Taking Note: NIH Director on Music & the Brain

By Sunil Iyengar, NEA Director of Research & Analysis
Man with white hair and mustache playing guitar with band
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), performs with his band for Visiting Fellows at NIH. Photo courtesy of NIH

Today happens to be the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that epoch-defining LP. Putting one’s own age in perspective, the album’s opening line—“It was 20 years ago today”—no longer conjures an ancient past. For this listener at least, 20 years traverses less of a gap than it once did.

A mere two decades ago, where was I? I had a job as a reporter and managing editor for a Chevy Chase, Maryland-based newsletter covering biomedical research and health policy. For our readership, a prized interview subject was Francis Collins, then director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

I remember in particular a phone conversation we had during a motorcycle ride (his, not mine). Not long afterward, I saw him honored by President Clinton in the East Room of the White House, alongside Craig Venter, for having completed the first sequencing of the human genome. But even before that public triumph, I had bet my fellow reporters that Collins would wake one day to find himself head of all NIH.

In fact, Collins assumed the NIH directorship in 2009, two years after picking up a Presidential Medal of Freedom for having “revolutionized genetic research,” as the award citation put it. He now oversees 27 institutes and centers, each with its own research agenda. However, a concerted strategy for NIH is articulated in a planning document subtitled Turning Discovery into Health. The plan builds on some of Collins’ signal initiatives as NIH director: forays into “precision medicine,” neuro-technology development, “Big Data” integration and analysis, and biomedical workforce diversity—just to name some of the better-known ones.

Now he’s collaborating with National Medal of the Arts recipient Renée Fleming, the opera star and soprano, on an initiative sure to captivate readers of this blog. On June 2 and 3, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Institutes of Health, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, will host a series of live events at the nexus of music, healing, and the brain. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This event took place in 2017.)

The Collins-Fleming Duet

Titled “Sound Health: Music and the Mind,” the series will include, on Day One, a performance by the National Symphony Orchestra and a conversation with the neuroscientists Daniel Levitin, Charles Limb, and Nina Kraus. Day Two will feature more live music—but also panel discussions about music therapy, music and early childhood, creative aging, and jazz, creativity, and the brain.

Collins himself will join Fleming June 3 for an onstage discussion about “The Future of Music and the Mind.” We shouldn’t be surprised, moreover, if he picks up a guitar somewhere along the way. Check out a tune he sang recently to Southern Methodist University graduates at their commencement; or if it’s piano you’d prefer, hear a composition he performed at the memorial service of his friend Christopher Hitchens.

“Science is so much a community effort, and I think music contributes to that,” he offered in an interview, unwittingly allowing me to relive my science reporter days. Some Saturday evenings at home, Collins and his wife, Diane Baker, host a music party for scientists and non-scientists alike. “We print out the songbooks with the words, because nobody can remember the second verse otherwise,” he said. “I always get to be a sort of choirmaster.”

In his description of the jam session, you hear the thrill of good science. Jam sessions, he said, are remarkable “in terms of building relationships with people, and just transporting yourself into a different kind of mental space.”

“Science is sort of like that, too. When it goes well, you’re doing things that extend beyond what you could have done yourself—by working with another person, or a whole team of people who have different skills, different dreams, different aspirations, but together you create something that’s pretty magical,” he adds. “That’s what music does, that’s what science does. I think they’re actually pretty closely connected.”

In much the same atmosphere—of improvised music and merriment—Collins first met Fleming, a partnership that led to “Sound Health: Music and the Mind.” One Saturday night in the summer of 2015, Collins attended a dinner party at which three Supreme Court justices were also present. So was Renée Fleming. At the after-dinner reception, Collins whipped out his guitar and blended into the bluegrass band playing the event. “So I kind of joined them, and Renée came up and said, ‘Oh, that sounds pretty good. Hey, maybe we could do something together?’” he recalled.

Crediting Fleming’s “amazingly wide repertory,” Collins noted that the duo played the folk song “The Water is Wide” (a song that Fleming has since reprised at NIH—by singing into a MRI machine), as well as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” At that performance, he reports, the late Justice Antonin Scalia “joined in lustily on the final line of each verse and at the end of it made a loud pronouncement: ‘Renée Fleming, you’re wasting your time in opera!’”

The Makings of a Musician-Scientist

When dealing with one of the nation’s top geneticists, it can be tricky to ascribe hereditary influence. Nonetheless, it seems probable that Collins acquired musical tastes and ability from his father, Fletcher Collins, Jr., who died in 2005 at age 98. “My father was a folk-song collector in the late ’30s in North Carolina,” the son explained. Indeed, the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center describes an extensive archive.

