Combining a love of music with scientific curiosity, Dr. Indre Viskontas is a Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is pioneering the application of neuroscience to musical training, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco where she teaches Biological Psychology. This Canadian Lithuanian is defying traditional career boundaries. Not only is she a neuroscientist, but she spends much of her time performing as an opera singer and is an avid performer of chamber music. If that wasn’t enough, Dr. Viskontas is also a passionate communicator, She made her television debut as a co-host of Miracle Detectives, a six hour-long episode documentary series that aired on The Oprah Winfrey Network. Her 24-lecture course called Essential Scientific Concepts was released by The Great Courses as both a series of videos on DVD and audio lectures on CD, Rimas Černius engaged Dr. Viskontas in an informal conversation, about her scientific work, her singing, and the connections between the two.
What prompted you to leave sunny Toronto for dreary California?
Ha! the weather, clearly. No, I first moved to dreary London for a year after my undergraduate degree. Then I was accepted to UCLA, which happened to be one of the top 5 neuroscience programs in the U.S. They offered me a very generous scholarship and I felt that California, known for making dreams come true, might be a good place for me to try to build a non-traditional career: that of a neuroscientist opera singer.
You received a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA. What is cognitive neuroscience?
Cognitive Neuroscience is the study of how the thoughts, feelings, emotions and all the stuff of the mind emerges from the physical workings of the brain.
How did you become interested in neuroscience?
I read Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist on Mars in High School and was fascinated by it. So I took some psychology classes at the University of Toronto and was hooked.
What was the subject of your disertation?
My dissertation was focused on understanding how new memories of things that have happened to us, or that we’ve experienced, are formed. Specifically, I was interested in how episodic memory — our conscious memory for events in our lives, like the high school prom, or what you did last Friday — are stored and remembered in the brain. There’s a part of the brain that we know is necessary for this type of memory. I focused on that part, called the medial temporal lobe, but we didn’t yet know what role each little part of it plays in memory. So I used two techniques: functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), to look inside the brains of healthy people, and direct intracranial recordings from patients who had epilepsy and were waiting for brain surgery. I asked my healthy subjects and my epilepsy patients to remember different things and then I recorded what was happening in the different parts of the medial temporal lobe while they were doing that.
You received a Master’s Degree in opera from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What motivated you to study music in addition to neuroscience? How did your interest in music arise?
My love for opera and music in general is lifelong: instilled in me by genes and my mother [Dalia Viskontas is a renowned choral director in Toronto, Ontario]. All throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I trained my voice. Then, once I finished the PhD, I realized that there were still some gaps in my musical education that I wanted to fill. So I did the masters program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Were you exposed to Lithuanian folk music in your youth?
Did this influence your decision? Oh absolutely. I sang in many Lithuanian choirs. I spent every summer at Lithuanian camps, and participated in the folk dance group “Gintaras.” I also included Lithuanian music in many of my recitals. I would actually like to reconnect with it and explore some of the music by living composers now. But yes, I’m sure that singing folk songs was a big part of my development as a professional singer later on.
You are on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What courses do you teach there?
I teach a course called “Training the Musical Brain.” I help musicians apply the principles of neuroscience to devise more effective and efficient practice strategies. I also give talks to the general conservatory community.
You recently gave a recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, but the recital was also a lecture on music and neuroscience. Have your other recitals been a similar mix of art and science?
That was the first time that I really put the two together, In the past, I would either perform or lecture but not both. Maybe once in a while I would demonstrate something by singing it in a lecture but this was something very different.
You have appeared on the operatic stage. Which performances, which operas were most memorable for you?
I love working on contemporary operas. I’ve created a few roles and one in particular, the lead in Felsenfeld’s opera The Bloody Chamber, was my favorite. But I’ve also loved singing both the Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s the Marriage of Figaro. It’s such a masterpiece and performing one role and then the other was so much fun, especially seeing each character’s perspective!
Is there a particular operatic repertoire to which you are drawn?
My favorite composer is Verdi, but I also love singing Bel Canto – Italian opera from the middle of the 19th century.
Do you have any recitals or operatic appearances planned for the near future?
Yes – there are always things on the horizon. Recently, I commissioned a new reduction of Copland songs for voice and string quartet that I’ll be premiering at the Legion of Honor in June in San Francisco. Then I’ll likely perform them again on a recital program in the Fall. I’ll also be taking my music and the brain lecture performance to Pasadena in the early Fall as part of Pasadena Opera’s 2015/2016 season.
In your recent recital you mentioned an amateur painter, Ann Adams, who developed aphasia and whose painting became more expressive as the disease progressed. Is an increase in creativity common with people who develop neurological diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s? Have scientists been able to explain why or how this occurs?
It’s not particularly common in patients with Alzheimer’s disease – they have visuo-spatial problems that make it hard for them to make visual art, but patients with aphasia or semantic dementia, who lose the ability to communicate using language, do sometimes show a paradoxical emergence of visual creativity. I’ve written a few book chapters and papers about the topic. But the bottom line is that it speaks to our human need to express ourselves in whatever way we can, even when our brains are ravaged by disease. Part of the answer might lie in the fact when the more dominant parts of our brain, like those in which language resides, begin to degenerate, the rest of the brain takes over more of our behaviors and thoughts. And sometimes we consider the output from those other parts of the brain as more creative than what our dominant regions might come up with. We call this process “release from inhibition.”
