Music to help the deaf and the depressed
Professor Asoke K. Nandi studies the patterns that music generates in the brain. With the help of these patterns people may in the future be able to hear without ears.
“If different music produces different responses in the brain, it may be possible to represent music in the brain through electrical impulses,” says Nandi.
If Professor Nandi’s research objective is realised, it could help the hearing-impaired to hear. However, Nandi still modestly calls his objective a sci-fi story. Firstly, we have to find out whether the responses generated by music in the brain really differ from one another and in which part of the brain they occur.
His FiDiPro (Finland Distinguished Professor Programme) research project, which is based on machine learning, offers basic research as a foundation for achieving this objective. The project also aims to develop tools for recording and analysing the signals conveyed by the brain.
In functional magnetic resonance imaging the brain is represented by about a million constituent parts, each of whose response to music (or other stimuli) is recorded. “In other words, picking out useful data is something like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Nandi explains.
Even if the FiDiPro project’s results do not make it possible for a deaf person to listen to a symphony in the near future, the other applied research involved in the project may bring concrete results, Nandi believes. The brain’s reactions to music can be used in music therapy, where depression, for example, can be treated by electrical stimulation of the brain.
In addition, the research may lead to applications for the entertainment industry. According to Nandi, the companies involved in the FiDiPro project are interested specifically in research that investigates the origins of musical preferences and the principles governing musical choices.
Another theme of applied research is the pronunciation of English. Nandi believes that learning a language can be made easier by finding the most essential rules governing pronunciation.
“Finland should specialise”
Asoke K. Nandi is a professor at the University of Liverpool, which is known for its research into signal processing and machine learning.
During his FiDiPro professorship, he researches at the University of Jyväskylä’s Faculty of Information Science. The brain reaction measurements are carried out at Aalto University’s Brain Research Unit. From the Academy of Finland, two Centres of Excellence are involved in the cross-disciplinary project: Interdisciplinary Music Research and Learning, and Motivation Research. The project, started in 2010, will continue until August 2014.
According to Nandi it is important that the FiDiPro professorship enables him to be physically present in the research project. He considers it would be worth attracting more international researchers to Finland. Visiting researchers are needed to pass on information about the achievements of Finland’s scientific community. “Usually research is made known internationally through publication in scientific journals, which is necessary, but not sufficient,” Nandi points out.
Professor Nandi also believes that by specialising, Finland could strengthen its position in the global scientific community.
“Finland is not a particularly big or densely populated country, and therefore it cannot possibly do everything.”
In Nandi’s view Finland should decide in what fields it wants to succeed. One of these could well be research into the human mind through brain signal processing and machine learning.
“We already use music to alter our moods, but it offers very much wider possibilities than are at present realised,” says FiDiPro Professor Asoke K. Nandi.
Text: Anna Kauppi