The Amygdaloids Mix Neuroscience And Rock 'N' Roll

A group of New York University neuroscientists leads an unlikely double life — as rockers. The songs on their new album, Theory of My Mind, are based on the members' research. The musicians play selections from the album and talk about the science behind the lyrics.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

When you got home from school, did your mom insist that you do your homework before rocking and rolling with your friends in the garage or the basement? In class, did you daydream of music instead of math and wish you could play in your own band? Well, some people don't have to choose between a band and brain science. They're bright and talented enough to do both.

Joining me now is a group of unlikely rockers, a band of NYU scientists called The Amygdaloids. They have a new album out called "Theory of My Mind," and you can see a video of The Amygdaloids at the Castaways Cabaret in - it's in The Village here in New York. It's on the talkingscience.org website. And you can also watch a live stream of the band here in the studio if you'd like to go to our website at sciencefriday.com.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Also, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I if you want more information.

Let me introduce the band. Dr. Joseph LeDoux is a professor of neuroscience NYU and director of the Emotional Brain Institute. He's the lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist for The Amygdaloids. Good to see you again.

Dr. JOSEPH LeDOUX (Professor of Neuroscience, New York University; Director, Emotional Brain Institute; Musician, The Amygdaloids): Hi.

FLATOW: Gerald McCollam is a software developer, and he's on the bass. Good to have you in the studio.

Mr. GERALD McCOLLAM (Software Developer; Musician, The Amygdaloids): How are you doing, Ira?

FLATOW: And joining them today is guest percussionist Eddy Zweiback. Thanks for being with us today.

Mr. EDDY ZWEIBACK (Percussionist): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Joe, tell us how the band got started. Were you like a teenager who wanted to play, or...

Dr. LeDOUX: Sure. I had a band in high school, like everybody else. You know, once the Beatles hit the radio, everybody started having garage bands.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LeDOUX: And I put it away after high school for a while and came back to it late in life and started playing around with a friend, Tyler Volk, who's a professor of biology at NYU. And we always joked about having a band. And then one day, we decided we'd put together a band to play Christmas parties.

And eventually, I got an invitation to play - or to give a lecture in Brooklyn at the Secret Science Club, and they said we'll provide entertainment afterwards. And I said, well, I'll bring the entertainment. And...

FLATOW: Yeah, right. Two for one.

Dr. LeDOUX: That was it. So we put together a band, and Daniela Schiller and Nina Curley joined us, and we went out to Brooklyn, and that was the birth of The Amygdaloids.

FLATOW: And the name Amygdaloids? Why that?

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, that comes after the part of the brain that I work on and that Daniela works on. It's a Greek word for almond, and what it refers to is the amygdale in your brain, which - we study it because of its role in fear and other emotions.

FLATOW: Gerald, you've been a musician a long time. How did you get hooked up with The Amygdaloids?

Mr. McCOLLAM: Well, Ira, I for - as a musician for years. I worked as a lab technician. I worked at NYU's medical center with Rodolfo Llinas, and then I came down and worked with Joe. I think, being a musician, there's lots of ways of to work with a scientist is actually a good fit. Scientists tend to roll into work about 11 or 12, I think, and they roll out late at night. So that fits with the habits of a musician.

FLATOW: Is working in the lab as a neuroscientist and a lab tech have anything in common with playing music?

Mr. McCOLLAM: I think it does. Certainly.

FLATOW: Yeah? In what way?

Mr. McCOLLAM: There's the daily practice of setting up an experiment and getting it to work and getting it to the point where it's doing what you really hope it will do is kind of like getting all the things in a studio together, getting the sound right. I think that's similar.

FLATOW: And when you get focused on something, either the music or your lab project, you stay focused?

Mr. McCOLLAM: You tend to stay focused. So you tend to stay late at night, I think.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to listen to one of the tracks of this CD. This is a song called "Glue." Why is it called "Glue"?

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, it's about what happens in your brain that makes memories stick, and the thing that makes them stick especially well is emotion. Emotion releases hormones and other chemicals in the brain, and these basically kind of glue the synapses together in an especially potent way.

FLATOW: All right. Here's Joe LeDoux, Gerald McCollam and Eddie Zweiback here in SCIENCE FRIDAY studios playing the - "Glue."

(Soundbite of song, "Glue")

THE AMYGDALOIDS (Music Group): (Singing) I saw you leaving. You saw me, too. You smiled at me. That's what you do. I tried to follow, but you were gone. Now I'm waiting, sitting home alone.

