The Paula Gordon Show
The Implicit Mind
Jamshed Bharucha

Jamshed Bharucha

. . . cognitive neuroscientist, classical musician and Provost of Tufts University. Dr. Bharucha’s research on brains, music and speech is complimented by his accomplishments as a violinist. As a scientist, he has applied fMRIs and neural networks to his studies. His work is reportedly highly influential in proposing that tonality gives rise both to expectations and to aesthetic experiences. Dr. Bharucha became Tufts’ Provost in 2002.

Excerpts3:25 secs

We humans prefer the familiar and crave novelty. Predicting our preferences, whatever the subject, faces this fundamental paradox. But there’s more -- we each have different thresholds in our longing for comfort and taste for the excitement of newness, according to cognitive neuroscientist and classical violinist Jamshed Bharucha.  He is the Provost at Tufts University, so how we learn is also deeply important to him. His scientific work is reportedly highly influential in proposing how tonality gives rise both to expectations and to aesthetic experiences.

Dr. Bharucha has successfully fused his life-long passion for music and his curiosity about how our brains function in his scientific studies and as a violinist. As a scientist, he has studied how our brains process music within and across different cultures. He carefully considers potential metaphors drawn from these experiences in describing challenges within major universities.

Where are some common denominators? For starters, boundaries exist in all of the domains in which Dr. Bharucha is proficient -- music, brains, academic settings and large organizations. He slips comfortably from describing the joy of playing in a string quartet (where individual and group expressions co-exist in a constant, dynamic tension, to describing what’s happening in the musicians’ and audience’s brains while listening to that string quartet, to exploring human interactions within organizations. Universities, departments and schools, he says, might profit by being a little more dynamic, porous and adaptable to the ways in which ideas cross boundaries.

Dr. Bharucha uses computational neural net models and functional MRIs (fMRI) in his studies of the human brain, applying some of the conclusions both to learning and to teaching. We are unaware of most of what we know, he says, most of what we learn is not formalized or communicated verbally through specific instruction. It’s implicit (as opposed to explicit.) And implicit learning works best. Today’s educators and teachers may be too focused on the explicit, relying on one-time-only explicit communications. (Try learning to ride a bike from a lecture or instruction manual.) They might consider a greater use of what has been learned about the power of implicit knowledge. Use the explicit knowledge -- we depend on it to communicate specifics -- but use it to guide behavior that becomes internalized with repetition and practice and interaction. It excites our brains when we can “fill in the blanks,” whether at a jazz concert or in a classroom.

Our brains, he continues, are context-dependent learning machines. If you want to acquire any skill needed to perform a complex cognitive skill at the highest level -- from Carnegie Hall to Wimbledon -- repetitions are essential. But rote practice won’t do it. Mix up the contexts (internal and external) in your practice, he says. Why? Because, our brains do require repeated exposure -- each repetition similar enough for it to discern the common features -- but every hall, venue or classroom is different and your thoughts, moods and emotions are never the same twice.  So learn the skill so that you can do what humans do best -- adapt.

[This Program was recorded March 18, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Jamshed Bharucha recalls his childhood interests in both music and brains for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Noting alternative ideas and influences, Dr. Bharucha offers what he believes are correct analogies between music and language.

Conversation 2

Practice is critical for the highest levels of performance in any complex cognitive skill, Dr. Barucha says. He gives reasons why this is true, whether you’re playing the violin or playing tennis. The brain is a context-dependent learning machine, he says, mindful of both external and internal contexts. He prescribes not-rote repetition set in a variety of contexts and explains how the human brains’ evolutionary history shaped us this way.  He considers the relative influences of nature and nurture.

Conversation 3

Acknowledging jokes academics tell about administrators, Dr. Bharucha relates what he has learned from science and music to how he facilitates the interactions of people in a large organization. Boundaries are necessary and must be crossed, he says, offering examples which include the way the human brain works and an evolutionary perspective on why the brain has evolved the way it has.

Conversation 4

Comparisons between music and organizations are speculative, Dr. Bharucha says, then proposes an accomplished string quartet as a model for a successful organization. He explains how the human ear works like a “prism” for sound, then describes how the brain analyzes component frequencies and uses the information received.  He adds culture to the mix, relating historical and cultural developments of music to the overall subject.  He describes the role of composers, then speaks to the critical balance in music between that which is familiar/predictable and novelty which violates that comfort.

Conversation 5

Generalizing about the importance of the familiar and its violation, the conversation turns to language which, Dr. Bharucha says, is not about sound.  He describes the critical role community plays in all languages, noting similarities to music. He distinguishes between implicit and explicit learning and suggests ways that teaching a wide variety of skills and disciplines might be improved if teachers paid attention to these differences.

Conversation 6

Dr. Bharucha uses his several interests to suggest how to predict people’s preferences, noting an underlying paradox: we crave both familiarity and novelty. He expands on brains and behavior.


We thank Dr. Bharucha for having the energy and persistence to pursue so MANY of his interests, and for his willingness to share what he’s learned with the rest of us.

We also thank Tufts alumnus, Dr. Michael Levine, for knowing that we would be interested in Dr. Bharucha’s work. And we thank Esther Levine in Atlanta and Marcella Tanona and Gretchen Dobson at Tufts, for helping us bring this conversation to pass.

Tufts University has a website where you can see some of the ways Provost Bharucha’s ideas are being put into action.

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