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This is Your Brain on Rhythm: Where Freud, Nas, the Grateful Dead and Neuroscience Meet

When Sigmund Freud outlined his theory of the structure of the mind more than 100 years ago, he explored an unconscious part of the “ego” dealing with procedural memory.  Several neuroscientists and psychologists have since proposed that it might be this type of unconscious memory, which is concerned with habits and motor skills rather than survival instincts and conflicts like the unconscious “id,” that helps artists and other creative people come up with unusual, breakthrough solutions.


The neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel writes in his book The Age if Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain that “studies of voluntary action, decision making, and creativity… have led to a view of unconscious activity that is even richer and more varied than Freud could have imagined a century ago. What is more, as we understand the biology of conscious and unconscious processes better, we are likely, in the near future, to see further important advances in the dialogue between art and brain science.”

The rapper and producer Nas was perhaps verbalizing this interplay of the conscious and unconscious when he said recently that as a kid, he found rhythm in the bouncing of a ball or in the movement of washing machine. “Rhythm seemed to be a friend of mine,” Nas said. “It seemed to be kind of like a guide to measure things by. Whether it’s how many knocks someone does on the door, [or] how many steps it takes me to answer the door, it seemed like math.”


Nas talked about rhythm with neuroscientist Dr. Adam Gazzaley and film director Adam Sjoberg. Their discussion is one segment of a four-part video collection called “Brilliant Rhythm.” The project, which explores the juncture of art and brain science, was commissioned by GE. It will be available online on the streaming platform Vevostarting Dec. 24.

The collection includes the world premiere of Sjoberg’s feature film called Shake the Dust. It features Nas as well as a collection of breakdancers and street dancers from around the world.

Another segment takes viewers “inside the head” of Greateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and explores his “brain on music.”


There is also a music video featuring an electronic track produced by DJ Matthew Dear, who built it from sampled sounds of GE machines and lab equipment. The “animation dancer” Marquese “Nonstop” Scott used the track to choreograph an original dance performance.

Gazzaley who runs a cognitive neuroscience research lab at the University of California San Francisco, says that rhythm is the underlying principle of the whole universe. “Our brain activity oscillates and has its own natural rhythms,” he says. “It’s the core of how our brain operates, how we pay attention” and much more.

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