Category: Music

Psychologists and neuroscientists who rock

Joseph LeDoux

For the continuously updated list of psychologists who rock, please scroll to the bottom of the post.


The review journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a reflective essay in-press written by Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and performer with the Amygdaloids, a band that sings songs about “love and life peppered with insights drawn from research about mind and brain and mental disorders”.

As well as providing interesting background info on the Amygdaloids (they’re currently working on a EP called In Our Minds), LeDoux reflects on why so many scientists are drawn to music, and he talks about the benefits that performing music has brought to his own life and work. “Playing music makes me a healthier, happier person,” he says. “It not only connects me with others in a unique way, it also makes connections in my own mind, drawing up emotions and thoughts I didn’t know I had.”

LeDoux also gives plenty of examples of other scientists who rock:

“Dan Levitin, author of bestselling books, This Is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs, is part of the Diminished Faculties at McGill University. Harvard molecular biologist, Pardis Sabetti, heads Thousand Days. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, has played at benefits with Joe Perry of Arrowsmith. Richard Brown, a philosopher at CUNY, is in the house band of a monthly jam session he organizes (The Amygdaloids played at their Qualia Freak Fest last year). Dave Sulzer, a neuroscientist at Columbia, has an alter ego as David Soldier, the leader of an avant garde music group. A biology-based bluegrass band in New York is called the Southern Blots. There’s a band of shrinks called The Psy- choanalytics. A New Jersey punk band is named the Lonely Ions. The Periodic Table hails from Long Island. Ryan Johnson of Michigan State is in Kinase Moves. The Science Fair is a jazz group from Norway that sings about science.

Andy Revkin, a biologist and New York Times environmental writer is part of the roots group Uncle Wade. Freaks of Nature are a science band from Philadelphia. The Cell Mates are from Yale. Darwin’s Finches are an a capella group from Rockefeller University. MacArthur awardee David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, plays guitar for Seattle band Big Dirt. Mike Shadlen, also at the University of Washington, fronts the Turing Machines. Chris Code, a psychologist from Exeter in the UK, is in Broken Road. The Society for Neuroscience has a music social every year at its annual meeting, where brain geeks strap on guitars and other instruments. And we shouldn’t overlook that there are some really well known rockers with connections to science. Brian May of Queen has a PhD in astronomy and spends part of his time these days teaching at Imperial College London. Greg Gaffin of Bad Religion has a PhD from Cornell and teaches life science at UCLA. They Might Be Giants does some science-themed songs. We Are Scientists, on the other hand, seem to only be connected to science in name.”

To his list I can add at least four psychologists who rock: Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster plays keyboard and sings backing vocals in a band; Ellen Poliakoff, a psychologist at the University of Manchester is in a band called Stray Light; Rob Hughes, a psychologist at Royal Holloway was in a band called Alien Matter; and psychologist Stephen Kosslyn was in a band when he lived in Cambridge Massachusetts. Do you know of any other psychologists who rock?

-Read The Flip Side: Scientists Who Rock (pdf) by Joseph LeDoux.

(Thanks to Tadhg MacIntyre for the tip-off about this article, and about Kosslyn).

Update. More psychologists/neuroscientists who rock (grabbed from comments or Twitter): Allan McNeill was an original member of Simple Minds and went on to manage 80s pop band Hue and Cry; stats whiz Andy Field drums with Fracture Pattern; Charles Fernyhough plays guitar with the Aimless Mules; Tim Byron plays keyboard with Lazy Susan; Roy Baumeister apparently plays guitar; Matt Wall is a UCL neuroscientist who plays guitar in a pub-rock covers band; Ian Deary sings and plays sax with the Dancing Mice; Katherine Woolf plays in Someone Else’s Wedding; Luke Jones at Manchester University is bassist in pro metal band Soma Dark; Adrian Owen’s band is You Jump First; Max Birchwood plays the sax; Bristol-based band ‘Traps’, features psychologist Paul Redford from UWE; Adrian Wells played keyboards in a band called OC/DC; and post-doctoral psychology researcher Dan Carney plays guitar and sings in the folk/indie/electronic band Dark Captain Light Captain (they’ve had Single of The Week on iTunes US, toured the UK, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, and been played on Radio 1/Radio 2/XFm etc… They’ve also soundtracked a Royal Bank of Scotland advert and had their music used on numerous TV programmes both here and abroad!).

