Power of the Mind: You Can Play This Instrument Using Just Your Thoughts

Updated | Neurologists have created a musical instrument that can be controlled using only the power of the mind—and its creators hope it could improve life for people living with disabilities.

Dubbed the encephalophone, the instrument uses a method for recording brain activity called the electroencephalogram (EEG) to control a synthesizer. Sounds are generated via two different types of brain signals; those associated with opening and closing the eyes, and those related either to movement or just imagining movement.

The instrument’s co-creator, Thomas Deuel, a neurologist at Swedish Medical Center who is also a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and a jazz trumpeter and guitarist, tells Newsweek that while researchers have used an EEG to make sounds before, what makes his instrument novel is that it allows for “creating music in real time without movement, with intentional control, [and] now with proven basic accuracy.”

Deuel and three co-authors recently laid out the instrument’s capabilities in a report for Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. In the write-up, they describe an experiment in which 15 people who had never used the encephalophone were hooked up to the equipment and asked to hit a series of target notes.

Even without prior training, the subjects were able to pass the test with 67.1 percent accuracy when using brain signals related to closing their eyes, and 57.1 percent accuracy when using movement-related signals. In both cases, they significantly outperformed a random note generator, which scored just 19.03 percent accuracy.

With more testing, the researchers argue, the instrument could have medical applications.

The device “may hold promise for patients—such as those with locked-in syndrome—who are severely incapacitated and may be more likely to respond to auditory (and specifically musical) stimulus and feedback than to visual stimulus and feedback,” they write.

“This is particularly so for those who may have visual impairment (e.g., cortical blindness), and particularly to those who played music before their injury.”

Deuel says he is almost ready to begin trials with patients with motor disabilities at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, pending approval by the hospital’s review board. 

“These trials are to see if those with motor disability can be empowered to play music, enjoy it, and can achieve basic accuracy,” he says. “The next phase after this will try to see if we can improve motor rehabilitation and cognitive recovery.”

Dr Anjan Chaterjee, a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, says the research is valuable. "It is a fascinating study," he tells Newsweek, "The idea that people can harness their own brain rhythms to generate a note that approximately matches a note presented to them is fascinating." 

Asked if the technology could be used to improve disabled patients' quality of life, Chaterjee says this is "an intriguing possibility."

"They would first need to demonstrate people can generate something that resembles music, and then show that patients can 'perform' this way, and then finally show that such performance would improve the patients’ quality of life," he continues.

Meanwhile, the instrument is already being used in live performances—playing jazz tunes in a five-piece ensemble. 

“Musically it is exciting to enable musicians who’ve lost their ability to play from motor disease or injury,” says Deuel, but also, he says, “I have found unique effects on musical phrasing and call-and-response when playing with other musicians.”

Deuel adds: “It’s a totally new way to think, in short, when generating music, from any other instrument.”

This piece was updated to include comments from Dr Anjan Chaterjee​.

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