Hold the drummer jokes! Rhythm skills are linked to speech perception and attention skills.

In 2017 I published the last two papers from my dissertation research, so I thought I would take this opportunity to share a little bit about my research project and what I discovered, especially about rhythm.

Percussion soloist,  Peter Ferry , who participated in the research study. Photo: Nadine Sherman

Percussion soloist, Peter Ferry, who participated in the research study. Photo: Nadine Sherman

I did my PhD at the Auditory Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern University with Dr. Nina Kraus. I set out to investigate how different types of musical experience affect everyday skills, such as the ability to stay focused, or the ability to understand what a friend is saying in a noisy restaurant. I recruited percussionists/drummers, vocalists and non-musicians from the Chicago area and ran a load of different tests in the lab, from computer-based tests, to various drumming tasks, to recording brain activity while my test subjects listened to different sounds. 

One of my particular curiosities was about rhythm, which is why I included percussionists and drummers in the study - they were my "rhythm experts". Rhythm is interesting because the ability to keep track of musical rhythms relies on very precise timing inside the brain. And it turns out that this coordination within the brain - including the brain's own rhythms - is important for a lot of other things, such as paying attention and understanding speech. 


Not too surprisingly, I found that the drummers and percussionists were better than the others at drumming - unfortunately that discovery wasn't enough for me to get my PhD...! What I also discovered was that the more accurately a person could play rhythm patterns (whether or not they had any musical training) the better they were able to understand speech in a noisy background. In other words, someone who did just a little better at drumming the rhythm patterns, would also do a little better at understanding speech in noise, and this was especially true with the more complicated rhythms. This is an exciting result because it suggests that being able to keep track of rhythm patterns in music may actually help you follow the natural rhythms of speech. Perhaps you've had that experience where the "shape" of a sentence seems to hang in your head for a moment before you figure out what the person actually said? Our brains process the sounds of language on many levels, and all these different clues help us make sense of what we hear - it seems rhythm may be an important piece of that puzzle!

I also found that the ability to do something quite simple, just tapping along with a metronome, was linked to attention skills. So the more consistently a person could tap the beat of a metronome, the better they scored on a standard computer-based attention test. The most interesting part related to a particular component of attention called "inhibitory control". Inhibitory control is all about dealing with conflicting thoughts and actions, and blocking out irrelevant signals. It is measured by looking at how well a person can "hold back" their response, especially in situations where they are all ready to respond. For example, in the computer test we use, the person must hit a button when they hear or see a "1" but not when they hear or see a "2". A person who keeps responding to a "2" by mistake would be considered to have poor inhibitory control. Now, in the music part of the experiment the participants weren't listening to 1's and 2's, instead they were listening to songs while I was recording their brain activity. Superimposed on the songs were contrasting sounds (this additional sound was described by some participants as sounding like a goose honk, so it was clearly not part of the song!). Sometimes these goose honks occurred exactly on the beat of the music, and sometimes they were slightly after the beat.

What I found was that the brain response to the honk was different based on whether or not the honk was on the beat. The bigger that brain difference was in the music test, the better the person did in a standard clinical test of inhibitory control. In other words, the more sensitive a person's brain was to whether the honk was "in time," the better their inhibitory control. This discovery fits nicely with other research suggesting that the ability to resolve conflicting information and control your responses accordingly is a major ingredient of music, and may explain why musicians are often better at these inhibitory control tests. Again, it seems that drummers and percussionists may be especially good at this, perhaps because their playing is all about the careful coordination of actions in time. A good drummer must not only know when to play, but also when NOT to play..! 

This is a fascinating area of research and there is still so much to learn. In my current postdoc I am working with a neurosurgeon and studying how brain rhythms help to coordinate attention (more about that here). In the future, I am hoping to connect these areas of research by looking at rhythm and timing in ADHD. Many people with ADHD have difficulty with time perception, and for some that includes the kinds of rhythm tasks I have described here. Understanding more about this could provide important clues about how the brain's internal rhythms get disrupted in ADHD, and how we might be able to fix them - possibly using music. 

