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.” 

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Chloe Efforn
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.


Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.


He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.


John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.


As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.


In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.


John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.


John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.


In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

Getty Images
The Time Sammy Davis Jr. Impersonated Michael Jackson
Getty Images
Getty Images

Sammy Davis Jr. was known for his impersonations—check out his rendition of “As Time Goes By” as 13 different people. So when he hit the stage with Jerry Lewis for a 1988 TV special, he decided to show the audience that his talents weren’t just limited to acts from his era.

Though he briefly mentions Rod Stewart, his main target was Michael Jackson. Davis and Jackson were extremely close; when Jackson was just in his twenties, he would often show up at Davis’s house unannounced to immerse himself in the archives, a room downstairs that contained videos of Davis’s performances over the years.

“Michael Jackson is more than a friend," Davis—who was born on this day in 1925—explained, while also alluding to the fact that the King of Pop borrowed some dance moves from him. "He’s like a son.” And then he launched into this impression:

Jackson returned the favor during a special on February 4, 1990, in which Hollywood’s biggest stars gathered to honor Davis, who was celebrating six decades in show business:

Sadly, the anniversary show was the last time Davis would perform in public. Though throat cancer had mostly stolen his voice by this point, Davis let his tap shoes do the talking. He died on May 16, 1990—just three months after the tribute aired.


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