Here's What Happens When You Scan Sting’s Brain for Science

You never know what you’re going to find when you rummage around inside somebody’s brain. Scientists had the opportunity to do just that with a very special test subject: Sting. Yes, Sting, as in Sting, the former Police front man, human rights activist, and world-renowned sometimes-eccentric. The researchers described the results of their studies in the journal Neurocase. 

About a decade ago, cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin began hearing from musicians who had read and loved his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. So Levitin was pleased, but not hugely surprised, when he got a call from Sting’s people. The musician would be passing through Montreal on a tour, they said, and was wondering if he could tour Levitin’s lab. Absolutely, Levitin said. And then he asked if he could scan Sting’s brain. The game musician said yes.

In preparation for the superstar’s visit, Levitin devised a series of three musical experiments, all of which would be conducted while Sting was in the scanner. The first experiment aimed to discern how, and if, composing music was different from writing poetry or creating art. The second explored the differences (or similarities) between imagining and actually listening to music, and the third would track brain activity as Sting listened to a variety of music in genres from classical to reggae. 

The day of the study, Sting showed up, ready to work. But before Levitin and his team could even get the singer into the scanner, the power blew across the entire campus. The test subject was determined, though; he waited out the outage, even skipping his sound check so the experiments could proceed. After the scans, he packed up and headed out to perform. 

To analyze the experimental results, Levitin teamed up with brain scan expert Scott Grafton of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Considering the aims of the study, Grafton decided to use two new techniques—multivoxel pattern analysis and representational dissimilarity analysis—both of which look for similarities in brain activity. 

As Levitin expected, Sting’s brain suggested that the act of composing music is indeed different from other creative processes, and that thinking about music and listening to it activate the same regions in the brain. But there were some surprises, too, Levitin said in a press statement: “Sting’s brain scan pointed us to several connections between pieces of music that I know well but had never seen as related before,” he said. 

Without conscious thought, the composer’s brain had noticed similarities between works like Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and the Beatles song “Girl,” both of which are in minor keys and rely on similar melodic motifs. The brain scans showed another link between Sting’s own song “Moon Over Bourbon Street” and Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions.” Both are swing songs in F minor with a tempo of 132 beats per minute, but to even a conscious listener they might not necessarily sound similar.  

“These state-of the-art techniques really allowed us to make maps of how Sting’s brain organizes music, Levitin says. “That’s important because at the heart of great musicianship is the ability to manipulate in one’s mind rich representations of the desired soundscape.

The researchers note that what’s true of Sting is not necessarily true of everyone else, or even other musicians. But, they say, the techniques used in these experiments have broad potential to study “… all sorts of things: how athletes organize their thoughts about body movements; how writers organize their thoughts about characters; how painters think about color, form and space.” 

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com. 

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
music
Your Library Has a Free Music Service That You Probably Didn't Know About
iStock
iStock

Did you know that you can download free music from your local library? Music that you can keep. That's right: not borrow, keep.

It's all possible thanks to a service called Freegal (a portmanteau of free and legal), which gives patrons of participating libraries access to 15 million songs from 40,000 labels, notably including the Sony Music Entertainment catalog. All you need is a library card.

Here's how it works: You can download a few songs a week, and, in many areas, enjoy several hours of streaming, too (the precise number of songs and hours of streaming varies by library). Once you download MP3 files, they're yours. You're free to put them on iTunes, your iPhone, your tablet, and more. You don't have to return them and they don't expire. The counter resets on Mondays at 12:01 a.m. Central Time, so if you hit your limit, you won't have long to wait before you get more downloads. And Freegal has some great stuff: A quick scan of the front page reveals music from Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Cardi B, Simon & Garfunkel, Childish Gambino, The Avett Brothers, Lykke Li, and Sara Bareilles.

Freegal has been around since 2010 and is offered at libraries worldwide. In the U.S., that includes the New York Public Library, Queens Library, Los Angeles Public Library, West Chicago Public Library, Houston Public Library, and more. In the past few years, libraries have debuted some other amazing free digital services, from classic films streaming on Kanopy to audiobooks and e-books available to borrow on SimplyE and OverDrive. But the thing that's so exciting about Freegal is that you can keep the MP3 files, unlike services that limit you to borrowing.

Freegal's site is easy to navigate: You can browse playlists and make your own, check out the most popular tunes, and save songs to your wishlist for when you get more credits. In the old days, music fans would check out CDs from the library and upload them onto their computers before returning them. But Freegal eliminates the need to go to your local branch, check out an album, and bring it back when you're done.

Freegal app
Freegal

To find out if your local library has Freegal, go to freegalmusic.com and click login, then search for your area. It's important to note: Your library's contract might not have both streaming and downloading privileges. You can use Freegal on the web or as an app available on the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon. Of course, the service doesn't have everything. And sometimes, when it does have an artist, it will only have a few of their most popular albums. But if you frequently buy music on iTunes or elsewhere, checking Freegal first may save you a bit of money.

If you don't yet have a library card, Freegal is just one more reason why you should get one ASAP.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
An Anthology Series Based on Dolly Parton's Songs Is Coming to Netflix
Rick Diamond, Getty Images
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Though she may be best known for her music career, Dolly Parton is a Hollywood powerhouse. In addition to starring in more than a few contemporary classics, from 9 to 5 to Steel Magnolias, she's also been partly responsible for some of your favorite TV series. As part owner of Sandollar Entertainment, a film and television production company, she's been a silent figure behind shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now, the queen of country music is preparing to return to the small screen once again—this time on Netflix.

The beloved singer is partnering with Warner Bros. Television to produce an anthology series for Netflix, Engadget reports. Set to debut in 2019, each of the eight episodes will have a theme based on a song by Parton, who will serve as executive producer and singer-songwriter in addition to appearing in the series.

"As a songwriter, I have always enjoyed telling stories through my music," Parton said in a statement. "I am thrilled to be bringing some of my favorite songs to life with Netflix. We hope our show will inspire and entertain families and folks of all generations, and I want to thank the good folks at Netflix and Warner Bros. TV for their incredible support."

The list of songs hasn’t yet been released, but I Will Always Love You, Jolene, and The Bargain Store are among Parton’s greatest hits.

Parton previously worked with Warner Bros. to produce the made-for-television movies Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors (2015) and Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love (2016). She has also nearly finished the music for the upcoming film Dumplin'—based on a novel by Julie Murphy and starring Jennifer Aniston—and the soundtrack will be released via Dolly Records and Sony Music Nashville, according to Parton’s website.

[h/t Engadget]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios