Sting vs. MRI, Don’t Scan so Close to Me

Researchers at Canada’s McGill University didn’t turn on a red light, but managed nevertheless to lure musician Sting into a lab for an unusual neuroscience study based on his brain scans. The findings, published in the journal Neurocase, offer insights into how gifted individuals find connections between seemingly disparate thoughts or sounds, in fields ranging from arts to politics or science, according to the research team.

The scientists used both functional and structural MRI to map the rock star’s brain and then multivoxel pattern analysis and representational dissimilarity analysis to analyze the scans.

“These state-of the-art techniques really allowed us to make maps of how Sting’s brain organizes music,” says lead author Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist at McGill University. “That’s important because at the heart of great musicianship is the ability to manipulate in one’s mind rich representations of the desired soundscape.”

Levitin teamed up with Scott Grafton, a leading brain-scan expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara, to analyze the scans, determining which songs Sting found similar to one another and which ones are dissimilar based on activations of brain regions. “At the heart of these methods is the ability to test if patterns of brain activity are more alike for two similar styles of music compared to different styles. This approach has never before been considered in brain imaging experiments of music,” says Grafton.

The research stemmed from a serendipitous encounter several years ago. Sting had read Levitin’s book “This Is Your Brain on Music” and was coming to Montreal to play a concert. His representatives contacted Levitin and asked if he might take a tour of the lab at McGill. Levitin, whose lab has hosted visits from many popular musicians over the years, says he readily agreed, adding a unique twist. “I asked if he also wanted to have his brain scanned. He said ‘yes.’”

“Sting’s brain scan pointed us to several connections between pieces of music that I know well but had never seen as related before,” Levitin says. Piazzola’s “Libertango” and the Beatles’ “Girl” proved to be two of the most similar. Both are in minor keys and include similar melodic motifs, the research revealed. Another example: Sting’s own “Moon over Bourbon Street” and Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions,” both of which are in the key of F minor, have the same tempo (132 beats per minute) and a swing rhythm.

The methods introduced with this research, Levitin says, can be used to study all sorts of things, from how athletes organize their thoughts about body movements; how writers organize their thoughts about characters; to how painters think about color, form and space.