cal recognition.

Why do they think the hormone might have this effect? According to Seibert, the social bonding she experienced while performing music is also associated with listening to music. It is easy to forget this nowadays, when so many people listen to songs through earphones—a private experience that seems to cut them off from the rest of the world. But for most of our history as a species, listening to music has been a communal experience. In the language of cognitive science, then, music is a "social cue," just as a human face is. And since oxytocin primes the brain to respond to human faces, perhaps it activates the brain to respond to music, too.

Seibert has other ideas that she would like to test in future studies. For example, she suspects that while social bonding enhances our experience of music, the converse may also be true: Music may trigger the release of oxytocin and activate social attention and recognition. As yet, no one has examined the possibility that such a mechanism exists. Seibert could become the first cognitive scientist to pursue it.

Speaking of Music

For her part, Dawson has always loved doing research. "In elementary school, when everybody else was doing a book report, I was the kid doing an experiment and making sure I had an independent and a dependent variable," she says. "I find it exhilarating to discover things." Dawson started out as a biology major, in hopes of learning how the mind worked. But after taking a class with Institute Professor Mark Turner in the cognitive science department, she switched majors. "I'd always been interested in cognitive science—I just didn't have a name for it," she says.

Her musical interests have also shifted during her college years. Initially, the modern oboe was her primary instrument. But when she attended a faculty recital of early music, she was drawn to the sweet, pure sound of the baroque oboe and declared her second major in early music. About the same time, she became aware of a growing field of study that integrates music and cognitive science.

The language that people use to describe art has always interested Dawson, and a variety of experiences helped determine the direction of her research. These included a linguistics course taught by cognitive science chair Todd Oakley, many conversations with Brandt and a music theory course she took at the Cleveland Institute of Music. "I was listening to how the musicians in the class were talking about music— in tune, out of tune, on key, off key," recalls Dawson. The professor, Diane Urista, encouraged her to pursue this line of inquiry. Dawson then worked with Brandt, her advisor for her senior project, on research design. "It's hard to control for all the variables," she observes. "And how do you really control for art?"

The preliminaries for her study—obtaining IRB approval and recruiting 30 student participants—took longer than Dawson anticipated. But last fall, she was ready to launch her project. In a cognitive science lab in Crawford Hall, pairs of participants sat at separate computers and listened to the third movement of Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 3—a familiar work with a clear emotional progression. Then each pair of listeners talked for three minutes about the music. Although Dawson was present during their conversations, she remained unobtrusive. She wanted the participants to feel as comfortable and spontaneous as possible in a laboratory setting.

In another part of the experiment, participants viewed Willem de Kooning's Police Gazette, an abstract painting whose strong emotional content would stimulate conversation without steering it in any one direction. Then they discussed the painting for three minutes. Dawson included Police Gazette in her study so that she could compare conversations about music with conversations about visual art.

During this phase of her study, Dawson read many reviews by art and music critics and made a discovery. "I noticed music reviews used words like 'sharp' or 'bright' that did not involve sound," she recalls. Taking a closer look, she realized that art was almost always described in metaphors involving senses other than the one to which the art was addressed.

Dawson was surprised by this indication that metaphor might be essential to describing art. But then she thought about chocolate. How would she describe it? "Smooth," "rich," or maybe "intense," none of which are taste-related words. "We don't seem to have words to describe things as they are, at least for aesthatic experiences," she observes. "I think this is a fascinating revelation of the human mind."


Caitlin Dawson recorded her research subjects as they discussed a symphony and a painting. Now, as she listens to their conversations on her computer, she is analyzing the metaphors they used to describe these works.
Photo: Daniel Milner

Now, as she studies videotapes of the conversations, Dawson is looking for overarching conceptual metaphors that reveal how people think about music and art. Many participants, for instance, spoke about the Brahms symphony as if it told a story, with a conflict and a resolution. This is an almost universal response, not confined to college students. "There is something about music that causes us to associate it with other things in our lives that have the same structure," Dawson says.

The research participants also personified aspects of both the painting and the music, saying, for example, "The horns are angry," or "The black stripes are attacking the yellow triangles." Dawson finds that the language describing the music is far more complex and sophisticated than the language describing the painting. "It's my goal to figure out the reason for this, and to gain some insights about why music is so special," she says. "I want to understand why humans have this strong attachment to music and this multi-modal way of expressing it."

Both Seibert's and Dawson's studies go to the heart of cognitive science's quest to understand the human brain and its relationship to music, language and culture. Says Brandt, "I am proud and happy to be involved in projects as fascinating as these."

Meredith Holmes FSM '73 is a freelance writer.