In your recital / lecture you mentioned the case of Maurice Ravel. You said that towards the end of his life he suffered from neurodegeneration and that this affected his music. Can neuroscience give insights into the process of musical composition? Have you studied any other composers who have suffered from neurological diseases?
Yes, I think so. We can’t go back and study his brain because it’s gone, but we can piece together symptoms and look at the influence that they might have had on his compositions. It’s all still speculative, of course, but it gives us a direction that we can then follow with living composers and patients. I haven’t personally done that kind of work with other composers though some of my colleagues have.
Does your research include the therapeutic value of music? Are patients suffering from neurodegeneration more or less receptive to music? Can listening to music slow down the process of neurodegeneration in patients suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s?
My own research hasn’t been expanded to music therapy yet, but yes, there is lots of evidence that music therapy can be very helpful in dementia patients, particularly those who are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (a recent movie Alive Inside does a wonderful job showing this) and Parkinson’s disease. In AD, music can help connect someone who is non-responsive with her loved ones. In Parkinson’s disease, where one of the primary problems is in initiating voluntary movement, music can help facilitate activity, that is, patients can use the rhythm in the music to help them walk and move around more fluidly.
In your recital / lecture you emphasized the importance of repetition in music and the pleasure we feel when our brains detect patterns. But you also mentioned the importance of novelty. Is this a contradiction? Can music be reduced simply to the pleasure human beings feel from repeated patterns that are arranged in novel ways?
At first glance, it does seem contradictory. But repetition is what establishes the pattern and we enjoy finding new patterns in things. Great music often has repetition with tweaks. We call this the “development of a theme.” You first establish a theme or a melody and then the listener is delighted when you repeat it but with slight embellishments or changes. So you have both novelty and repetition acting together to give people that pleasurable “aha” moment or moments. And I think the reason we find it pleasurable is because it signals intention. We begin to understand what the composer or the musician is trying to say and we have evolved to like that. It’s rewarding when we understand those around us. The caveman who could understand his peers and predict their behavior likely had the tools he needed to live long enough in his tribe to reproduce and pass on those genes! So the key is not just the repetitions in novel ways – but how they signal intentions – thoughts and emotions- of the people who are performing them. Music, after all, is about communication.
Science seeks to discover principles that are applicable generally. But in music there is so much variation. Some people love Mozart, others hate him. Some people love rock, others hate it. Can neuroscientists hope to explain such variations?
Absolutely! It turns out that there are universal features of music in any genre that people gravitate towards: repetition and structure are two examples and musical tastes depend on a person’s experience with that musical genre. The more you listen, the more you’ll like it, for the most part. I always tell people who hate a particular type of music that the best way to get over that hate is to immerse yourself in that genre. You’ll probably end up a convert.
You are affiliated with the Memory and Aging Program at the University of California at San Francisco. What is this program? What is your role in it?
I did my post-doc at the MAC at UCSF and I remain affiliated in the sense that I still have a few projects that I work on with them. For example, I’m an editor of the journal Neurocase, whose chief editor is at UCSF. That’s where I did the work with dementia patients. I still sometimes give talks to their employees, patients and caregivers.
You are a co-founder of “Opera on Tap.” What does “Opera on Tap” have on tap for the near future?
Opera on Tap is a nationwide organization dedicated to making opera part of popular culture. We want to tear down the stereotype that opera is boring and only for the rich. So we perform culturally relevant, re-imagined and edgy versions of classic operas, as well as new works, in non-traditional spaces like black-box theaters, bars, cafes, art galleries and so on. We perform at bars every month in San Francisco and then once or twice a year we put on larger productions in theaters. We just finished La Tragedie de Carmen, set in a casino in Chinatown of 1947 San Francisco, with raw footage from that era projected on the stage. Now we’re going to work on the next production but I can’t reveal what that will be yet!
You have recorded a series of lectures on essential scientific concepts for The Teaching Company. How did you get involved with The Teaching Company? Was it a good experience for you?
I loved working with TTC. They recruited me after hearing me give a talk at a conference. And I’m delighted to say that I’m working on my next course with them: Brain Myths Exploded!Due to be released in 2016.
There is an active Lithuanian community in California. Have you had an opportunity to participate in any of their activities? Have San Francisco Lithuanians taken an interest in your musical appearances and your scientific work?
There is! In fact, I’m the conductor of our little choir, Ukana and we’re deep in preparation now for the Lithuanian Song Festival in Chicago this July. But they have also been very supportive of my work in SF and at every one of my shows, there’s a small but passionate contingent of Lithuanians. Which is totally awesome.
Have you shared your expertise in neuroscience with any scholars in Lithuania? Is scholarly inquiry similar to yours being done in Lithuania to your knowledge?
I haven’t. I don’t have many connections there. Though I’d be delighted to be connected with them. I did mentor a few students through Global Lithuanian Leaders. But that’s about it so far.