Sound Decisions

Researcher Beats His Own Drum in Considering How Brains Process and Understand Sound
By Liam Farrell | Photo by John T. Consoli

Every time Nikolas Francis crashes a cymbal, taps a tom-tom or brushes a snare drum, it’s both an art and a science.

A percussionist in the D.C. jazz scene, Francis is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and the first faculty member recruited by the new UMD Brain and Behavior Institute. He has built a career investigating our relationship with sound—specifically, how our brains process the cacophony of everyday life and allow us to recognize a bird call, react to a siren and hold a conversation.

He recently spoke to Terp about what we don’t know about sound, how his research could help fill those gaps and how he switches between the lab and the stage.

Why do you study sound?
Sound is ubiquitous. We use it to communicate, to express emotions, for survival. But we know very little about how sound is represented in the brain and how we get from acoustics to perception is a total unknown—going from “I hear it” to “I know what it is.”

What methods do you use to try to find the answers?
My lab examines brain activity in mice as they perform behavioral tasks that require listening. For example, we train mice to remember sounds over short periods of time and consider how these sounds are processed in the mouse brain relative to a human. That comparison is how basic science informs medicine.

What applications could this research have for humans?
The quality of a listening experience depends on how the ear and brain process sound—a young person with hearing loss and an older person with perfectly good hearing can have difficulty listening to speech in a crowded environment. How do you enhance the listening experience for both? One way could be teaching listening strategies that change how the brain processes sound. That’s a possible direction of my research, to see how auditory interventions might induce specific kinds of brain plasticity that enhance listening.

How has improvisational music influenced your scientific work, and vice versa?
To generate something (musically) interesting, you must listen very intently, but also remember what just happened and what you want to happen next: Is what I’m about to do going to sound to the listener as if it had to occur because of what I just did? If we, as an improvising group, can do that successfully, then we’ve made some music.

That analytical process of using my experience to select the ideas that I know are going to move forward and leave other ideas out—both my training as a scientist and my experience as an improvising musician have helped me become more efficient at that process.


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