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Listening and the Brain

Mark Blumberg
In his first semester as a student at Hampshire College, Mark Blumberg had an experience that would ultimately shape his academic career. Suddenly, and without warning, Blumberg lost hearing in his left ear.

That would frighten anyone, but was perhaps even more disturbing for Blumberg, a vocalist who had transferred to Hampshire from Westminster Choir College. “All I could hear in my left ear was static and white noise,” he recalled. “It was absolutely terrifying.” Diagnosed with Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, Blumberg took steroids to reduce cochlear inflammation and the condition cleared up. But Blumberg’s curiosity didn’t. He found books on the subject and became interested in hearing loss. “I was intrigued by how low levels of hearing perception can affect everything else in life,” he said. “It dawned on me that it might be a worthwhile thing to study.”

Blumberg had taken a class called Music, Brain, and Development with Neil Stillings, dean of the School of Cognitive Science at Hampshire. In that class, students investigate how psychological processes involved in music perception and learning relate to activity in various areas of the brain.

“I was focusing at that point on how music is born in the brain,” Blumberg said. He came across a listserv of cochlear implant (CI) users and was intrigued by a submission from Ray Goldsworthy, a CI user and then-doctoral candidate at MIT and Harvard. Goldsworthy lost his hearing to meningitis at age 12, and a year later was fitted with a cochlear implant, a medical device that bypasses damaged structures in the inner ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerve, allowing some deaf people to learn to hear and interpret sounds and speech. An amateur musician, Goldsworthy had queried the listserv suggesting that music students make scales that could be more easily perceived by CI users, who have diminished capacity to recognize variations in tone and harmony.

Blumberg contacted Goldsworthy and together they hatched an idea for Blumberg’s Div III: a test that would assess whether music training helps CI users discriminate between frequencies of sound. Blumberg titled the project Music as a Rehabilitative Tool for Cochlear Implant Users.

He traveled to MIT’s Research Lab of Electronics each week for three months, where he taught two CI users how to play piano. Participants worked with a voice teacher weekly, studying Indian classical music, which has simpler melodies that are easier to comprehend, and one also played guitar. Blumberg administered monthly computerized psychoacoustic tests to determine whether the music training was improving the participants’ ability to decipher differences in pitch.

Professor Stillings agreed to chair Blumberg’s Division III faculty committee, which also included cognitive neuroscientist Jane Couperus and Goldsworthy. “It is a testimony to Hampshire's educational system that we turn out students like Mark, who, in order to do his project, had to get access to a high-powered research laboratory at MIT and work effectively among a group of graduate students and post-docs,” said Stillings. “At the beginning he didn't know very much about the nuts and bolts of the kind of psycho-acoustic testing that goes on in that lab, but he knew what his question was and how he wanted to pursue it. I think they must have figured out pretty quickly that he was for real and would be able to learn their techniques.”

CI technology has improved dramatically over the years, but still has its problems. “There are distinct limitations in the performance of many users,” Blumberg said. Some can speak on the phone while others comprehend very little and must rely on lip reading. “Part of this is due to the heavy reliance the implant has on the brain’s learning how to use it, a process greatly facilitated by training. Access to rehabilitation programs, which include training with speech and music, has been deemed crucial by many audiologists.” Music training seems to help CI users bridge the gaps in frequency perception.

One of the two participants in Blumberg’s study, who became deaf at a young age, but was implanted with the CI much later, did not perform well on the test. The other became deaf later in life and already had language ability. “His recognition of pure tone frequency improved, which is the recognition of one sine wave at a time,” Blumberg said. In that case, the CI user was playing guitar, and was able to discern notes played on one string, as opposed to differentiating from notes on a piano, which has multiple strings and is more difficult to comprehend. In both cases, however, the participant’s ability to play piano, and their perception of that ability, improved dramatically. Blumberg believes this supports the concept of neural plasticity, the propensity of the brain and parts of the nervous system to adapt to injury or new conditions, including new acoustic environments. He said music rehabilitation might be even more successful in improving hearing among CI users than speech therapy because “it is exercising something more direct” in the brain and doesn’t feel like treatment.

In addition to the testing at MIT, Blumberg visited a kindergarten music class at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, where many students are CI users. Blumberg hopes his project will prompt further study of music rehabilitation among cochlear implant users.

He has presented his research on numerous occasions, including at the Music and Mind Symposium at Harvard University, a conference of the Consortium of Innovative Environments in Learning (CIEL), and as a Div III presentation on the Hampshire campus.

“In spite of my confidence in Mark, I have to admit that I got a little worried when he was invited to speak this spring at a conference featuring many of the top people in auditory and music perception,” said Stillings. “But, of course, he rose to that occasion as well. What still mystifies me is where he found the time to rehearse for a complete performance of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, given on the day he passed his Division III. That's a solid hour of singing, in German, from memory.”

Blumberg followed diverse interests while at Hampshire, including voice training, philosophy, theater, film, music, and ultimately, neuroscience and cognitive science, first exploring neuroaesthetics before engaging in more empirical study. “I came to Hampshire because I was looking for a dynamic creative atmosphere, a place that really engages students from the get-go,” he said.

 

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