June 28, 2010 | 9
You might be surprised if you knew just how many scientists out there play in rock bands. When the sun goes down, garages, basements and living rooms throughout the land are filled with guys and gals who have shed their lab coats and strapped on their guitars.
Take me, for instance—a mild mannered, middle-aged neuroscientist who works on emotion and memory in the brain. But ever since The Countdowns, my high school band, broke up in 1966, I dreamed of having another group. Forty years later, some New York University (N.Y.U.) colleagues and I formed The Amygdaloids.
I have always been drawn to music. As a young child I loved listening to my parents’ 78 rpm big band recordings of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Later, though I was still just a young whippersnapper, Elvis’s "Don’t Be Cruel" rocked my world at 45 rpm. But nothing shook it more than the British Invasion spinning at 33 and a third. I was forever changed when The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Stones, The Zombies, The Kinks and other mop-tops transmitted from the tower of KEUN, the local AM radio station in my hometown of Eunice, La., to the tiny speaker of my Phillips transistor radio. It wasn’t long before we formed The Countdowns, and soon thereafter I also became a disc jockey at KEUN, which played a great variety of music—from Percy Faith and Montovani, to Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and Porter Wagner to Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and Percy Sledge to my beloved Brits. And, of course, there was a good dose of Cajun tunes from the many local icons of that genre.
After high school life’s twists and turns took me down other roads. As I became a scientist and faced the demands of being a grown-up, my direct involvement in music slipped by the wayside. But deep down, music always had a way of finding its way through my synapses to the sweet spots of emotion and memory, and eventually resurfaced in my life.
Sometime in the fall of 2006 I was asked to give a lecture at the Secret Science Club, a science enthusiast group that met monthly in the basement of a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The organizers said they would provide entertainment afterward. Subliminally influenced by past musical triumphs and dreams of future ones, and with three or four chords ringing in my head, I surprised myself by blurting out, "Suppose I bring the entertainment." The Amygdaloids had played a few parties around N.Y.U. Now we had a gig.
Fast forward to June 2010. Our second CD is out, and it features superstar Rosanne Cash backing me on vocals on two songs, along with liner notes by Lenny Kaye, the legendary guitarist of the Patti Smith Group.
Whoa! How do you get from a repressed fantasy about having a band to actually making a record with a Grammy Award–winning singer, and with written commentary by a rock icon and pop music scholar who has received Grammy nominations for liner notes? And all that in just a little over three years. Try one part passion (I love rock ‘n’ roll), one part determination (I don’t give up very easily), and a bucket of luck (read on for this one).
Back to 2006. Biology professor Tyler Volk and I had been jamming on guitar from time to time. Daniela Schiller, postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience, joined us on drums once or twice. When the Secret Science gig came up we were all keen to play. But we knew we couldn’t pretend to be a legit rock band without a complete rhythm section; fortunately, Daniela’s research assistant, Nina Curley, played bass. We rehearsed a couple of times and headed out to Brooklyn as The Amygdaloids.
From the start we were a concept band, playing what we were calling our "heavy mental" set, a mix of classic rocks songs with mind–brain themes—"Manic Depression," "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Mother’s Little Helper," along with some original tunes in the same vein—"Mind–Body Problem" (an ode to Descartes) and "All in a Nut". (The latter is a tribute to the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure in your brain that underlies fear, and that I’ve worked on for a quarter of a century. The amygdala is also the inspiration for our band name.)
Energized by the Brooklyn event, I started writing more songs, and we started playing more and more, focusing on the original tunes. By the summer of 2007, we had recorded our first CD, appropriately called Heavy Mental. In our first year as a gigging band we played at various clubs and other venues around New York City, but also at Madison Square Garden (okay, it was N.Y.U.’s graduation, but who cares, it was still the Garden, maaan) and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (an amazing real gig). We were written about in The New York Times and Salon.com, and in scientific journals such as Nature and Science. This wave of publicity caught the attention of Knock Out Noise, a music production company that took us on to record a new CD, Theory of My Mind.
