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Guggenheim fellowship for music and the mind

April 19, 2010

Photo: Petr Janata

Petr Janata plans to use his Guggenheim award to develop an "e-book" on music and memory. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

Petr Janata, associate professor at the Center for Mind and Brain and the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, has been awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as a Fulbright Scholarship sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

Janata, who studies how music can evoke potent autobiographical memories, said he was "ecstatic" when he received news of the award. He will use the Fulbright scholarship to spend the academic year 2010-11 at the Czech Academy of Science's Institute for Computer Science in Prague. He will take up the Guggenheim fellowship on returning to UC Davis in fall 2011.

"Petr's work is revolutionary for how it takes neuroscience methods and uses them to understand human thought and the human experience. His research bridges the sciences and the humanities, and represents the future of scholarship in this interdisciplinary area," said Ron Mangun, dean of the UC Davis Division of Social Sciences and founding director of the Center for Mind and Brain.

Why does a song we heard in eighth grade bring back a nostalgic memory? Why do Alzheimer's patients respond to music, when they seem to have lost other memories? What do these responses tell us about how the brain works?

"Listening to music is a very engaging and compelling experience, and that indicates that there is a lot going on in the brain to structure that experience," Janata said. "This is a way to access a powerful emotional response, and study the behavior of the brain in as close to a natural state as possible."

Janata uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), other brain scanning techniques and interviews to measure how volunteers respond to pieces of music. His laboratory has also developed computer models that display the tonal shifts in pieces of music over time visually, and compared them to the brain's response.

The Guggenheim Foundation included a stipend of $35,000 in Janata's fellowship. He will use the award to support work on an interactive "e-book" on music and autobiographical memories for a general audience.

"This is the kind of project that is very difficult to realize in a standard science funding model," Janata said. The fellowship will give him the time and freedom to work on the publication, he said.

Janata joined the faculty at UC Davis in 2004 from Dartmouth College. The Center for Mind and Brain is an interdisciplinary campus center dedicated to understanding the human mind.

"Petr's work exemplifies the approaches possible from such an enterprise, and demonstrates how centers such as this one can take us forward as leaders in interdisciplinary research," Mangun said.

Janata is one of 180 artists, scientists and scholars honored by the Guggenheim Fellowship Program this year. The program was established in 1925 "to add to the educational, literary, artistic, and scientific power of this country, and also to provide for the cause of better international understanding." Fellows are selected based on their past achievements and exceptional promise.

Established in 1946, the Fulbright Program aims to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries, through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 32,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $600 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

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