Brains as Synths

People are literally poking neurons to study them. It’s kind of funny to think about.

There are a few striking similarities between the study of nerve impulses, and electronic . For instance, oscilloscopes are used to display the outputs of each, resulting in waveforms. This made me think about converting said waveforms to audio, which it turns out neuroscientists have done. Apparently, if you connect the amplifier used to measure potential differences between the neuron and ground to a loudspeaker, you get a popcorn sound.

One of the most famous, and probably first person to sonify their brainwaves was Alvin Lucier. Electrodes attached to Lucier’s scalp were used to control pickup mics, which vibrated on the surface of various drums.

At Kipsari the other day there was a performance where people used EEG as either an audio source or synthesizer controller (it wasn’t clear which). The performance reminded me of 60’s/70’s era experimental music and I wondered about the potential to more directly link sound with neural activity, in reading chapter 11, which is mostly focused on auditory processing, the following quote made me wonder about recording directly from the auditory nerve for waeform synthesis.

“Recordings made from neurons in the auditory nerve show phase locking, the consistent firing of a cell at the same phase of a sound wave (Figure 11.21). If you think of a sound wave as a sinusoidal variation in air pressure, a phase-locked neuron would fire action potentials at the peaks, or the troughs, or some other constant loca- tion on the wave. At low frequencies, some neurons fire action potentials every time the sound is in a particular phase (Figure 11.21a). This makes it easy to determine the frequency of the sound; it is the same as the fre- quency of the neuron’s action potentials.” (Page 392).

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