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Using Science And Art To Capture The Complexity Of Human Memory

Aug 8, 2018

Bruce Adolphe, composer of "The Musics of Memory," onstage with string quartet
Credit The Lincoln Center

Creating a memory is more like writing a song than taking a photograph. The emotions and prior experiences that come into play when we form a memory, make things like eyewitness testimony pretty unreliable. Composer Bruce Adolphe and neuroscientist Assal Habibi were in Aspen last week as a part of a series called “The Science of Music."

They discussed Adolphe’s composition “The Musics of Memory,” a musical portrayal of the complex process of creating memories. The combination of science and art is fitting because the brain is creative when it comes to memory.  


Bruce Adolphe is the composer in residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, where scientists and artists work side by side, studying how the arts benefit humans' minds and emotions.


“Scientists are very poetic people, and they also tend to love music,” Adolphe said.

His colleague, neuroscientist Assal Habibi, is a classically trained pianist.

“People who work in this field are primarily musicians first, and then they have an interest in neuroscience,” she said.  


The crossover between science and music doesn’t end there. Both Habibi and Adolphe are interested in memory and its formation. And they want you to know that almost everything you remember is probably a little bit wrong.  


“We have this illusion of the world,” Habibi explained.


Our brains can’t pay attention to everything, so they do a lot of filing in the blanks. “And sometimes those blanks get filled correctly and sometimes not,” she said.


That’s what Adolphe explores in “The Musics of Memory,” which shows how memory actually works. He focuses on long term memory, the kind that stays with you, that you revisit.  

First, you have an experience of some sort.


“Our visual system gets information,” said Habibi.

“Something happens," Adolphe added. "Dramatic things happen, quiet things happen. The piano represents the human being who has a real experience and tries to remember it.”

Almost immediately, your brain starts to map the experience.

But, Habibi said, “The brain is not a reliable copy machine.”

Your brain starts to create. It adds emotions and forms new ideas. To do this, lots of different parts of the brain get involved: the hippocampus, amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex.

In his piece, Adolphe uses a marimba, guitar and harp to represent these different parts of the brain, and the music is passed from instrument to instrument.  


"They each sort of take the same music and change it a lot,” said Adolphe, just like different parts of our brain might put its own spin on a memory.


To encode this memory and turn it into one that really stays with you, there’s an ensemble of brain activity.


“There’s a process of consolidation that happens, oftentimes part of it during sleeptime,” said Habibi.



The whole ensemble plays in Adolphe's piece to represent this.

“They all play together and there’s a completely new emotional quality to the music that didn’t exist in the beginning,” said Adolphe.

But just because a memory is encoded, it doesn’t automatically mean that you can recall it.

“Also you need to have retrieval to be able to remember them,” Habibi said.


Often, we believe that what we retrieve is exactly what we experienced.  But that’s not true.


“And as you get older, your memory shifts depending on how you now are and how you feel now and what you think you thought," Adolphe said.


In his composition, Adolphe said the final movement is a recollection of the initial experience: what the audience heard at the beginning of the piece.  

“You can think of it as completely misremembered. It sounds a lot alike, but something is wrong with every phrase, either the notes have been changed, or the dynamics are different or the length of the phrase is off,” he said.

Any trial lawyer is wary of the unreliability of human memory. But that unreliability is because our brains are creative. They construct memories. Our brains might be terrible on the witness stand, but they can make beautiful music.

The Science of Music series is a collaboration between the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Aspen Science Center. You can catch the third talk in the series, called “The Science of Percussion,” Thursday night at the Aspen Community Church.