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Conference Calls: exploring the musical mind

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Tony DeBlois, 18, has been blind from birth, and he is autistic, which means he has enormous difficulty speaking and understanding. Yet despite these handicaps DeBlois is an extremely gifted pianist. He can play virtually any piece of music after hearing it once, and he also improvises freely.

The implication is obvious--at least some musical ability is based on brain functions that can coexist with massive mental deficits. But what are those functions? And how exactly do we make music with them?

"Music and the Brain" will attempt to provide some answers. The three-day symposium (November 16-18) will bring together neurologists, psychologists, and musicians who will deliver public lectures (in plain English, the organizers promise) on the latest research into how the brain creates and perceives music.

The symposium was put together by Andrea Gellin Shindler, who organized a symposium called "Art and the Brain" four years ago. At that time Shindler was seeking answers to the baffling questions raised by the case of a young woman whose left cerebral cortex had been badly damaged by a hemorrhage. Shindler, trained as a speech therapist, helped the young woman regain her ability to talk, but over the course of therapy the young woman developed amazing artistic ability. Did the brain injury have anything to do with this flowering of talent? Shindler thought so and planned to write a case study, but brain research was progressing so rapidly she decided to organize the symposium instead to provide a forum for the latest research.

"So much knowledge about the brain has come from people who have suffered brain damage," Shindler said. "I realized I had been educated in rehabilitating these people, and I thought, we can learn from artists who have sustained brain damage by studying what abilities they have lost and how they have reorganized the abilities that remain."

Tony DeBlois will perform at the symposium Tuesday afternoon, and his case will be discussed by symposium speakers immediately afterward. He will be introduced by Dr. Leon Miller of the University of Illinois, author of Musical Savants. Also speaking will be Justine Sergent, a Montreal neuropsychologist who will talk about the brain scans she has made on healthy musicians engaged in sight-reading.

Registration for "Music and the Brain" begins at 7:45 AM Monday outside the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute (Columbus Drive entrance). Shindler's welcoming address is at 9. The cost for the three-day symposium is $195, or $95 for medical residents, students, and senior citizens. For information, call 528-2488.

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