New multi-faculty research initiative weaves notes and neurons

Image source: UBC Opera.

Image source: UBC School of Music.

Imagine standing on stage, stretching your voice across the entirety of an almost impossible range in a scene in Verdi’s Otello, an Italian adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy Othello. You must be mindful of the notes—and hit each one—and you must be aware of your body, of its movements, of its posture. Your face must convey emotion and drama. You must make a convincing display of your love for Desdemona (in Italian, which you may or may not speak in real life), and you must engage the audience and you must keep an eye on the conductor. You must remember to breathe, or none of this will work. And you must do all of this at once.  

There is something extraordinary about the opera singer’s brain.

Opera is perhaps the most cognitively challenging art form, requiring an intensity of focus, endurance, and theatricality unmatched by any other discipline. The complexity of operatic performance requires cognitive flexibility beyond what is necessary for the average human brain.

But what is it about opera that makes a brain different? Is it innate? Or is something transformative happening over years of training? For the first time, the University of British Columbia's (UBC's) most interdisciplinary team of researchers has the tools and funding to determine how experiences such as musical education may sculpt our brains.

With considerable investment from the Peter Wall Institute, the Wall Opera Project is the first study of its kind in North America, and will integrate leading researchers in opera, neuroscience, language sciences and linguistics, education, medicine, kinesiology, and the humanities to assess not just brain changes, but their potential applications in education, rehabilitation, and preventative health.    

“Our main question is whether or not opera training rewires the brain,” says Dr. Lara Boyd, who is one of eight Principal Investigators (including Drs. Robin Hsiung, Alex Mackay, and Janet Werker) representing five faculties across UBC. “Students who are gifted in one area can exhibit challenges in other areas of learning, but we know that students who train in opera demonstrate remarkable plasticity of the brain.”

And while opera singers are essentially the elite athletes of the arts, the researchers hope that what they find will have broader impact.

“We already know, for example, that music can be therapeutic for those with Alzheimer’s disease, or that music lessons early in life can change outcomes for people who experience a stroke,” says Dr. Boyd. “The question now is how do we move beyond our narrow fields and work together—this is not research that any one person on our team could do within their own field.”

To understand the potential of opera training to sculpt a brain for better learning, the Wall Opera Project is drawing expertise from across campus, breaking down silos that have in the past prevented this scale of collaboration. The project spans the faculties of Arts, Medicine, Education, Science, and Applied Science, and represents a vision for what the future of research could look like at UBC and beyond.

Professor Nancy Hermiston, Director of the UBC Opera Ensemble, brought the team together. Long interested in the scientific underpinnings of the performing arts, Professor Hermiston is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the increasing social interest in the link between the arts and sciences. It is her students who will act as research subjects.

Over the next few years, study participants will engage in testing from experts in neuropsychology and education, receive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) scans to “index” the brain and provide a baseline for evaluation of changes in structure and function over time, and engage in tasks to assess memory, learning, and executive function.

The team hopes that the three-year timeline of the study will allow researchers to observe the long-term benefits of opera training, and whether it leads to lasting changes in brain function.

“My long-standing goal has been to integrate our high-performance opera program with interdisciplinary research at UBC,” says Professor Hermiston. “We’re introducing a new and exciting way of pooling our resources across disciplines, and bridging scholarly research and operatic performance in an approach that I hope paves the way for collaborations across the university. The possibilities here are truly endless.”