Science Cafe N.H. soothes a savage breast

Published: 7/13/2020 3:25:21 PM

If there’s one thing we all could use right now it’s a dose of therapy, so let’s embrace the idea that music can soothe the savage breast.

But let’s embrace it scientifically.

“We’re very interested in how music listening can help slow down the neural degeneration, maybe even potentially revert its trajectory,” said Psyche Loui, Ph.D., assistant professor of creativity and creative practice (isn’t that an awesome title?) at Northeastern University.

She directs The Music, Imaging and Neural Dynamics Laboratory, a.k.a. the MIND Lab, which melds neuroscience – think EEGs and MRIs and dopamine and neural pathways – with the long history of using music to make people feel better.

“A lot of people have intuition that it should work but not how it works, but not any specifics,” Loui said. “We’re trying to be an evidence-based practice, but it’s hard. It’s hard to get large sample sizes and hard to do exactly the same thing for everyone.

“It’s a really welcoming field but it could definitely use infrastructure for more rigorous scientific education and training.”

Interesting stuff, which is why she will be a panelist at Science Cafe New Hampshire tomorrow night.

Yes, SCNH is back although we’re not gathering in a bar or restaurant – that awaits a COVID-19 vaccine. On Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. Science Cafe NH will hold its third streaming session via Facebook Live or YouTube. For connection details, check the website

The topic is Music Therapy, which sounds like it would be too touchy-feely for a Geek column but covers an interesting area of research, which is particularly relevant in these stress-inducing times.

The MIND Labs considers issues that range from the sweeping (“why do humans have music?”) to the really specific, such as how the EEG brain scan of a person having a seizure sounds different from baseline EEGs when both are converted into tones.

The field is still at a very basic stage, trying to correlate things like chemical and neural changes in our brains to pitches and tones and musical patterns. It can’t deliver self-help certainties – which classic Motown tune should I play when I can’t stand staying in the house for another minute? – but that doesn’t mean it can’t answer difficult and important questions.

“We study how music can be used for different diseases and disorders, and also how it can help every day, trying to function better in everyday life,” said Loui.

Other panelists will include two New Hampshire music therapists, Elizabeth Ferguson and Marissa Scott as well as Aniruddh Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University. You can ask questions via the online moderator.

As for when and whether Science Cafe NH will return from cyberspace to meatspace, if I may use geek terms from my semi-youth, it won’t happen this year. Until there’s a widely available vaccine I can’t see packing people into a space for two hours to have a wide ranging discussion that sends virus-carrying vocalization aerosols throughout the room.

Maybe we’ll figure out a way to hold one outdoors, but that’s just an idea at the moment. If we do, I’ll let you know.

One other point: I could have sworn that “music has charms to sooth a savage breast” was a line from Shakespeare but I’m off by a century. Turns out it’s from a poem by somebody named William Congreve – and yes, the word is “breast” and not the frequently misquoted “beast.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

If you want more geek in your week, subscribe to David Brooks’ free weekly newsletter at You can also listen to him talk about his stories on the GraniteGeek podcast,, or talk with Chris Ryan on WKXL radio at

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