The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.
In this installment, we’ve brought together recording artist Salami Rose Joe Louis and neuroscientist Henry Mahncke.
Salami Rose Joe Louis, the musical alter ego of Bay Area artist Lindsay Olsen, merges her background in planetary sciences with her talent as a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. Drawing from genres like jazz, rock, hip-hop, and inspired by artists such as Shuggie Otis and Stereolab, Olsen crafts an exceptional sonic experience, often exploring concepts like multiverses and climate change.
Her latest and greatest, Akousmatikous, was released on May 19, 2023, and features an exciting array of collaborations, including with Brijean of Ghostly International and Soccer96, an offshoot of The Comet is Coming. Olsen’s recent work includes collaborations with Toro y Moi, a remix for labelmates Hiatus Kaiyote, and writing credits on GRAMMY-winning rapper Baby Keem’s “Scapegoat.” She has also toured with big names like Flying Lotus and The Cinematic Orchestra.
Akousmatikous, a term signifying a sound whose source is unidentifiable, was used by the Akousmatikoi, a sect of 5th-century BC Pythagorean mystics, denoting their focus on listening and harmony. Olsen resonates with this concept, highlighting the act of listening as a universal quest for understanding.
Olsen’s previous albums, Zdenka 2080 and Chapters of Zdenka, released under the Brainfeeder label, garnered critical acclaim for their unique blend of experimental pop, abstract beats, and sci-fi narrative. Akousmatikous is its eagerly awaited sequel.
Henry Mahncke is the CEO of Posit Science, a company specializing in developing brain training software designed to improve cognitive function. The company’s principal product, BrainHQ, is an online brain-training system that offers a suite of exercises aimed at improving attention, memory, brain speed, intelligence, navigation, and people skills.
Mahncke’s work at Posit Science combines his expertise in neurology and cognitive science with his interest in software development to help individuals maintain and improve their cognitive health.
Prior to joining Posit Science, Mahncke completed a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, where he worked with renowned neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich.
SRJL: Is every memory stored in our brain?
HM: I would say that most memories are stored mostly in the brain.
Most people think of a memory as being kind of like a little note to themselves – like “I had chicken for dinner last night.” When they want to remember what they had for dinner last night, they imagine themselves opening up a filing cabinet, finding the note, reading it, and then they remember what they had for dinner last night. And using this metaphor, they might ask – is my brain the filing cabinet where memory is stored? And even – is there a specific portion of my brain that is the seat of memory, the filing cabinet where I store all those memories until I need them?
But that’s not actually how the brain remembers things.
When you’re having chicken for dinner at night, all kinds of sensory information comes into your brain – the sight of the meal, the smell of the food, the smell and taste as you eat it. Maybe even the conversation you have with someone you’re having dinner with. These sensory experiences activate huge swaths of your brain – and that huge complex activity is the basis of your conscious experience of having dinner at the time.
And because the brain is “plastic” – constantly re-wiring itself in response to patterns of neural activity – those different parts of the brain being activated at the same time as you have dinner become wired together into an ensemble that plays in sync – just like an orchestra playing a plays in sync during a symphony.
Neuroscientists say that “neurons that fire together, wire together” – and that wiring together forms the basis of memory. So that when you think back on last night, the slightest bit of activity in your brain related to that dinner – perhaps just thinking of where you were – activates all of the neurons related to the experience of the dinner – and your brain relives the experience of dinner which you experience as the memory of dinner.
So that’s all in your brain for sure.
HM: But let me ask you about a different kind of memory. As a musician, you memorize music in order to play music. And when you do that, it involves your brain as well as your body. As you play a complex piece like Akousmatikous, how do you feel your memory working in your brain – and in your body?
SRJL: That is a very interesting question. The process of memorization has two stages for me.
The first stage is entirely visual. I memorize the shapes of the chords on the piano and come up with some sort of pattern/symmetry road map to remember the chord progression.
But while playing live it becomes 100 percent muscle memory. In fact, I actively try to not think about what I am playing because as soon as I think about the chords, I forget them and they are nowhere to be found in my brain haha.
I have to quiet my thoughts completely and just feel the music in my body and to be able to remember the music. It helps me to dance or move my body while playing and then I am able to remember the chords. It is almost like a meditation, trying to keep my brain as dormant as possible.