Why do Americans stick to their guns?

I have now spent roughly half of my life in Europe (growing up in the U.K., a few years in France) and half in the U.S. (most of my adult life). Over the years I have developed a pet theory that in the U.S., people define themselves by taking a stand and sticking with it - often in defiance of those around them. Being yourself and fulfilling your potential is a foundation of the American Dream. There is space enough in this country that disparate groups and identities can carve out their own territory and if threatened, the right to defend yourself with deadly force is embedded into the "stand your ground" law in many states. Whereas in Europe, different countries and cultures are so up in each others' business as a simple consequence of geography that they are more frequently forced to talk it out. While Brits delight in debate and the power of persuasion, Americans cheer for the hero who shouts the loudest, the one who most vehemently (or entertainingly) dismisses the opposition. You might say Americans admire people who stick to their guns. 

Now of course British politics involves more than its share of posturing, and I’m not suggesting that the Europeans have it all figured out because clearly they do not. But if you’re puzzling over why the U.S. so dramatically outranks other nations in the incidence of gun violence, and you wonder not only about access to guns but about what causes people to use them with such tragic consequences, then hear me out.

Regardless of culture or national origin, it is human nature to seek out information that supports our existing point of view, this phenomenon is called confirmation bias. Scrolling through my Facebook feed and making my own choices about what to post increasingly feels like a textbook demonstration of this bias. Of course we don't get all of our news from social media, but a recent Pew study states that 63% of Facebook users report using it as a source for news. I have a lot of journalist friends and convince myself there is a decent level of critical thinking going on in my feed, but ultimately, by definition, this is my social network. It is a self-selected bubble of people who think more or less like I do. I find myself propagating information that supports my view, and I am rarely challenged to engage in serious debate with an opposing perspective.

Today's New York Times editorial about the gun epidemic was popular in my feed. It was bold and compelling, and I nearly reposted it, but something held me back. Aside from noting that its lauded status as the first editorial to run on the front page of the newspaper in 95 years
suddenly struck me as more archaic than authoritative, I was bothered by this:

“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment. No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.”

I absolutely agree with the sentiment. I even copied it so I could highlight it in my repost, but then I thought, how can you say “it is not necessary to debate...” one of the most persistent elements of the opposition’s argument? Like it or not, that is exactly what we must debate! If we simply dismiss what is so clearly important to our adversaries that leaves us no grounds for negotiation.

It is interesting to me that this particular mass shooting -- of the hundreds this year -- has been the one to unleash such universal outcry. Timing is everything, I suppose, and it came so soon after Paris and Colorado. But so many of the reactions, including this editorial, just seem like louder shouting. And I'm sorry to say that in a competition for the loudest shout, even the front page of the New York Times is unlikely to win out.

If we actually want to solve problems -- gun violence,
racial inequality, climate change, reproductive rights -- I think we need to change our strategy. So I am presenting myself with a challenge, and invite you to do the same: Stop focusing so heavily on the things that confirm your position, and start looking for those that don't. Instead of shouting louder, think about listening harder. Instead of reinforcing a culture of defiance, seek out the common ground.

I did an exercise in a communication workshop years ago that has stuck with me. The goal was simply to find common ground with someone who held an opposing view. I was paired with someone who supported the death penalty -- I vehemently do not. It seemed an impossible exercise, like being asked to change who I am. But sure enough, through conversation we began to share common experiences and common emotions, and I started to understand how this person's experience had lead to her perspective. Even if I still struggled to arrive at the same conclusion, I could empathize with her experience. Empathy allows us to see the humanity in others – in the end, it's what stops us from killing each other.

The more strongly we commit to our existing perspective and ridicule opposing points of view, the less we are able to empathize with those who think differently from us. Instead of reinforcing our positions and preparing for battle, we have to ask ourselves: is it really so important to stick to our guns? Or might we, just for a moment, be persuaded to put them down?