the rapidity with which the brain adjusts to circumstances is amazing. neuroplasticity is not the only far-out skill that nervous systems have, however: there are two extreme characteristics that somehow cozy up and find room together within our skull. these ubiquitous attributes are those tendencies of all brains that are at once coworkers and also contradictory:

brains are formless

the first extreme is the brain’s plasticity. this highly pliable, ultra-erasable, moment-to-moment functional wobbling of the teflon nature takes place at the cellular level. consider your conscious experience right now – it is changing, and changing rapidly. it would not conceivably follow from this observation that some stillness or lack-of-motion is present within your brain. far from it – movement in our experience must mean there is movement inside of your body. even the observation that our moment-to-moment experience changes immediately suggests an unseen organ operating that is as bodily as all the rest, and that must be undergoing minute and constant change. the colorful flickering of our momentary Right-Now-experience is simple proof that life is a film of many frames, and it by observing the bodies of others we can appreciate that underlying this is cellular mutability and impermanence.

brains are formed

the other tenant occupying the shadow of all experience, and the structure of your body, is regularity. your brain is shaped like [almost] all other brains. it cannot be understated how exactly similar your brain is in the overall sense to most peoples’ brains. there are no doubt anomalies – folks who have been injured, or born with developmental diseases, or other modifications. but we are mostly alike in our form. consider car engines. i’m no engine expert but do know that, like people, many types of engines are out there. so a brain is like an engine: unique, overall demonstrating commonalities so major they are almost forgettable. engines are regular in this way: an engine needs gas. it needs the oil changed every 3,000 miles. it needs a car with 4 wheels to roll well in order to bring itself to the dealership to get itself looked at, and if the driver is drunk shit might go poorly for the engine. engines will fall apart if they get too hot and they will absolutely turn to rotten caramel if you stick sugar inside of them. a brain has similar expectations and mandates that, no matter how unique the brain, must be met. things like heart rate, breathing, maintaining some muscle tone in your eyelids in order to observe the bear flying towards you – these are the basics expected of a working nervous system. it helps to have working hormones, air in your lungs, and maybe even a few simple movements in your limbs….and if you can’t choreograph an orchestra’s worth of complexity within your gut you won’t be digesting the bear meat from your hunt a moment ago. these are the deeply regular aspects of being a brain, and they somehow coincide with the plasticity aforementioned.

so brains are both extremely malleable and extremely regular. it distresses me on a daily basis that both of these opposite qualities occupy the same mess of tissue. the malleability [of our conscious mind] then takes place within a context and the structure of the brain shapes that regular context, our place in it, and somewhere down the line, on an irrelevant shelf: these both shape our conscious mind and day-to-day lives, relationships, and feelings.

there’s a little story from a children’s book that was special to me as a kid. it’s about a frustrated old man who lives by himself in a cabin and was written by author Ann McGovern. for anyone who has really fussed over concepts in sensation, perception, and neuroplasticity this story should be a silly one. most of us can relate to being frustrated by noise at one moment or another – it is a regular experience. but with a little help and a few sensory tricks we can get past it. Enjoy this brief little tale on frustration, patience, and change – in the meantime feel free to wonder what was happening in old Peter’s skull during this frustrating little story.

Too Much Noise!


Here are a few concepts (sorry for the watered-down sources) to play with when it comes to our rapid adjustment to novel or stressful experiences.


Orienting response

Signal Detection & noise (R. H. Wiley)

Broadbent’s model of attention

Attenuation theory (Treisman)

Affective style, psychopathology, and resilience: Brain mechanisms and plasticity

Social influences on neuroplasticity

Shoutout to the wise man!