“During the summers, my parents ran a summer theater, which was great fun. But during the long winters, there wasn’t much to do,” Collins said, noting that “growing up on the farm, we didn’t have a television.” Fortunately, they did have a pump organ. “You had to pump the pedals in order to make a sound and that’s what I learned to play on,” he explained. “So I was writing music by the time I was about five, and I really loved that experience of learning about harmony. I briefly took lessons to learn to play the pipe organ, but I wasn’t very disciplined in that. I just liked to put out all the stops and rattle the church window.”

All the same, “growing up in a household with my dad, who was just as comfortable inviting a few people in to do a spontaneous string quartet, or having a folk-song jam, I had to learn to play something or I would be left out,” Collins added. This set-up meant that the young Collins interacted with all kinds of musicians. None other than Bob Dylan, for instance, celebrated his 18th birthday in the Collins family living room, “in this farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley that had no indoor plumbing,” Collins recalled. “That’s where Bob came of age, and he was the most sullen, unimpressive performer I ever met. And I was sure he wasn’t going anywhere.”

Fast-forward to the night of the Supreme Court justices’ gathering and Collins’ rendition, with Renée Fleming, of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Around that time, he and Fleming, who serves as an “Artistic Advisor at Large” for the Kennedy Center, began exploring a way of working together.

They settled on “the growing field of music therapy, which is finding more and more potential ways to help people with a variety of problems—everything from autism to chronic pain, to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “These fields have a lot to say to each other,” though they “haven’t necessarily been in the same room as maybe now they can be.”

“How Do You Lay Down a Memory and Retrieve It?”

Over the years, NIH has become known for stressing the need to identify biomedical mechanisms of action, or biomarkers, for the physiological processes and disease states it submits to inquiry. When I ask if this focus presents special challenges for studies of music, healing, and the brain, Collins gives me a dauntless yes. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so exciting to take this on—because we don’t like to take on easy problems!” he says.

“And yet it also comes at a time when, as part of the BRAIN Initiative [Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies], we’re trying, over the next several years, to really characterize how the circuits in the brain do a whole host of things that we don’t understand very well,” he elaborates. “Things like how do you lay down a memory and retrieve it? How do you process all kinds of information, not just music but also vision and sound?”

For example, he asked, “how does your brain have the ability to do amazingly complex manipulations, like hearing the voice of somebody down the hallway that you haven’t seen in five years, and you know who it is? How does all that work? “Part of that, of course, is potentially very relevant to this understanding of music and of music therapy.”

“The other thing that is particularly intriguing is to ask the question: why does music affect us as humans?” he noted. “Why does listening to a particular part of the Mozart Requiem give me chills every time? What’s going on there?” As Collins warms to his subject, it’s plain that he has no shortage of research questions. “Why are humans wired to respond that way?” he continued. “How has that, over the course of millions of years, developed in such a way that we can see by imaging that the brain has a music room? That music affects the auditory cortex in a slightly different way than other kinds of sounds?”

“That’s fascinating,” he concluded, “and it poses all kinds of questions about what has been the evolutionary advantage to humans, of having this ability to be inspired by music, to produce music, to take part in music as a group effort. What is that all about? Is this how we have drawn societies and families together over tough times? Goodness knows we do that now.”

I remarked upon a January 2017 planning workshop that Collins and Fleming had convened at NIH, in partnership with the Kennedy Center. I had been impressed by the range of scientific presentations about the science of music across the lifespan, but also by the high levels of engagement across multiple NIH institutes and centers. (Among others instrumental in that convening was Emmeline Edwards, the director of extramural research at NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and a member of the NEA’s Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development.)

“It’s also the case that an awful lot of scientists are themselves musicians,” Collins noted. “So there’s a personal reason here, I think, why there was such an outpouring of volunteers on my staff when I said we might get involved in this space. Nobody got any extra pay for this; they all were just basically coming forward because they thought it was a really interesting issue.”

Summarizing their intent, Collins said it was “to say, ‘What could we do as the world’s largest supporter of biomedical researcher, to try to provide some kind of path forward that would further increase the scientific credibility and the potential power of music therapy to help a whole range of people, with various illnesses, who might benefit?” The June 2 and 3 events at the Kennedy Center are bound to surface these benefits and requisite research goals.