The songs on Theory of My Mind, like Heavy Mental, are inspired by the research that the band members and others have done on mind and brain and mental disorders. They are basic guy–girl rock songs, but each has scientific ideas embedded in the lyrics. For example, the title song "Theory of My Mind" is about the brain’s capacity for empathy and how the guy in the song doesn’t feel the girl is getting him. (Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading empathy researcher from Cambridge University, joins us on bass for this one.) In "Glue," the girl leaves the guy. But he doesn’t just miss her, he understands that there’s something chemical that keeps his memory stuck on her. "Your Dreams" explores the question of whether dreams are psychologically motivated or due to random neuron firings, again in a classic love song format. Check out the list below for a brief description of the science behind each of the songs on Theory of My Mind.
The band is still together and playing away every chance we get. Currently, though, Gerald McCollam, a former employee of the Center for Neural Science at N.Y.U. handles bass.
As I said, it took buckets of luck for all this to work out. Suppose Daniela hadn’t done her postdoc at N.Y.U. or hadn’t been a drummer, and suppose she didn’t have a research assistant who played bass, and suppose the Secret Science Club hadn’t booked me. Suppose N.Y.U. hadn’t asked us to play at graduation, and parents hadn’t filmed the large crowd doing the wave while we played and put it on YouTube. Suppose Salon hadn’t run the article, and we hadn’t played at the Kennedy Center, and Knock Out Noise hadn’t come across us and offered to produce a record and hadn’t put on a benefit concert called Rock-It Science where The Amygdaloids were on the same bill as Lenny Kaye. Suppose I hadn’t met Rosanne Cash through my editor at Viking, and suppose she hadn’t said "sure" when I sheepishly asked her if she would sing with me? But, amazingly, it all happened. Sometimes things just work out.
Well that’s the story. Got to run now. No, I’m not rushing to get on the tour bus to open for Cheap Trick in Phoenix but, in fact, I have a grant application due soon on how synaptic transmission in the amygdala contributes to the formation of fear memories, and I have to complete a long overdue textbook on brain and behavior. But I keep writing songs and, who knows, maybe lady luck will keep the dice rolling our way and we’ll find ourselves on a tour bus someday.
Next time you see those nerdy middle-aged guys in white coats on The Discovery Channel or an earnest nature gal on PBS, look for little hints about their alter egos. A poster of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin in their office may be a clue that they too belong to that secret army of rockin’ scientists.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SONGS
Mist of a Memory. Memories leave traces in our brains. These make life possible. But the traces are often fragile and fleeting. Mist of a Memory is about this ephemeral quality of memory. The title phrase comes from April Stevens and Nina Tempo’s haunting ’60s pop love song, "Deep Purple": "In the mist of a memory, you’ll wander on back to me." When I heard this line for the first time in decades, I said, "Yes, memories are like a mist that we glide through as we experience life." But I also thought this would be a great title for a song.
Mind over Matter. This very personal song explores the conflict between the material world of space and time, and world of mind and spirit. It about someone who deep down accepts the physical nature of existence, but who nevertheless wants to break down space and time and mentally connect with a lost loved one. I’m a bundle of such contradictions. I suspect most of us are. The amazing Rosanne Cash is the angelic voice in the background.
Fearing. Fear is the most basic, primitive emotion, and also the emotion we understand best at the neural level. The key to fear is the amygdala, the part of the brain I work on and that our band is named after. The lyrics in this song are mostly from an Emily Dickinson poem. She captures well the physical discomfort, worry and apprehension that fear brings. I put a minor chord progression under Dickinson’s words to add to the foreboding that she evokes.
Crime of Passion. Our behavioral responses are sometimes controlled outside of conscious awareness, and several of our songs emphasize this. "Crime of Passion" is about someone who committed a crime of passion, murdering his wife’s lover. When he saw her with him he was hurt and enraged, and couldn’t stop once his brain was engaged. Now he’s waiting to be executed. I was trying to channel Johnny Cash when writing this song, so having Rosanne Cash on vocals with me is thrilling.