I keep thinking about your smiling eyes. I can't believe your words were lies. You made me happy, so very glad. I can't forget those times we had.

There must be something in my brain. There must be something in my vein. There must be some primal glue that keeps my memory stuck on you.

When I saw you go, I didn't know. I thought you'd be back in a week or so. It's so hard realizing that I'm not where you're at. I dream about your most every night. I dream you're back, everything's all right. I keep hoping my dreams will come true, and I'll wake up right next to you.

There must be something in my brain. There must be something in my veins. There must be some primal glue that keeps my memory stuck on you.

I keep thinking about your smiling eyes. I can't believe your words were lies. You made me happy, so very glad. I can't forget those times we had.

There must be something in my brain. There must be something in my veins. There must be some primal glue that keeps my memory stuck on you, that keeps my memory stuck on you, that keeps my memory stuck on you, that keeps my memory stuck on you.

FLATOW: The Amygdaloids. Wow, that was great. That was great.

Mr. LeDOUX: Well, we talked about memory and how it glues in things, but sometimes when you get a little nervous, you forget lyrics to it and you drop a line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LeDOUX: Emotion has two roles in memory. One is to make it better, and the other is to make it worse.

FLATOW: You've obviously heard this show a lot, because I forget everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: No, and that's what you study, right? You study memory.

Mr. LeDOUX: Right, I do.

FLATOW: And your lyrics are there must be something - the glue that keeps my memories about you. Is there glue? I mean, is...?

Mr. LeDOUX: The glue is hormones like norepinephrine, which is released in the adrenal gland. It works it doesn't go into the brain itself, but it has effects that ultimately impact the brain. Hormones like cortisol, which are also released in the adrenal gland. That hormone does go to the brain and plays an important role in solidification of memory.

FLATOW: But what's interesting to me is - because we talk about the science of memory a lot - is that you basically can alter your memory.

Mr. LeDOUX: You can.

FLATOW: You know, people think that eyewitnesses' memories, they're just as reliable as we think they are. What's going on in our brain when we alter these memories?

Mr. LeDOUX: Well, every time we recent research we've done over the last few years has shown that every time we take a memory out and use it, remember it, we have to put it back in in order to keep it. And when you put it back in, it gets changed.

So if an eyewitness reads a story in the newspaper or hears you talk about on SCIENCE FRIDAY for some reason, they're going to store that information. And that could then corrupt the memory that they then testify about in court.

FLATOW: So every time you move that memory around, it gets changed just a bit?

Mr. LeDOUX: Because you have to re-store it, and when you re-store it the reason for that is it's a chance to update the memory, but you can also corrupt the memory or change it in a way that's not so good.

FLATOW: So when you say I swear I remember something, you may not.

Mr. LeDOUX: You may not.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a short break and come back and listen to more stuff from the Amygdaloids. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Or you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com, where we're not only, you know ,podcasting, but we also have a live video feed. You can see the Amygdaloids in our studio live today at our website at sciencefriday.com. Also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be back with Joe LeDoux, Gerald McCollam, Eddy Zweiback here in our studios in New York. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, and I'm sitting in with the band well, hardly sitting in. I'm sitting by the band The Amygdaloids, tapping on the table every now and then.

They have a new album out called "Theory of My Mind." Joe LeDoux, Gerald McCollam - also sitting in today is Eddy Zweiback. And we're listening to some music from the album.

You had a you've got a couple pretty high-profile guests who appear on the new album, don't you?

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, one in particular, Roseanne Cash. Yes.

FLATOW: And tell our audience who she is.

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, Roseanne Cash is obviously the daughter of Johnny Cash. But also, she's a Grammy Award-winning artist herself. And she agreed kindly to sing with me on this record.

FLATOW: And is she interested in science at all, or just...

Dr. LeDOUX: Yes, she is. She's fascinated with the brain, and so that's sort of how we bonded.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And why the name of the album, "Mind"?

Dr. LeDOUX: "Theory of My Mind" is a takeoff on the idea or the concept in psychology of theory of mind, which is the idea that in order for me to interact with you socially, I have to be able to put myself in your mind and kind of anticipate what you're going to say, given what mood you're in and all sorts of other things - in other words to kind of empathize with you.

And it's been proposed that in autism, there's a deficit of theory of mind, and that this contributes to some of the social problems that autistic people have. And this is a theory promoted by Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, and Simon is the other guest that we had on this CD, and he played bass on the track "Theory of My Mind."

FLATOW: And what's the name of the next song we're...

