At a certain level of talent, the brains of the elite are just more sensitive, more finely tuned, than yours and mine. Professional athletes notice different things about their surroundings than the average person does; artists often have a unique way of understanding colors and shapes; musicians can understand the various components of a song in a way that those of us with normal ears just don’t.
Which is why, if you’re a neuroscientist and Sting gives you a chance to study his brain, you jump on that offer.
Such was the case with Daniel Levitin, who recently co-authored a case study of the musician in the journal Neurocase. The background story: Sting, who had read Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music, had a concert scheduled in Montreal, where Levitin teaches at McGill University. Sting — identified in the paper as “a 55-year old right-handed male, with normal hearing and no history of neurological disorders” — asked if he could come in for a tour of the lab; Levitin agreed and offered to give him a turn in the fMRI machine. (The pair ran into some trouble, Levitin recalls: The power went out during the lab tour, and an MRI takes over an hour to reboot. Ultimately, Sting agreed to skip his soundcheck in order to get the scan.)
To get a visual of the creative brain in action, Levitin and his fellow researchers asked Sting to imagine a series of creative activities — writing a speech, painting a canvas, composing a few lines of music with and without lyrics — while the scan was taking place. They also asked him to listen to a selection of songs pulled from a wide variety of genres, including Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time,” Frank Sinatra’s “Mack the Knife,” a Muzak version of “Blue Moon,” a tango recording from Yo-Yo Ma, and a couple classical pieces.
By examining the brain activity patterns the scans captured for each recording, the paper notes, the researchers could use the scans to see how Sting grouped the songs in his mind. For example, they wrote, “we found great dissimilarity between classical music and reggae,” while “the popular songs showed very high similarity to one another”; the Muzak selections, meanwhile, “clustered far away from anything else in representational space, indicating his aversion toward them.”
“The whole art of musicianship is to consciously or unconsciously string together a lifetime of listening experience,” Levitin says. And analyzing how his subject made those musical connections in real time, he explains, may shed some light on how musical pros understand their art. “As a musician myself” — Levitin plays the guitar — “I look at musicians like Sting and think, I’m never going to be able to do that,” he says. But “by understanding how the brains of excellence work, we’ll be in a better position to understand what kind of training people need to help them achieve at higher and higher levels.”