As this lovely post by Olivia Koski on the SA Incubator blog details, last weekend science went Guerilla in the United States.


Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips standing with a giant brain that Guerilla Science placed at the Green Man festival.

Guerilla Science is a group that puts on science presentations at music festivals in the United Kingdom. Notably they've done the Glastonbury festival and the Secret Garden Party. But Escape2NY was the first event that Guerilla Science has done in the USA. I was able to speak with Zoe Cormier, one of the directors of Guerilla Science, who gave a lecture on music and the brain at Escape2NY.

Cormier's enthusiasm for her lecture shone brightly throughout during the time we talked and it was great to speak to someone who was equally excited about music and the brain. She told me of how she came from studying zoology to being a science writer to working with Guerilla Science after being a long time fan of the energy and excitement of big music festivals like the Secret Garden Party. Her goal was to bring science to these big music festivals in a way that matches the "smorgasbord of cultural offerings" provided at the larger festivals in the UK. Guerilla Science aims to dazzle festival-goers who might otherwise think that science belongs in a sterile laboratory or in the reductionist confines of a classroom.


“[Science is] not really taught as something that people can carry with them for the rest of their lives," Cormier elaborated. "For example, if you studied music [in school], you probably won't become a professional musician but you're certainly going to enjoy music and maybe even play it for the rest of your life. But science doesn't seem to be taught that way.”

Cormier teaches people that science can be fascinating through a lecture on the evolution of music. In the lecture she details how modern advances in neuroscience that have shown how the brain processes and perceives music and explains how these advances give us insight on the unique effects that music has on the brain. One example she uses to dazzle the crowd is that music is unique in using many disparate regions of the brain, from the higher levels of cognitive activity like the prefrontal cortex to more primitive areas like the brainstem. Cormier also speaks on the "exquisite illusion" of musical perception: the fact that human brains can transfer sound vibrations into an enjoyable, entertaining experience. In the past, philosophers could only theorize about the nature of music, but in current times scientists have tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) that allow us to view the specific effects of music on the mind and brain.


One question that Cormier always asks the audience members is what kind of music monkeys enjoy. Inevitably, someone always replies, "jungle," but the real answer to the question is silence. Previous studies have shown that while monkeys can appreciate their own brand of music , they seem to prefer silence to Mozart. Add this to the fact that certain people suffer from a condition called amusia in which they find music sounds as aggravating as the noise of clattering pots and pans, and you get the sense that there is something very special in the ability to appreciate music. The concept of amusia sounds very strange, but if you ponder it for a minute longer, it's a lot stranger that most people are able to interpret the sound vibrations of music as anything other than just random noise. "If you can hear music, that's your brain doing a marvelous trick for you," Cormier said.

Escape2NY was Guerilla Science's first American festival, but hopefully not the last. Cormier says that they're looking to do more American festivals in the future, and I hope to get a chance to catch her fantastic lecture as well as all the other Guerilla Science presentations at some point in the near future.