Dr. LeDOUX: The next song we're going to do is called "Mind Over Matter," and it's about hope and longing and missing someone who is not with you and maybe can't be with you. It sort of violates a lot of scientific principles. So it's a little funny for a scientist to write a song about time travel and other things like that. But, you know, we're people, too...

FLATOW: It shows how you can stretch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You know, you stretch.

Dr. LeDOUX: We're human.

FLATOW: Okay. Here's Gerald LeDoux, Gerald McCollam and Eddy Zweiback with the "Mind Over Matter."

(Soundbite of song, "Mind Over Matter")

Dr. LeDOUX: (Singing) Mind over matter, something I'm trying to do, just a little psychics that keeps me apart from you. Mind over matter is something I'm trying to do. Break down space and time to be together with you.

I'm trying to will you here, find you wherever you are, locate your body or soul, pull you in from afar. Are you still in my time, or have you slipped away? Have you gone forwards or back, living in another day?

Where, oh, where might you be? Different continent or on the sea, in the air flying free, or in a place heavenly? Wherever you are now, I'll use my mind to find. No amount of space or time keeps you from being mine.

Mind over matter, something I'm trying to do. I guess it's only physics that keeps me apart from you. It's mind over matter, something I'm trying to do, break down space and time to be together with you, be together with you, be together with you, be together with you.

FLATOW: We have the Amygdaloids, Joe LeDoux, Gerald McCallom and Eddy Zweiback sitting in. Great song.

Dr. LeDOUX: Thank you.

FLATOW: How easy is it to write these songs?

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, sometimes, it's easy, and sometimes...

FLATOW: Does your work inspire it at all?

Dr. LeDOUX: Yes, a lot of our songs are based on research I've done, or other people and my colleagues and friends and so forth. Or sometimes, it's just out of the blue, like "Mind Over Matter" occurred after coming back from a program at the Rubin Museum, where they had a film program called "Mind Over Matter." I said that's a great title for a song, and just went home and wrote it.

FLATOW: Right. Right. And where are you appearing (unintelligible)? Can people come out and see you?

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, right now, a lot of half to the band is away, out of town for a while. So we don't have any gigs this summer. But stay tuned for the fall.

FLATOW: Stay tuned for the fall. And the album is out and available at all places?

Dr. LeDOUX: Yes, iTunes, Amazon and at amygs.com, A-M-Y-G-S.com.

FLATOW: And you still work as a scientist, so we know that you're still gainfully employed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How do people treat you when you're in your laboratory? Do they treat you like a rock star, or do they treat you like a scientist?

Dr. LeDOUX: They treat me terribly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LeDOUX: My students and post-docs, you know, they boss me around.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. LeDOUX: Yeah. I'm a pushover.

FLATOW: Do they look at you differently that you're a musician?

Dr. LeDOUX: No, no.

FLATOW: Not more respectfully that you could have your own rock band.

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, maybe. I mean, they don't show it. They kind of keep me in place, you know.

FLATOW: And as far as your work is concerned, where is the cutting edge of what you're doing in your research?

Dr. LeDOUX: Well, a lot of what we're doing is this work on how memories are changed when they're retrieved. That's one area. Another big area is individual differences. Not everybody is the same, and we want to understand the extremes of fear, not just the normal aspects of fear.

Then the third topic is how we transition from emotional reactions to actions. You can't stay frozen in fear all the time. You have to do something about it.

FLATOW: Do you find your music evolving a little bit, the sound of it?

Dr. LeDOUX: I hope so, yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. Because I noticed it from the last time I heard you play. This is sort of a little mellower sound than you had.

Dr. LeDOUX: Right. I think it has you know, the first CD we did, those were the first songs I'd ever written, and so, you know, they're a little rough and naive, and these are slightly more sophisticated, I think.

FLATOW: And I saw you video. You have...

Dr. LeDOUX: Yeah, we have two music videos out.

FLATOW: Very, very moody. One of them is very...

Dr. LeDOUX: One is about the song "Fearing," which is based on an Emily Dickinson poem, and it's very dark and eerie, as she was. And there's a scientific lecture about fear embedded in the middle of it. It's kind an interesting thing for a music video.

FLATOW: Well, we have links to your music videos up on our website at sciencefriday.com. We also have a performance of yours at Kenny's Castaway in Greenwich Village there, up there on our sciencefriday.com site. And I want to wish you all the best of luck.

Dr. LeDOUX: Thank you.

Mr. ZWEIBACK: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And thanks for crowding you all into our cramped little studio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCOLLAM: Well, thanks very much for having us.

FLATOW: You're welcome, and the best of luck to you.

Dr. LeDOUX: Thank you.

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