Second update. This post inspired an article in The Psychologist by its editor Dr Jon Sutton.

In ‘For those psychologists about to rock…’, Sutton looks for shortcuts to musical expertise with a little help from his friends. The article and subsequent Twitter discussion has led to more ‘psychologists who rock’ adding their details in the comments below.

How Michael Jackson’s Heal The World really could help heal the world

“Heal The World

Make It A Better Place
For You And For Me
And The Entire Human Race”

So much research has looked at the effects of violent music lyrics and video-games on people’s aggressiveness, but what about the effects of media with a positive message? Can songs like Michael Jackson’s Heal the World and Bob Sinclair’s Love Generation change people’s behaviour for the better? Tobias Greitemeyer says this side of the media-behaviour equation has been neglected before now, but in a series of five studies conducted in Germany and the UK he’s shown that ‘pro-social’ music reduces people’s aggression. What’s more, he’s demonstrated that it appears to do so through its effect on mood and emotion rather than via changes to thoughts and cognition.

Greitemeyer’s general approach was to have half his participants listen to a few pro-social songs, the others listen to neutral songs, and then all of them complete various questionnaires or tasks, depending on the specific experiment.

Further examples of pro-social songs used in the experiments include Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s We Are The World (among the biggest selling singles of all time) and U2’s Vertigo. Among the neutral songs used were Michael Jackson’s On The Line and Bob Sinclair’s Rock This Party. Greitemeyer deliberately chose some pro-social and neutral songs by the same artists so as to control for the effects of the actual singer and general style.

Participants who listened to pro-social songs subsequently showed reduced aggressive cognitions – for example they were less likely to complete ambiguous word stems (e.g. ‘schla_’ in German) with violent endings (e.g. ‘schlagen’, to hit), choosing instead more peaceful endings (e.g. ‘schlafen’ to sleep). They also exhibited reduced aggressive mood, being less likely to say they felt angry or irritated.

Most importantly, participants who listened to Heal the World and other pro-social songs were less likely than participants who listened to neutral music to actually be aggressive. This was tested indirectly by having participants evaluate a job candidate. Apparently this is a common measure in the aggression field, with harsh judgements being taken as a sign of indirect aggression. Aggressive behaviour was tested directly in another experiment by giving participants the chance to choose how much chilli sauce another student would have to eat, having heard that he or she hated chilli. This student had earlier given the participants an unfair essay evaluation so there was a temptation to be aggressive.

In the final experiment, when Greitemeyer looked to see whether it was cognitions or mood that mediated the effect of pro-social songs on aggressive behaviour, he found it was mood or ‘affect’ that was key. Intriguingly, this is the opposite to what’s been found for video-games, in which case it’s changes to cognitions, not affect, that mediates the influence, for better or worse, of violent or pro-social games on subsequent aggression.

‘Music exposure is omnipresent in our daily life,’ Greitemeyer concluded. ‘Thus, the present findings are not only of theoretical significance, but have important practical implications as well, in suggesting that depending on the context of the song lyrics music exposure may reduce aggressive encounters.’
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Greitemeyer, T. (2011). Exposure to music with prosocial lyrics reduces aggression: First evidence and test of the underlying mechanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 28-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

All about music and the brain

Today’s Science Weekly Podcast from The Guardian is a fascinating special on music and the brain.

Music is found in every human culture and one theory is that it was an evolutionary precursor to language.

Whereas language allows us to make propositional, “information rich” statements, music is far vaguer but arguably provides a superior means of conveying emotion. The podcast describes how this emotional power is being harnessed to help people with Alzheimer’s. We also hear how singing can help stroke patients rediscover their lost voices.

However, my favourite discovery from the podcast is that birds can dance.

Link to today’s Guardian Science podcast.
Link to Youtube video of a dancing bird.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.