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Diving into the minds of musicians to uncover new learning strategies

Pierre Legrain
Pierre Legrain
CNRS Research Director in perception and memory at Institut Pasteur

When study­ing the brain, neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gists tend to focus on the struc­ture and phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tions of our body’s most vital organ. Hom­ing in on the dif­fer­ent cells (name­ly, neu­rones and glia) sci­en­tists study the ways in which they inter­act through neur­al net­works and chem­i­cal mes­sages in the form of neu­ro­trans­mit­ters (sero­tonin, dopamine, adren­a­line etc.). And how, bio­log­i­cal­ly, the mul­ti­far­i­ous com­po­nents of this cere­bral orches­tra har­monise as one. How­ev­er, they do less often study the thoughts gen­er­at­ed by these bio­chem­i­cal and phys­i­o­log­i­cal elements. 

As such, biol­o­gist Prof. Pierre Legrain (Insti­tut Pas­teur) is tak­ing a rather uncon­ven­tion­al approach to study the human mind to uncov­er how the brain learns new things.  Con­trary to stan­dard prac­tise, he uses a holis­tic phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal exper­i­ment that con­sists of simul­ta­ne­ous­ly col­lect­ing exper­i­men­tal data on per­cep­tion and indi­vid­ual reports from test sub­jects through intro­spec­tive inter­views. He asks the ques­tion: what does a per­son expe­ri­ence when his/her brain per­forms spe­cif­ic functions? 

Learning to learn

“There are chil­dren for whom teach­ing meth­ods we use today do not work,” he announces. “I mean, there are a lot of kids who have learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, and we tend to think that these kids aren’t ‘good’ at school. Yet, there is a lot of evi­dence to sug­gest that it is the way we teach these chil­dren that needs to be adapt­ed – it’s not their fault.” 

He is refer­ring to learn­ing skills that, he says, most of us take for grant­ed. Pre­vi­ous work sug­gests that many chil­dren who are strug­gling in the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem do so because they have not mas­tered the men­tal strate­gies nec­es­sary to suc­ceed in school. As a result, many of those who strug­gle to learn the basics of read­ing, math, or even social skills, may sim­ply be lack­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that can, in fact, be learnt. 

“For exam­ple, when you hear or see things in your mind and relate those ideas to the real world, you are improv­ing your cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. This process is implic­it and seems obvi­ous to many of us, but it is not obvi­ous for every­one,” he says.  Legrain works close­ly with his col­league Alain Letailleur, a  spe­cialised teacher for pupils with severe learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, who has exam­ined these the­o­ries on those chil­dren. In doing so, he had pre­vi­ous­ly helped chil­dren learn to bet­ter use their brains by pick­ing up cog­ni­tive strate­gies such as men­tal visu­al, audi­to­ry or kinaes­thet­ic asso­ci­a­tions, such as com­bin­ing a math­e­mat­i­cal oper­a­tion with the ges­ture made on the calculator. 

Legrain and Letailleur there­fore seek to bet­ter under­stand what learn­ing strate­gies are pos­si­ble in order to offer them to chil­dren with learn­ing difficulties. 

Musicians under the microscope

To study what hap­pens to the brain as it learns – in terms of thoughts, not in a direct­ly bio­log­i­cal sense – they are using musi­cians as test sub­jects. Under con­trolled con­di­tions, they played them a musi­cal note, which they then had to iden­ti­fy as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. “In gen­er­al, they respond almost imme­di­ate­ly,” he points out. It’s an impor­tant fac­tor because the test relies on the log­ic that the sub­jects all hear exact­ly the same thing and iden­ti­fy it as the same note. There­fore, the input and out­put of the brain are as con­stant as it can get. 

The only thing that changes, there­fore, is the thought that occurs in the musician’s mind. He con­tin­ues, “after the response, we asked them to describe what they felt when their brain iden­ti­fied the note.” They did this in dif­fer­ent ways, some­times using a draw­ing to for­malise the idea. Inter­est­ing­ly, the musi­cians described a vari­ety of expe­ri­ences – many of which were very dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er. Amongst them were descrip­tions of vibra­tions, images, asso­ci­a­tion with emo­tions, their musi­cal instru­ments, bod­i­ly respons­es or more, allow­ing the team to cre­ate a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent men­tal strate­gies used by their test subjects.

Exam­ples of respons­es from study par­tic­i­pants (musi­cians) who were asked to describe how they « knew » which note was being played (adapt­ed from1).

Nonethe­less, the key find­ing came from com­par­ing the two dis­tinct groups in the sam­ple of musi­cians they stud­ied. He explains, “on the one hand, we had music stu­dents and on the oth­er, pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians. The men­tal mech­a­nisms described by the stu­dents tend­ed to be relat­ed to learn­ing strate­gies, where­as the pro­fes­sion­als used thoughts more relat­ed to their artis­tic prac­tice, such as the instru­ment they play.” Hence, with a musician’s ‘exper­tise’ or pro­fi­cien­cy in their craft, the sub­jects seemed to have devel­oped their own per­son­alised men­tal strat­e­gy for iden­ti­fy­ing musi­cal notes. “We named these men­tal anchor­points [appuis men­taux, in French].” 

From the music hall to the classroom 

The next step will be quite com­pli­cat­ed because it means tak­ing sev­er­al musi­cians who use dif­fer­ent men­tal anchor­points and study­ing them togeth­er. “We are now exam­in­ing the dif­fer­ent strate­gies used in the hopes of objec­tive­ly clas­si­fy­ing them. We will then need to find a way to specif­i­cal­ly inter­fere with one or anoth­er men­tal anchor­point to specif­i­cal­ly pre­vent a musi­cian from recog­nis­ing the note.” 

This approach is nov­el in that it attempts to link bio­log­i­cal find­ings to the psy­che, which has rarely been stud­ied until now, so the chal­lenge is there. To bridge this gap, the team will com­bine their find­ings with neu­roimag­ing to iden­ti­fy the neur­al cir­cuits that are involved. “We would like to be able to bet­ter char­ac­terise these men­tal anchor­points in order to find effec­tive ways to apply them to aca­d­e­m­ic learning.” 

Interview by James Bowers


Pierre Legrain

Pierre Legrain

CNRS Research Director in perception and memory at Institut Pasteur

Pierre Legrain has published over 80 scientific articles. After a PhD in genetics and immunology, he focused his research at the Institut Pasteur in molecular and cell biology, more specifically developing a method for the exploration of protein-protein interactions at a large scale. Based on this technology, he co-founded in 1998 the first pasteurian biotech company, Hybrigenics, where he served as scientific director for five years. He also participated over fifteen years to the Human Proteome Organization (HUPO) where he has been in charge of the implementation of the worldwide Human proteome project. He joined the Ecole Polytechnique as Dean of the Graduate School (2011-2014) before returning to the Institut Pasteur as Executive VP development (2014-2017). Since 2018, he is back to full-time research activity with a project, Intermuse, dealing with biological inheritance and cultural transmission.

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