Musicians and scientists talk ‘Music and the Mind’ at Yale Center Beijing

Renée Fleming at Yale Center Beijing on Oct. 29
Renée Fleming at Yale Center Beijing on Oct. 29

A packed audience of over 150 Yale alumni and friends gathered at Yale Center Beijing on Oct. 29 to hear from renowned soprano Renée Fleming, a four-time Grammy Award winner, National Medal of Arts recipient, and a member of the Schwarzman Center Advisory Board. But on this evening, the audience wasn’t gathering to hear her sing. Instead, they were there to hear her and a panel of experts discuss “Music and the Mind,” exploring the power of music in relation to health and neuroscience.

Robert Blocker, the Henry and Lucy Moses Dean of Music at Yale, moderated the panel discussion, which also featured Dr. Bin Hu, a professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in Parkinson’s research, and Kunlin Wei, a professor of psychological and cognitive sciences at Peking University, who works on sensorimotor control and learning.

At the beginning of the event, Fleming discussed her own interest in connecting music and physical health by looking back at when she suffered from stage fright, which sometimes even presented as physical pain. But the moment she started singing, she said, the pain would go away. This experience sparked her interest in the brain and how the brain and music interact, which in turn made her curious as to why scientific researchers were also becoming so interested in music.

Citing a conversation she had with Dr. Francis Collins ’74 Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and her participation in a study at the NIH in which her brain was scanned using fMRI while she sang, Fleming explained how music engages more parts of the brain than almost any other activity. She also pointed out that “music is a human invariant — music may vary throughout historical civilizations and from culture to culture, but it exists in every society and culture throughout history.”

Through sharing personal anecdotes, citing various scientific case studies, and playing both humorous and thought-provoking video clips, Fleming demonstrated the various ways music has interacted and continues to interact with human evolution, childhood development, music therapy, and cognitive neuroscience.

Listening to and creating music can support health and well-being,” Fleming concluded. Having seen music’s power to heal and change lives, she said, she felt compelled to use her platform as a singer to collaborate with leading neuroscientists, researchers, and music therapists from around the world to share with a wider audience about the amazing work happening at the intersection of music, health, and neuroscience.

Hu, professor of translational neuroscience at the University of Calgary, followed Fleming’s presentation by delving into the relationship between music and Parkinson’s disease, his area of research. He observed that even when Parkinson’s patients lose their basic motor functions like walking, they often can still remember dance steps.

In Parkinson’s, patients lose their ability to control their movements because cells lose the ability to produce dopamine,” explained Hu. “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control movement, and in Parkinson’s, the cells that produce dopamine are lost.” But Hu observed that when patients listened to music, they were often able to move much better. The reason, he explained, is because “music is one of the most potent stimulants of dopamine release.”

Based on this phenomenon, Hu developed an innovative music-based therapeutic program known as the Ambulosono Project, which uses the dopamine naturally produced when listening to music to help Parkinson’s patients learn to regulate movements. Once patients undertake specialized sensorimotor training, they can learn to use musical cues to initiate desired movements. 

Wei, professor of psychological and cognitive sciences at Peking University, continued the conversation by talking about music as a sensorimotor experience. In particular, he compared humans to other animals, and pointed out the exceptional ability of humans to sync with music and with each other. Though other animals can also sync with music, the pathways in the human brain for such connections are much stronger, he said.

Among the many possible practical implications for such research, Wei discussed the use of music in helping autism and stroke patients, areas of application he has been working on in his own research. Wei talked about new innovative methods he has been developing to utilize games and digital platforms such as Minecraft and Wii Fit to help treat various patients. For example, he combined auditory cues with visual cues to help train stroke patients using performance feedback while playing on a Wii Fit. 

Robert Blocker moderates the panel.
Robert Blocker moderates the panel.

During the audience Q&A, the panelists were joined by Mingming Liu, director of the Center for Music Therapy at the Central Conservatory of Music, and Xiaoying Zhang, director of the Music Therapy Center at the China Rehabilitation Research Center, to answer a range of questions from the audience regarding music therapy and various connections between music and health.

Blocker concluded the discussion by quoting Voltaire: “Behind food, clothing, and housing, music is humankind’s greatest need.” He then continued, “When we work together to help people, whether they have Parkinson’s or autism, or they’re just trying to get through a hard day, we give them dignity through music. And when we do that, it gives us dignity as well.”

The discussion was part of the Greenberg Distinguished Colloquium series. The colloquium is made possible by the generosity of Maurice R. Greenberg, chair and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co. Inc. and a recipient of the China Reform Friendship Medal in 2018.

The colloquium previously featured talks by Yuri Kordonsky, professor at the Yale School of Drama; Unni Karunakara ’95 M.P.H., former international president of Doctors Without Borders and assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Public Health; Stephen Roach, senior fellow at the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and senior lecturer at the Yale School of Management; Odd Arne Westad, professor of history at Yale; Ma Yansong ’02 M.Arch., founder & principal partner, MAD Architects; and Derek Chang ’89, CEO of NBA China.

The Yale Center Beijing, Yale’s first university-wide center outside of the United States, is a convening space and intellectual hub that advances Yale’s mission to improve our world and develop leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. Founded in 2014, the center acts as an activity space for Yale’s collaborations in China, enables the university to expand existing activities and form new partnerships, supports research and study from each of the university’s schools and divisions, and serves as a gathering place for alumni from throughout Asia.

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