How Free Is Your Will? This is a song about the problem of volition. Philosophers and scientists have often debated how it is possible for firing neurons to be responsible for our actions. "How Free Is Your Will?" accepts that some aspects of our behavior are automatized, but also argues that we have control over our decisions and actions. The song blames free will for the problems of mankind, and also celebrates the power of will as the way to make the world a better place.
The Automatic Mind. Automaticity, as is now clear, is a common theme in our songs, and this one by Tyler points out the many ways in which the mind runs on automatic pilot. He’s emphasizing that our brains take care of many, many things without having to bother consciousness about whether or not to do them.
Theory of My Mind. One of the big ideas in psychology and neuroscience these days is "theory of mind". This is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. According to Simon Baron-Cohen, who plays bass on this song, people suffering from autism are unable to do this. "Theory of My Mind" applies this psychological concept to a romantic relationship, with the protagonist asking his partner if, beyond her ability to criticize, she has any ability to empathize, to understand his feelings.
Brainstorm. The treatment of mental illness with medications that alter neurotransmitter levels in the brain has its origins in the accidental inhalation of LSD by a chemist studying drugs that control uterine contractions. This song makes the connection between LSD-induced hallucinations and mental illness by a combining a psychedelic sound with the story of a person in a breakdown who has racing thoughts, is seeing flying colors, and in general feels magic is in the air. It also tries to capture the lonely paranoia of someone having a breakdown.
Refractory Time. After nerves fire they can’t fire again for awhile. This is called refractory time. Daniela had the idea that relationships are like this. When you break up you need a refractory time before you can enter a new one. For the music, I imagined I was a Liverpudlian teenager in 1962 writing a Mersey Beat song.
Your Dreams. Dreams are fascinating, both personally and scientifically. One of the big debates in science is whether dreams are about the hidden psyche or simply neural activity that remains from the day and that randomly enters the cortex while we sleep. I’m particularly interested in the idea of dreams about dreams, and this comes out in these lines, which I’m particularly fond of: "I wish I knew if in your dreams we are together, cause in my dreams of your dreams, we are forever."
Glue. Everyone knows that they have stronger memories for emotional events. The reason for this is that hormones are released during the emotional experience and these glue the memory into the synapses especially strongly. These hormones are released from bodily organs into the bloodstream, and some of them travel to the brain, hence the chorus: "There must be something in my veins, there must be something in my brain, there must be some primal glue that keeps my memory stuck on you."
Imaginate. This is a song about mental time travel, a capacity made possible by the prefrontal cortex. It allows us to combine past memories with the anticipation of the future. This is a signature capacity of the human brain, and it allows each of us to envision idiosyncratic future realities. In "Imaginate," the singer wants a life where things are fine, where he has left his ex’s world behind.
Piece of My Mind. The more you care about someone, the more space they take up in your brain. Yes, they literally take up space—synaptic space to be precise. Synapses are connection points between neurons that allow you to think, remember and feel. In "Piece of My Mind" the protagonist wants to give his mate a piece of his mind, but she has used up all the available space. She’s worn out his brain so that it’s hard to find a piece of his mind that’s free. The heavy Dave Clark Five–like tom-toms emphasize the point.
Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor at NYU in the Center for Neural Science, and he directs the Emotional Brain Institute of the Nathan Kline Institute. His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of memory and emotion and he is the author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self. LeDoux has received a number of awards, including the Fyssen International Prize in Cognitive Science and the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award, and is a Fellow of the AmericanAcademy of Arts and Sciences. He is also the lead singer and songwriter in The Amygdaloids. He lives in NYC with his wife, Nancy Princenthal. Their son Milo is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, where he is studying classics.
Image credits: photo of The Countdowns by Pris LeDoux; photo of The Amygdaloids by Fumie Hoppe and Chiaki Hara