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RECENT POSTS

Can Musical Training Help Fix ‘The Cocktail Party Problem?’

(cbcparklane/Flickr)

(cbcparklane/Flickr)

By Barbara Moran

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Boston University Research News website under the headline, “The Cocktail Party Problem.”

Alan Wong first noticed the problem a few years ago. In a crowded bar or restaurant, he could barely understand his companion’s conversation. Wong, 35, blames the problem on a well-spent youth: “I went to a lot of loud concerts in my 20s, and now my hearing sucks,” says Wong, executive producer at Boston University Productions. “It’s a bummer,” he adds, “especially when I have a hard time hearing the lady friends.”

Scientists call it the “cocktail party problem,” and it’s familiar to many people, even those who pass standard hearing tests with flying colors: they can easily hear one-on-one conversation in a quiet room, but a crowded restaurant becomes an overwhelming auditory jungle. For people with even slight hearing problems, the situation can be stressful and frustrating. For those with significant hearing loss, hearing aids, or cochlear implants, cocktail parties become an unnavigable sea of babble.

“It can really affect communication,” says Gerald Kidd, a BU professor of speech, language & hearing sciences. “It causes people to avoid those kinds of places, either because they don’t want to work that hard or it’s just unpleasant to be in a situation where they’re not following things. So it’s a big problem.”

Selective Listening

Kidd and his colleague Jayaganesh Swaminathan, a BU research assistant professor of speech, language & hearing sciences, study the cocktail party problem, trying to understand exactly why this particular situation is difficult for so many people. Their research, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), and published in Scientific Reports in June 2015, asked an intriguing question: can musicians—trained to listen selectively to instruments in an ensemble and shift their attention from one instrument to another—better understand speech in a crowded social setting?

“Music places huge demands on certain mechanisms in the brain, and at some levels, these overlap with language mechanisms,” says Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University and co-author on the paper, who studies the cognitive neuroscience of music and language. “The question is: would a high level of musical training advance speech and language as well?” In other words, can musical training help fix the cocktail party problem? Continue reading

A Podcast For Your Brain: The Checkup, Episode 8

It’s the only organ in the human body that tries to understand itself (though not always successfully).

Still, the brain is on our brains in the latest episode of The Checkup, our recently relaunched health news podcast, a joint venture between WBUR and Slate.

Can you enhance your brain through music? Detect dyslexia even before kids learn to read? Alleviate the symptoms of deep depression with a brain implant?

Carey and I explore these and other questions as we delve into some of the latest advances in brain research.

And in case you missed our last episode, “Scary Food Stories,” where we tell the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offer sobering news to kale devotees, you can listen now, or download it anytime.

Make sure to tune in next week, when we present: “Grossology,” an episode on how the dirty corners of your life might benefit your health.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues.

Understanding Aster: How Singing And Dancing Help Heal A Child’s Trauma

For the past four years, I’ve been involved with a local nonprofit, the North Cambridge Family Opera, which stages original productions featuring cast members age 7 to grandma, and with a range of abilities. In 2011, I wrote about how performing in the group’s opera helped children with autism. This year, I was struck by the story of how music helps heal the past trauma of one young cast member, 8-year-old Aster, adopted from Ethiopia after her birth parents died. I asked Aster’s mother to write a bit about their experience. Here’s her post:

By Marina Vyrros
Guest contributor

In the mid 1990s, I worked as a refugee aide in the Guatemalan rainforest.

Many people in that community — having fled horrific atrocities, like their villages being razed or worse — were suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Atrocities notwithstanding, a contingent of ranchero musicians somehow managed to lug homemade, oversized guitars to the camps and play music each night, often in the 100-degree heat.

While the NGO’s provided a valuable service — helping the people rebuild their external structures — the service that the ranchers provided, though perhaps less tangible, was invaluable. Their nightly gatherings, singing songs about their plight, helped the community to rebuild and heal internally.

Four years ago, when I adopted an almost 4-year old child from Ethiopia (who continues to recover from the trauma of having lost both birth parents during her formative, early childhood years) the lesson of the power of music was not lost on me.

Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician, blogger and author of “Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes,” explains what may be going on in my daughter’s brain:

“Severe meltdowns are common in children who have experienced early trauma, at the time when the higher cortical centers of the brain were not yet fully developed. Stress of a seemingly minor nature can lead the rational brain to in a sense go ‘off-line.’ The child will have access only to the lower brain centers that function more instinctively.”

Especially during her first few years in Cambridge, Aster’s meltdowns were epic, but music and dance have consistently provided the most important vehicle to help her regulate her emotions.

Before, she might bang on the walls, now, to relieve her frustration, she pounds on a djembe, an African drum, in an afterschool program; instead of crying over seemingly inconsequential things, now, to release her emotions she invents and belts out Whitney Houston-y type songs, tears streaming down her face. To release her energy — which is abundant — she dances around. Everywhere. It all helps.

Recently, over the past five months, Aster’s been singing, dancing and even acting with the North Cambridge Family Opera based in Cambridge. In this year’s production, “Rain Dance,” she and the other animals living on the South African savannah elect a Machiavellian lion in a desperate attempt to end the local drought. Trouble ensues.

All kinds of research suggests that music can minimize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and other types of trauma. A 2011 study found that guitar-playing can help veterans with PTSD drown out the traumatic memories of bombs blasting; and in 2008 researchers found some reduction of post-traumatic stress symptoms following drumming, in particular “an increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”

Dr. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child” writes that “children with behavioral issues don’t lack the will, they lack the skills.” Continue reading

FreshStart Check-In, And The Ultimate Shout-Along Catharsis Workout Playlist

Singer Carolyn Thompson


Dear FreshStarters — Please report! For those who began at the beginning, we’re now halfway to our three-month goal. How goes it? Have you adjusted your goals? Your expectations? (For background, please click on FreshStart in the “Don’t Miss” row in blue above.)

Here’s my own bulletin: After months upon months of good intentions, I’ve finally — finally! — created the ultimate workout playlist. This is not just a compilation of catchy, high-energy songs. This is a participatory playlist, in which each song has a chorus or a phrase that begs you to shout it out, thus engendering a powerful and soul-cleansing catharsis.

Case in point: The warm-up song is that Chumbawamba classic, “Tubthumping,” whose chorus repeats: “I get knocked down! But I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!” Or consider the cool-down song: a Jim’s Big Ego version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy” that makes it into a semi-rap song with an occasional shout-out of “Feelin’ groovy!”

It sounds silly. Okay, it is silly. But the good kind of silly.

Studies have repeatedly found that good music contributes to better workouts. FreshStarters, do you have playlists you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments. Or even, perhaps, bring them to the WBUR festival this Sunday at noon on the Charles. Here’s the festival’s schedule. CommonHealth has been promised our very own booth, and we’re hoping Coach Beth will come and let us grill her in person with our lingering questions. I’d be happy to bring a few Cathartic CDs, if anyone wants one.

Meanwhile, here’s my whole playlist: