Rocking the Brainwave Series to its Finish

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux + Guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band in the conclusion of the 2010 Brainwave Series.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event.
Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

It was a Monday evening, and the last night guests would file in for the 2010 Brainwave series at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. On one side of the stage were the familiar armchairs that have seated such guests as Philip Glass, Charlie Kaufman, Brian Greene, and Mark Morris, among many others in this edition of the series. To the other side of the stage, a new addition caught the eye: two microphones perched on stands in anticipation of this evening’s esteemed guests.

Neuroscientist and bestselling author Joe LeDoux and guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band split their Brainwave event between thoughtful discussions and performances of LeDoux’s original songs written for his band The Amygdaloids, as well as some classics selected by Kaye that played on the central themes of the evening: the mind and brain, fear and memory.

LeDoux’s research at NYU focuses on the mechanisms of fear memory in the brain using rat models, and has lent important insights to our understanding of the amygdala, the almond-shaped component of our deep-seated, evolutionarily older midbrain (we’ve previously covered LeDoux’s work in a podcast and a recent article). With Kaye providing some mind-bending solos, LeDoux performed several brain-themed tunes, both from past Amygdaloids recordings as well as from their upcoming album due for release this June, which will feature Rosanne Cash.

LeDoux and Kaye’s discussion moved from guitar to armchair, tracing a line of inquiry through our evolutionary understanding of the fear response (the most basic emotion, necessary so that we can avoid peril and enjoy the better things in life) to music theory and history, of which Kaye, the author of You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon is particularly well versed.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids.
Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

“What is it about music that gets so deeply into our brains?” asked Kaye.

“Music does have an ability to glue our past and present together in a way that not much else can,” LeDoux replied.

LeDoux then quoted a line Kaye wrote for the liner notes of the Amygdaloids’ upcoming album:

“Driven by the flash of neuron and receptor, much as the telepathic transference of audio emotion between musician and audience, music is the most mysterious of arts, one of synaptic and sympathetic overtone and vibrato, encompassing memory, language, self-definition, mirrored understanding—a central experience that is as much of our human cognition as is the need for relationships, hunting, gathering, nurturing and love.”

It was art and science dancing around the same issues, searching for truth with all the tools present. As one of LeDoux’s lyrics goes: “Mind over matter/It’s something I’ve been trying to do/break down space and time/be together with you.”

•••

The 2010 Brainwave series, produced by Tim McHenry, brought a wonderful array of artists and scientists to the stage for unscripted dialogues over the past months that ranged from the neuroscience of feng shui to the possibility of life on other planets. There was something to be learned at each night of this brilliantly curated program: some nights the conversation produced something vastly more than the sum of its participants; other nights the individual expertise and insights of the presenters alone carried the evening along. The unscripted nature of the evenings always lent a particular sense of excitement to the proceedings—an excitement that will now linger until the next iteration of Brainwave opens the doors to the Rubin’s basement auditorium.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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