This Is Your Brain On Pink Floyd
The Pollen Audio Group is a California-based team of audio engineers and researchers who work with companies — from small startups to tech giants like Google and Dolby— to help them build better audio into their products through expert consulting and prototyping. (See the group’s interesting , in Dolby Atmos. The song was selected for two reasons. First, its atmospheric vibe offers a broad range of emotional stimuli and varying levels of intensity. And second, it was composed by Pink Floyd’s keyboard player, the late Richard Wright, whose estate contributed to funding the project., from last year’s Audio Engineering Society convention, exploring the emotional response to head-tracked spatial audio in virtual reality.) In October of 2023, the Pollen Audio Group conducted the “Brainstorms Project” at Dolby’s London headquarters, where approximately 100 participants had their brain activity recorded while listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” from the classic 1973 album
The purpose of the project was to use EEG readings to capture the subtle changes in neural activity among the listeners, and then study those results to look for correlations that might provide insight into the ways our brains respond to sound. There was no principal hypothesis, so the researchers weren’t looking for anything in particular, but the readings show the listeners’ excitement, interest, relaxation, and stress, at various points in the song. The researchers were perhaps most curious about Alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation. A greater understanding of how music affects Alpha waves might allow neuroscientists to develop more effective audio-therapy techniques.
The journey Pollen have taken with Richard Wright Music over the last 12 months has been exhilarating as we dive into a new frontier of aesthetic exploration, which is centered on the deeply personal experience of sound and music. We are excited to show how — through readily available, non-invasive EEG technology — we can transform brain data from participants into an artistically stunning interpretation that can be easily accessed, understood, and appreciated.
— Richard Warp, CTO & Creative Director at Pollen
Before listening, participants were fitted with a rubber cap of electrodes, and asked to answer questions about their familiarity with the song, any musical training they might have, and their general mental state going into the test. Listeners then sat in a chair situated in the center of a Dolby Atmos speaker system, including wall-mounted side and rear speakers, and ceiling-mounted height speakers. Participants were asked to sit as still as possible, and to click a button if they experienced a “chill event.” Before and after the song, random piano tones were played, providing the scientists with a baseline and allowing them to synchronize the EEG readings with the start and end of the song.
When I came to Pollen in 2021, I was thinking about interesting ways to celebrate Dark Side of The Moon in its 50th year. We are guardians of Richard Wright’s legacy but having taken no part in creation of the music, we were sensitive to propose ideas which did not comment on the album’s meaning or artistic contribution. Producing an elegant visual which directly represents how people are affected while listening to the music, seemed a perfect way to shine a light on one of the album’s most loved tracks. We are very grateful to have the support of Richard’s former band mates to pursue this project with The Great Gig in the Sky, and hugely excited to begin the first stage with Dolby.
— Gala Wright, Creative Director of Richard Wright Music
Jordan Potter of the UK’s Far Out Magazine was a participant. He is a Pink Floyd fan but more of a vinyl guy than an Atmos guy. He said that “the song was clearer and more powerful than I had previously experienced. Subtleties lost to background noise and dust in the grooves of my original vinyl copy now presented themselves in their full, unadulterated glory. I wasn’t entirely sure what would constitute a ‘chill event’ for me, but reticently, I was never compelled to click the button.” After the test, Potter met Richard Warp, the CTO and Creative Director at Pollen Audio Group, and Gala Wright, the Creative Director at Richard Wright Music. They showed him how results from the Brainstorms Project could be used to create “artistic and intuitive visual representations of how the brain responds when experiencing music in Dolby Atmos.” These visual representations depict a night sky, with clouds, lightning flashes, and darkness used to illustrate different kinds of emotional stimulation. Each participant’s brain data was transformed into a visualization at the end of the recording session. The combined brain activity of all 100 participants will be transformed into a large-scale visualization to be showcased at a public event in London.
We’re so excited to be working with Pollen and Gala Wright on the Brainstorms project. It’s an honor to be part of this… and (to) take this iconic piece of music to new heights. A key focus for Dolby is delivering extraordinary experiences, so giving fans a chance to elevate their music listening and see how it affects the mind is amazing. We can’t wait to see the results come together at the art-installation.
— Jane Gillard, Dolby’s Head of Music Partnerships for Europe
Listening to the song while watching this visualization could allow regular folks (as in, non-neuroscientists) to understand the results of the study. Furthermore, headphones of the future might be able to read the user’s brainwaves and create personalized visuals to enhance the experience of streaming music. It’s interesting to see this type of study being conducted not in a university setting, but rather by a major tech company like Dolby.
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