Saturday, January 17, 2009

Carlos' Brain

clipped from
Oregon Symphony's Carlos Kalmar undergoes an experiment to map his brain on a Dvorak symphony

Saturday, January 17, 2009
The Oregonian Staff

Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar is skilled at blocking out wrong notes, sneezing audience members and other distractions to focus on the music.

But the maestro almost didn't make it through an unusually stressful rehearsal of Antonin Dvorak's Sixth Symphony, which he conducts tonight through Monday.

Kalmar lay motionless Wednesday morning in the cramped metal tube of an MRI machine, eyes clenched shut, trying to think his way through Dvorak's scherzo while a noise like a jackhammer throbbed in his ears.

"I experienced real claustrophobia," Kalmar said. "I thought, 'Holy cow, can I even do it?' "

Nothing is wrong with Kalmar's brain; quite the opposite. Oregon Health & Science University researcher Alex Stevens asked the conductor to lie in his scanner and think Dvorak because Kalmar's brain is so finely tuned to music.

Stevens is a psychologist who studies how brains deal with memory, attention and hearing. He's studied blind people with extraordinary listening skills to see how their brains handle sound differently than sighted subjects. He's also curious to know how high-level musicians hear and think about music.

"Carlos and I met three years ago," Stevens recalled. "And I said, 'I'd love to look at your brain sometime.' "

Kalmar was intrigued to know where music and concentration live in his brain. "For me," he said, "the question is always how much can the concentration of a human being, in this case myself as a musician, really drive my thoughts."

So Kalmar pushed fears aside and lay in the MRI, as powerful magnetic fields probed his brain to see which parts worked harder and used more oxygen when engaged by music.

As the machine scanned, Kalmar listened to a recording of the third movement of Dvorak's Sixth, a lively, dance-inspired passage followed by a trio so tender Kalmar said it's "only caressing the melodies."

The music sent blood coursing to Kalmar's planum temporale, an almond-sized region in the brain's left hemisphere that perceives sound. Kalmar's is "good-sized," Stevens said, common in professional musicians.

Dvorak also engaged a part of Kalmar's prefrontal cortex involved in processing language, as Stevens expected. Music "is treated like a language by the brain of musicians -- not exactly, but musicians seem to bring an analysis to it that's like language," he said.

Stevens stopped the music and put Kalmar through a second scan. He asked the maestro to imagine conducting the third movement.

It was hard to concentrate amid the mechanized clatter. Kalmar found his mind drifting, he said after the scan, and he missed a bar of music. But as the flowing trio approached, Kalmar relaxed and concentrated on the music. He started to see flashes of the score in his mind and felt an expansive freedom familiar from the rostrum, "a sense of vastness."

"I have a feeling of wideness, landscapes. But I don't actually see landscapes. It's more what the music does to me emotionally," Kalmar said. "I never imagined myself moving. I only imagine music as such."

Stevens studied the brain of the maestro imagining his music. The images look very much like those taken when Kalmar was listening the Dvorak's Sixth. The conductor's brain analyzes the music as if it were playing, works as if it were hearing the melody, not the thrum of an MRI.

To see how master musicians experience music, OHSU researcher Alex Stevens scanned Oregon Symphony conductor Carlos Kalmar's brain while he listened to a Dvorak symphony. Colored spots in the top scan show areas where his brain perceives the music. Kalmar then imagined conducting the same piece without any music playing. But his brain reacted similarly (above), as if he were hearing the melody.

"Essentially, by imagining conducting this piece in all its nuances," Stevens said, "Carlos was able to re-create the same level of brain activity in this brain circuit as was present when he listened to the music. It is astonishing."

Andy Dworkin: 503-221-8271;

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