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In pursuit of neuroscience: Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma
Financial Times

By Philip Ball

The cellist is an intellectual omnivore as much as a musician. He talks about why neuroscience fascinates him – and what it reveals about our creative impulses

Yo-Yo Ma is no remote creature of the highbrow concert circuit. He has appeared on Sesame Street and on The Simpsons, he can be heard on the soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he is a UN peace ambassador. He has performed with Sting and Bobby McFerrin, and his latest CD is a bluegrass collaboration, The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

So when the famous cellist was asked to identify an interest for this article, it was no great surprise that his office sent back the message “Yo-Yo Ma is interested in everything.” He agreed to focus our conversation on neuroscience – a passion I share – but Ma’s voracious mind is constantly liable to take off in other directions.

Ma began playing the cello aged four and as a child prodigy he performed before Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and was conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He then studied at The Juilliard School in New York City before completing a liberal arts degree. A glittering career in classical music followed. So far, so conventionally awe-inspiring. But the stereotype of the virtuoso doesn’t last a moment once Ma appears, fresh from premiering Graham Fitkin’s Cello Concerto (written for Ma) at the Royal Albert Hall the night before. Instead of gravitas or world-weariness, he has a boyish enthusiasm for, well, everything.

Ma has been reading Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, which describes how Keats, Coleridge and Shelley shared with scientists Humphry Davy and William Herschel a passion for the marvels and mysteries of the natural world. “This is what happened in the 1800s,” Ma says. “Maybe we’re at another point in time where we need both specialists and generalists. The word amateur used to be a positive term. Nowadays if you’re an amateur, you’re a dilettante, you’re not serious.”

I profess my own exhilaration at Holmes’ demand that we should be impatient with “the old, rigid debates and boundaries” – that we need “a wider, more generous, more imaginative” way of writing about science that can locate it within the rest of culture. “That’s exactly what I’d hope for,” Ma agrees. “I love quoting [Nobel laureate physicist] Richard Feynman, who said that nature has a much greater imagination than humans, but she guards her secrets jealously. So his job as a scientist is to unlock some of those secrets, and interpret them for you. That’s what music tries to do. If I’m trying to describe something that someone else wrote, I have to get into that world and then I have to find a way to ensure that what I think is there lives in you also.”

Perhaps neuroscience can create bridges because the brain is the crucible within which art, science and culture are forged. This is the seat of the creativity that we channel into discovery and expression: looking out and looking in. For Ma, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, a professor at the University of Southern California, reveals something of where these creative impulses come from. Damasio is interested in homeostasis – the tendency of all living things to maintain the internal conditions necessary for their continuation. He considers all non-conscious aspects of this self-preservation to be forms of emotion, whether they are basic reflexes, immune responses or feelings such as joy. “Life forms are always looking for homeostasis, equilibrium,” says Ma.

Ma’s experiences among the Kalahari bushmen of southern Africa, who he visited for a documentary 15 years after he had studied them in his anthropology courses, convinced him that music can perform that stabilising function. “They do these trance dances that are for spiritual and religious purposes, it’s for medicine, it’s their art form, it’s everything. That matches all I’ve learnt about what music should be or could do.”

But how does that magic work? I suggest that music is exploiting our instincts to make sense of our environment, to look for patterns, to develop hypotheses about our environment. It’s setting us puzzles. Ma is fascinated by how the brain’s plasticity ensures we have the capacity to solve them, to convert sensory data into a viable model of the world. “A newborn sees everything essentially upside down. But its brain is constantly interpreting what is being received, and at some stage it will just decide to turn all the information around.”

I mention Damasio’s insistence, in Descartes’ Error (1994), that the self cannot be meaningfully imagined without being embedded in a body. This must be resonant for a musician? He concurs and suggests that the role of tactility in our mental wellbeing is under-appreciated: “That’s our largest organ.” Ma sees this separation of intellect and mechanism, of the self and the body, as pernicious. “We’ve based our educational system on it. At the music conservatory there’s a focus on the plumbing, not [on the] psychology. It’s about the engineering of sound, how to play accurately. But then, going to university, the music professor would say ‘you can play very well, but why do you want to do it?’ Music is powered by ideas. If you don’t have clarity of ideas, you’re just communicating sheer sound.”

And this is about much more than intellectual transmission. It has to be packaged with emotion. “Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.” According to Damasio, there’s a deeper function of passion too. He challenged decades, if not centuries of preconception about rationality by showing that emotion plays a vital part in it. Far from being a distraction, emotion is often the lubricant of good decision-making: when it is lacking, as in some people with mental impairments or deficits, the ability to make sound choices – or any choices at all – can evaporate.

Ma doesn’t want to stop. With his manager giving a signal that our time is up, he exhorts me to ask one more question. How can music be made central to education, rather than an option at the periphery? His response makes the vision he has hinted at already a little more concrete: it is about finding ways to communicate ideas in a manner that yields the greatest harvest of creativity. “There is nothing more important today than to find a way to be knowledge-based creative societies. My job as a performer is to make sure that whatever happens in a performance lives in somebody else, that it’s memorable … If you forget tomorrow what you heard yesterday, there’s really not much point in you having been there – or me, for that matter. Now, isn’t that the purpose of education too? That’s when I realised that education and culture are the same. Once something is memorable, it’s living and you’re using it. That to me is the foundation of a creative society.”