Lights dim. A bright yellow beam illuminates the path to an exquisite 480kg creation: A Steinway & Sons Model D. The instrument’s golden cast-iron plate is striking against its velvet black finish. The silence is deafening. Energy and anticipation emanates from my fellow audience members. Without a semblance of warning enters Denis Matsuev – winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition at age 23. As if struck by lightning, the piano begins to produce a breathtakingly intricate melody.
A brief pause arrests your attention. Two seconds of profound silence follow, the air all but crackling with emotion surging through the concert hall.
The audience’s inaudible sigh of relief is palpable as the second movement begins. We slide back in our seats, relax our shoulders, and resume breathing.
However, there is more to be examined here than a simple pause. These interludes are not just a component of the spectacular solo put on by Matsuev this past weekend – rather, the very nature of these interruptions has a deep-seated rooting in the neurological wiring of our brains.
Event segmentation: “The process by which people parse a continuous stream of activity into meaningful events” and “A core component of ongoing perception, with consequences for memory and learning.” (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). The brain naturally separates perceived information into spatial (Biederman, 1987) and temporal parts (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). For example, a lecture hall contains chairs, desks, a podium, and a board. The brain automatically segments your perception of the lecture hall into such components so as to better remember it – to better store it in memory. In much the same way, boundaries in time allow the brain to temporally segment your perception of, for example, a piano concerto.
A graph of BOLD (Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent signal) responses in various regions of the brain in a 10 second window surrounding a transition period, whereby the body rapidly increases blood flow to active neuronal tissues. From Sridharan et al (2007).
Perhaps by using these concepts and even combining them in lectures, we can better cater to the brain’s natural information processing circuitry and facilitate a greater degree of learning. According to Zacks & Swallow (2007), ”Those who identify appropriate event boundaries during perception tend to remember more and learn more proficiently.” By creating appropriate temporal and spatial boundaries in lectures – perhaps a minute break between two related notions, a short discussion period, or even carefully planning how to situate problems and solutions on a board – professors may well aid their students’ learning by approaching pedagogy with event segmentation in mind.
Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the peak of brain activity is at those moments of silence between transitions, when it indeed appears that nothing is happening (Sridharan et al, 2007).
fMRI images taken of subjects’ cognitive activity in the left and right sides of their brain while listening to music show that neurological signaling increases dramatically around the point between two movements. From Sridharan et al (2007).
Perhaps most notable about this study is that while subjects’ attention to music differed, the anticipation of a transition point between movements was a universal phenomenon. Considering that the way our brains resolve our ongoing perception into discrete events is directly related to how our long-term memory updates from our working “short term” memory (Kurby & Zacks, 2008), this may very well be an effect worth exploring.
To encapsulate this compelling feature of the brain, I will provide a rather simplified analogy. Imagine a resonance effect: When you push a swing at just the right moment, you not only preserve the energy from its descent but add more energy to the system. However, if you push at the wrong moment you will not add energy. In fact, you will be taking it away! Similarly, we must use the brain’s inherent approach to information processing to our advantage, not to our detriment. Instead of longwinded lectures to drain students of motivation, it’s better to push them often and at just the right moments to promote a higher degree of learning. Event segmentation can help educators rethink the structuring and organization of their lessons, which in turn will help students expand on concepts and develop a more complete understanding of the ideas presented to them.
For further reading, this research and supplementary data is available online at these links:
Segmentation in the perception and memory of events
Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks
Biederman, I. (1987, April). Recognition-by-components: A theory of human image understanding. Psychological Review, 94(2), 115–117
Kurby, C. A., & Zacks, J. M. (2008, February). Segmentation in the perception and memory of events. Trends in Cognitive Science, 15(2), 72-79.
Sridharan, D., Levitin, D.J., Chafe, C.H., Berger, J., & Menon, V. (2007, August). Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: Converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron, 55(3), 521-532
Zacks, J. M., & Khena, M. S. (2007, April). Event segmentation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 80-84.