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Deuel at the encephalophone
Neurologist Thomas Deuel practices on the encephalophone in preparation for a gig. (Credit: 9e2)

How many musical instruments can you play without moving a muscle? There’s at least one: the encephalophone, which turns brain waves into tunes with a beat you can dance to.

Swedish Hospital neurologist Thomas Deuel will show how it’s done, with the accompaniment of a musical ensemble, on Saturday night at Seattle’s King Street Station as part of the 9e2 arts and technology festival. There’ll be an encore performance on Monday.

Various types of encephalophones have been around for decades, but Deuel’s contraption (patent pending) has a clinical twist: He developed his version to help train the brains of patients who suffer from neurological diseases, strokes or spinal cord injuries.

“At first, I wanted to make a new musical instrument. I thought it’d be really fun and interesting from an artistic standpoint and music standpoint,” Deuel said at this week’s MIT Enterprise Forum on augmented humans. “But as I developed it, I learned a lot about the feedback aspect, and I started thinking, ‘Well, I have all these patients with disabilities … how can I use this for therapeutics?”

He said learning to play the encephalophone could be a fun way for patients to get their minds right for other brain-computer interfaces, thus improving their quality of life in more ways than just musicality.

The first step in the process is to put on an electrode cap that’s connected to a computer. Typically, this setup produces electroencephalograms, or EEG readings, which provide a rough picture of the brain’s electrical activity.

For the encephalophone, changes in brain patterns are translated into variations in the pitch of synthesized musical tones.

Deuel found that impulses from the motor cortex work best: For example, just visualizing a particular movement of your right hand, or the arch of an eyebrow, would trigger a change in pitch – even if you don’t actually make the movement.

The result isn’t exactly as nuanced as a Bach fugue, but with the right backup group, riffing on the encephalophone can lead to some groovy geekery.

“It’s not incredibly complicated,” Deuel, who’s trained as a musician as well as a neuroscientist, told GeekWire. “Anyone can learn it, really. It’s just like picking up a new instrument of any other kind: You have to go through a learning curve. … The big thing is physically not moving, but it’s not as good as a conventional instrument.”

 

Science-fiction author Greg Bear is intrigued by the technology. “As a kid, I loved electronic music … If you have the ability to create a new musical instrument like the encephalophone, you can actually really get some cool stuff down,” he said.

But looking long-term, Bear is also intrigued by the potential down side.

“One thing I do warn about with all of these things is, everything that has a one-way connection can have a two-way connection,” he said.

“As you’re making music with your head, is your iPhone recording your patterns and sending them off to Apple, or Google, or whatever,” he said, “so they have mental patterns as to what you’re doing when you’re doing something and thinking about buying something or going somewhere?”

Future devices could conceivably keep track of your brain traffic as easily as present-day smartphones keep track of your comings and goings via GPS.

“Now imagine a WikiLeaks downloading your brain patterns and putting them up for all to see, with general comparisons of what these might mean if you’re interpreting them through artistic means or political means,” Bear said. “It could be very interesting. We’re on the cutting edge now of doing what science fiction has been talking about for a very long time.”

 

Neuroscientist Thomas Deuel will play the encephalophone with accompaniment by a musical ensemble on Saturday and Monday during the 9e2 festival at Seattle’s King Street Station. Composer Marcin Pączkowski and visualist Ben Van Citters will be on hand for the multimedia performance.

Saturday’s 6 p.m. show also features “Reflections on the Oregon Project” with Keith Salmon, and “Eri, After Dark” with Mary Sherman. Monday’s 7 p.m. show also features “9 Evenings Revisited” with speakers from Cornish College of the Arts. Tickets for each show are $10 in advance via StrangerTickets.com, and festival passes are available as well.

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