Performing Brains at the British Library

Last Friday evening saw the auditorium at the British Library packed to the brim; a diverse audience waiting excitedly for some of UCL’s neuroscientists to take to the stage for ‘The Performing Brain – an interactive evening of neuroscience in motion.’ After a short introduction by Lee-Ann Coleman, head of science at the British Library, Professor Vince Walsh, head of the Visual Cognition Group at the UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience took to the stage to set the scene for the evening.

He explained how he aimed to set us a challenge, to get us to think differently about the brain and what intelligence is. He asked us to think of what they thought of intelligence; was it the ability to remember lots of items? Well, in that case, he explained, technology is already beating us. Many people will already turn to Google instead of finding a person to ask a general knowledge question. But what about other types of intelligence?

Vince showed us a short clip of the footballer Ronaldinho performing intricate skills. He contrasted this amazing display with what the best robotics in the world could do… the robots were less skillful than a 2-year-old (and that’s being nice). We don’t traditional think of football skills as intelligent skills. You don’t even think of walking as intelligent. But the processes that go on in our body and brains to make these everyday skills possible are very sophisticated, intelligent even. And we are only just beginning to understand what these processes are.

The next UCL researcher to take to the stage was Dr Jörn Diedrichsen. ‘How does this quivering biological tissue [the brain] gives rise to us and what we do?’ he asked us.  After a demonstration of the incredible plasticity of the brain and an excellent explanation of the fMRI process, Jörn invited Dr Milton Mermikides, musician and fellow neuroscientist, to join him. Jörn had put Milton in an fMRI and asked him to simulate playing his guitar whilst he scanned his brain. As the final result of the fMRI was projected on the screen, with the different brain regions ‘lighting up’, Milton played the song he had played in the scanner live on the guitar in sync with the scanner images. It was simply stunning; a beautiful way of visualizing how multiple brain regions are activated in order to play the guitar and produce emotion-laden music.

Dr Mark Edwards then took to the stage to show us how our finely tuned motor ability can go wrong in a posture disorder called dystonia before Milton took to the stage again. He introduced the audience to the remarkable plastic ability of the brain to overcome injury, both to the brain and body, by telling us about his musical heroes; Pat Martino (who lost a large proportions of his brain and subsequently his memory to blood vessel hemorrhage) and Django Reinhardt (whose fourth and fifth fingers were badly burnt in a caravan fire which caused him to alter his playing style without detracting from his incredible ability)

Finally, Dr Guido Orgs showed the audience how what you know affects what you see. After a spot of group participation doing flamenco arms (to show how more parts of your body are involved in simple movements than you initially may have realized) he talked about how research has shown that when dance students perform dance movements, the areas of their brain responsible for processing visual information are activated as well as the motor regions. Whereas, in non-dance students, these visual areas are not activated.

The evening was concluded by a series of drop-in sessions around the British Library’s conference center. However, a combination of the sessions being very busy and crowded and it being the end of a long week, made me choose to head home instead of join in the fun. Still, it was a wonderful (geeky) way to spend a Friday evening!

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