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Musical notes on neuroscience
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Bob Milne: Four Songs, One Mind.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Every musician’s dream is to travel the world, be critically acclaimed, and be able to listen to four different pieces of music simultaneously.

Alright, so maybe that last part is a bit more of a pipe dream than the first two. However, this highly unusual simultaneous listening ability is a skill that ragtime pianist Bob Milne possesses. This ability is so uncommon that it lead to Milne being a topic of study for Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann.

Milne was playing a gig at a California social club when he caught the eye of a neuroscientist who had once been Bettermann’s colleague.

Milne said was showing people how he could play in three different time signatures at once — 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4. Playing one on his left hand, another with the thumb of his right hand, and the last with the rest of his right hand.

Keeping track of notes aside, to put it in some perspective, here’s how tough that is. Try counting to three over and over in your head, keeping a steady beat: 1,2,3-1,2,3. Now start counting to four at the same time, over and over. (It should be impossible by now.) Now keep a five-count beat on top of the other two.

Impossible? For most people, yes. In fact, the doctor there that day thought it was supposed to be impossible for everyone.

“He starts yelling, ‘It’s not possible what you’re doing. You’re using both sides of your brain at the same time. And for you to sit there and do this while you’re talking to me is not possible.’ He said, ‘Bob, I want to do MRIs.’”

You can read the rest of Scott Atkinson’s fascinating profile of Milne at Mlive.com. And if you’d like to hear about Milne in podcast form, Radiolab featured him in 2011.

Princess Ojiaku About the Author: Princess Ojiaku is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in Neuroscience and Public Policy. She is also a student of life, exuberant nerd, and musician. She often tweets her daily links of interest and digital personal mutterings. Follow on Twitter @artfulaction.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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