science

SoundWaves explores human perception of sights and sounds

Neuroscientist Matthew Banks explained how although scientists know a great deal about which regions of the brain are responsible for understanding experiences like sights and sounds, they are still working to fit this into the context of human consciousness.

Neuroscientist Matthew Banks explained how although scientists know a great deal about which regions of the brain are responsible for understanding experiences like sights and sounds, they are still working to fit this into the context of human consciousness.

Image By: Alejandra Canales

SoundWaves is a program series established by the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to explore topics in science from the viewpoint of researchers and musicians at UW-Madison. Their most recent event, Hidden Worlds of the Human Body, explores how our brains perceive sights and sounds. 

“Our bodies are indeed a mystery to us,” SoundWaves curator Daniel Grabois said, beginning an evening of talks about how scientists are trying to understand fundamental relationships between individuals and their responses to the world.

Neuroscientist Matthew Banks explained how although scientists know a great deal about which regions of the brain are responsible for understanding experiences like sights and sounds, they are still working to fit this into the context of human consciousness.

Through interactive visual and auditory demonstrations, Banks showed that a previously unintelligible image or sound becomes immediately and irrevocably recognizable upon revealing what the audience should expect to see or hear. 

“It is not possible for that sort of sensory experience to occur through a purely feedforward system, so what has to happen is that you actually have what we call bidirectional message passing in the cortical hierarchy,” Banks said. “This idea is that at every moment in time, we are making predictions about what’s about to happen, and those predictions unfold down the cortical hierarchy.”

Kinesiologist Andrea Mason continued the conversation on how scientific inquiry seeks to understand the vital aspects of human experience by describing how researchers like herself study how people move their hands to interact with their environment. Despite a long history of research into the study of how an individual makes a simple discrete motion with one hand to grasp an object in the motor behavior field, much less is known about how people coordinate different movements with both hands at the same time. This feat is called asymmetric bimanual coordination. 

“What’s interesting when we think about asymmetric bimanual coordination is to ask the question: how does the movement of one hand influence or interfere with the movement of the other hand?” Mason said.

Mason’s research has challenged the notion that the coordination between the two hands relies on both being constrained to act as a coupled unit. His study examined the behavioral responses from individuals as they perform discrete movements with both bands. 

Similarly, Manish Patankar, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, talked about the changing perspectives on ovarian cancer within the last decade.

“Ovarian cancer actually is multiple different types of cancer that are kind of lumped together under this one umbrella name, but the tumors, the cancer, can actually can come from multiple locations within the ovary and also outside the ovary,” Patankar said.

Having greater knowledge of the different types of ovarian cancer helps doctors better tailor anti-cancer therapies to the patient’s disease, and researchers are developing drugs that block the cancer from spreading throughout the body. However, detecting ovarian cancer at these earlier stages is still difficult since no biomarkers or diagnostic tests currently exist.

“We have to create awareness and talk about the symptoms that people might experience even before the cancer is diagnosed because those symptoms are really, really critical, and if you can find these symptoms, if you can report these symptoms, then maybe we can find the cancer at a much earlier stage when we know that we can treat the disease much better,” Patankar said.

In the last scientific lecture of the evening, linguists Joe Salmons and Tom Purnell focused on variation in human languages. Salmons explained how many of the Native American languages in North American derive from a common Algonquian root language to illustrate how language variation naturally occurs over thousands of years across a continent. Purnell used the example of the Wisconsin accent to describe how, at a local level language variation occurs rapidly, as does the perception of those regional dialects.

“That’s the step where we are now — what is in that average, everyday speech that’s forming an identity as Wisconsin?” Purnell said, also noting the connection to Banks’s earlier points on how people adjust their expectations based on what they are experiencing. 

Before the night’s musical performances, Grabois spoke with Paul Rowe about his experience with vocal training, asking why breathing is such an essential technique for a singer to master. Grabois also asked for accompanying pianist Martha Fischer’s perspective on bimanual coordination.

This SoundWaves event builds on a theme started in November with Hidden Worlds of the Earth, and the next Soundwaves event, Hidden Worlds of the Universe, which will feature lectures from astronomers and physicists and will be held on April 26, concludes the theme.

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