me. But there is a practical application. Right now, speech-assisting devices for folks who have trouble speaking can be slow and robotic. But Knight says that figuring out how people listen may help people speak. He says he hopes scientists can...

KNIGHT: Extend our computer algorithms to understand what you're imagining, to include the more emotional, rhythmic, melodic components of what you want to communicate to your family, to your loved one, to the tax collector, to whoever you want to interact with.

RASCOE: It'll take a while before we get there, Knight says. Still, he says, researchers like him are willing to build that technology for people, brick by brick.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL, PT. 2")

PINK FLOYD: (Singing) All in all, it's just another brick in the wall. All in all, you're just another brick in the wall. We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Ryan Benk
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