Scientists Reconstruct Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” Using Brain Waves

Scientists have reconstructed Pink Floyd’s The Wall classic “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 1)” by using human brainwaves. The 1979 song was decoded using recordings of electrical brain activity.

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“It sounds a bit like they’re speaking underwater,” said Professor Robert Knight, a neurologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who conducted the music study, “but it’s our first shot at this.”

Researchers at Albany Medical Center in New York, implanted electrodes directly on the surface of the brains of 29 patients, from 2009 to 2015, as they underwent surgery for epilepsy. The patients’ neuronal activity was “recorded” while the music played, allowing analysts to reproduce the song. “You can actually listen to the brain and restore the music that person heard,” said Gerwin Schalk, a neuroscientist who runs a research lab in Shanghai, China, and collected data for this study. 

The study, published in PLoS Biology, is an attempt to find the links between music and helping restore the natural speech in patients struggling to communicate due to disabling neurological conditions, including sclerosis and strokes. Findings will also help aid in the development of “speech prosthetic” devices for patients that better replicate the natural tone and cadence of speech.

Throughout the past several years, scientists have made some major breakthroughs and have been able to draw out words from electrical signals produced by the brains of people with muscle paralysis when they attempt to speak.

“Another Brick in the Wall” was specifically chosen for this music study since older patients seemed to like the song. “If they said, ‘I can’t listen to this garbage,'” the results would not have been the same,” said Schalk, who added that the blend of music melodies and lyrics in the song helped them analyze how the brain responds to both.

In previous studies, the same researchers were also able to decipher speech and silently imagined words from the brain, but many of these recordings had more of a “robotic quality,” said Knight, who conducted the “Pink Floyd” study along with the postdoctoral fellow Ludovic Bellier.

[RELATED: Pink Floyd’s Opus to Syd Barrett: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”]

“Music, by its very nature, is emotional and prosodic – it has rhythm, stress, accent and intonation,” added Knight. “It contains a much bigger spectrum of things than limited phonemes in whatever language, that could add another dimension to an implantable speech decoder.”

Previous studies have also decoded electrical activity from the brain’s speech motor cortex, which controls the movement of the jaw, tongue, larynx, and lips in forming words. The current study focused on the recordings from the auditory region of the brain, where sound is processed.

The “music” study also spotlighted a new area of the brain that can detect rhythm when the temporal lobe of patients reacted to the 16th notes of the guitar in the song. The study concluded that the right side of the brain was more in tune with music than the left.

Photo: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

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