Exposure therapy

field notes (04/17/2017)


Today’s weather/appearance feels like a gift. Big, wide blue sky…A tiny breeze that feels much more spring than summer, but the direct sunlight casts away obligations to sleeves. Although I do have sleeves with me – haven’t gotten sunscreen yet so I keep the jean jacket with me to save my skin. My face/ears/etc are still unprotected from the cooking but hey, I’m on the shady side of the porch for now. Cars going by every few moments are quite unsettling and unwelcome. The sound and smell of them is worse to the senses but their inherent priority status is pain to the soul. After all – cars seem to decide how places are designed. Cars run the roads at all hours, embody human self centeredness, and

shut up, Ian

Moving on. The grid of the street irritates me today. Birds chirping – a few across the street. A single chirp perhaps 2 times per 1-2 seconds. A bit hard to hear on each chirp, like a chime or a chord (which I myself cannot piece apart with my own ear, though many humans can). A bit moist – the sound, I mean. At this moment a few young girls pass by the house –


“How do you say orange, anyway? Do you say OHrange or AHrange?”

I wonder if their ‘ew’ and subsequent linguistic assessment was because of the discarded orange peel over by the street. Now a few birds back here by the porch.


A crow yelling. Reps of at least 6-7. I notice that same pairing of 2 staccato calls, preceded by one call, like this:

\   \\   \\

\   \\  \\ \\ \\

88 keys

Henry Gray, author of the ubiquitous 1858 text Gray’s Anatomy, described the internal ear of the human being in two parts.


The vestibule, semicircular canals, and cochlea comprise the osseous labyrinth – an awesomely (oss-omely?) complicated structure that features bony canals only 1/20th of an inch in diameter. Within this structure is the second part of the internal ear: the membranous labyrinth. This collection of gooey, liquid-filled cavities is interconnected and in the grand scheme of the human body is the only important point of contact for the vibrations that we call noise.450px-Gray926

Once reaching the internal ear, these vibrations from the air (or even from inside our own bodies) are first translated into an electrochemical signal that gets sent along the high-bandwidth auditory nerve. Don’t forget that this transmission is occurring in both of your ears at exactly the same time. When these well-timed signals reach your brain some type of cognitive operating system makes sense of the stimulus energy, providing an inner experience of some sound (or the sound of silence).


I like music. I really, really like music. And even though my primary fields of study are in the brain sciences you can probably infer that for me, like many people, music provides a more generally rewarding and stimulating odyssey than almost any other sound. But contemplating the musical brain and thinking about music can only get you so far – listening to music and practicing music are, at least to me, also valuable and pleasurable endeavors. Classical violin and electronic music production are my only areas of respectable expertise and experience but I also flirt with the piano. Lately, this has involved an affair with a certain organ piece written by Bach – do you know it?


I have been listening to and practicing this piece a little bit every day. With no formal training or instruction it obviously is moving along rather slowly, but rumor has it I have a pretty good ear. With some formal training and instruction in neuroscience, though, I am also moving towards a different understanding of playing this piano piece. How does a human being interact with an instrument? What does it mean to carry voice, rhythm, or an external instrument (or all three) with any success? Approaching these questions means doing at least some research into the anecdotal and written history of music, music performance, and music theory. Mainly, though, brushing up on the anatomy of the ear, anatomy of the auditory nerve, and neural processes associated with cognition are my way of identifying how humans experience music. I will be taking notes during this process and hopefully citing the appropriate sources. There are a lot of people that have already wondered about music, music theory, and how music occurs in the brain. Until his recent death even Oliver Sacks had a significant relationship with music – not only did he say of the effect of music on neurological patients: “For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity…” but he also practiced piano well into old age – even during the loss of his vision. My fondness of this subject, and a desire to move closer to both the academic analysis and personal practice of music, is the basis of the mini-project.

This post will serve as a bit of a public diary entry about this experience. In addition to posting the occasional recording or practice session I will clue you in to the neuroscience research I am ingesting during this process. Links below!


How to play Toccata & Fugue (1)

How to play Tocatta & Fugue (2)

Toccata & Fugue – Sheet music (version 1)

Music in Research and Rehabilitation of Disorders of Consciousness

This is your Brain on Music (NPR)

This is your Brain on Music (Daniel Levitin)