The Frog in the Forest: 60 Minutes of Sound Art & Science to Calm Your Brain

February 13, 2024
The Frog in the Forest: 60 Minutes of Sound Art & Science to Calm Your Brain. February 29, 2024
5:30 PM - 7:00 PM

The last few years have been stressful for many of us. Our minds have endured a pandemic, global conflict, political instability, and the growing impact of climate change. So it makes sense that our brains might feel overburdened, unprepared for our current world, and out of our control. 

A new performance will merge cutting-edge neuroscientific research with an immersive algorithmic soundscape, taking you deep within yourself on an extraordinary tour of your brain and autonomic nervous system. On February 29, join Ursula Kwong-Brown (composer) and Darcy Kelly (Harold Weintraub Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University) for the Frog in the Forest: 60 Minutes of Sound Art & Science to Calm Your Brain. Learn how we can make our brains feel better and relieve the stress that can weigh our minds down. Ahead of the event, we spoke to Kwong-Brown for some background on this hybrid performance.

I’m a composer and multimedia artist with an undergraduate background in neuroscience. And during the height of the pandemic, I moved with my husband, Danny Erdberg, a theater sound designer and director, to Los Angeles, where we started trying to shed our anxiety and stress by doing all of these cliché California relaxation things like deep breathing, going to the desert, and creating sound baths. And we started feeling a lot better. Which made me really want to understand what was going on, the neurological basis for why this stuff was working. I feel like in this post-pandemic era, we’ve all pretty much returned to our day-to-day routine. But for a lot of people, and I’m very much including myself here, something isn’t quite sitting right. We’re experiencing this vague sense of unease, of stress we can’t get rid of, and maybe a general lack of resilience. Which is actually quite understandable, given what we’ve all been through.

So, we wanted to create a scientifically informed piece of art to help people heal—and to understand what’s going on behind the scenes in their brains and bodies. It’s been a real collaboration that began summer 2022 in Paris at Columbia’s Center for Ideas and Imagination, where Darcy and I did our first presentation fusing neuroscience, music, and relaxation exercises. Danny came along for a fun vacation, and then of course got pulled in and put to work helping to develop and structure the piece. With Frog in the Forest, the three of us have really tried to create something that joins science and art in a new and interesting way.

As it turns out, stress and tension are complicated beasts with lots of causes, both conscious and unconscious. And the same is true for relaxation. In this piece, we’re trying to create a safe, calming space where people will feel totally comfortable and enveloped by warm sound. Which is of course a wonderfully pleasant feeling. But we’re also leading people through some really cool, simple exercises that are rooted in neurological and physiological research as a way of calming their autonomic nervous systems. And of course, we think that understanding how your brain really works gives people some self-awareness that’s empowering and relaxing in its own way.

Danny and I, both being musicians and sound designers, have always been cognizant of the way music influences mood. In fact, we started making ambient soundscapes for ourselves when we were living in our little apartment in midtown Manhattan as a way to destress. Over the years, we’ve attended many sound baths, and have been struck both by the deeply rewarding communal aspect of a shared listening experience, and also by the very real emotional and physical benefits we felt afterward. And so, for this piece, we’ve been thinking about musical sound as a sort of through-line that’s both aesthetically pleasing, but also functional. Obviously, we hope people enjoy listening to it, but it’s also a tool we’re using to subconsciously put people in the right frame of mind to relax, and to gently support them and carry them along as they’re taken deeper into the process of modulating their nervous system. And thankfully, we have Darcy to help us understand how this all works.

So much of the functioning of our brain and autonomic nervous system happens out of our control and even out of our cognitive awareness. A lot of the most integral processes are handled by structures that are essentially ancient and were absolutely meant for animals with much simpler lives than our own. And these structures tend to be the ones that are freaked out by many of the stressors we face in modern life. Fortunately, there’s a lot of work being done that’s showing how we can use our very evolved modern forebrains to help decrease these responses. Some of them you probably already know about, like intentional breathing and meditation, but others you might be surprised by. We’re excited to share some ways people can kind of hack their brains and nervous systems.

Our greatest desire is that people walk out of Frog in the Forest feeling like they’ve been taken on an unexpected and pleasurable journey. And that they return home feeling a little more peaceful, a little more centered, a little more present in their bodies, and armed with tools to help them maintain this state, along with some understanding of how their brain functions contribute to that.  

Be sure to join Ursula and Darcy on February 29 at 5:30PM for the Frog in the Forest: 60 Minutes of Sound Art & Science to Calm Your Brain. Free and open to the public. Guests can join in-person or on Zoom, but registration is required. 

This event is part of the Seminars in Society and Neuroscience series.