Merging Music, Neuroscience, and Engineering

Christie Dionisos

HOMETOWN: West Chester, Pa.
MAJORS: Neuroscience, Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies

Christie Dionisos '19

Her first year on campus, Christie Dionisos noticed the piano in a research space in a corner of the Wold Building. A pianist (and violinist), she reached out to the professor in charge.

“She invited me to play the piano, and that was the beginning of everything,” Christie said.

The beginning, that is, of a research project with classmate Pamela Rice. Both were in the Union College orchestra together, “and we decided to merge our love for music with Pam's electrical engineering major and my neuroscience major,” Christie says.

The result was “Tricks of the Mind,” a look at the phenomenon of auditory illusion. In short, this is the aural equivalent of an optical illusion.

Christie and Pam spent a good portion of their sophomore year in the lab exploring how humans perceive auditory stimuli. They expanded upon noted 1970s two-dimensional “scale illusion” experiments by psychologist Diana Deutsch.

“She explored auditory illusions that align with Gestalt principles. Her work left room for more in-depth exploration,” Christie says.

While not absorbed with research and other academics, Christie is active in Women’s Union, Habitat for Humanity and the Kennedy Community Center. She helps new students transition to college life through her role as a Minerva Mentor, and she is a lab assistant for Union’s Science and Technology Entry Program (STEP) for high school students. She is also a member of the Hip Hop and Bhangra dance clubs.

Here, she talks more about her research and life at Union.

What is the premise of your research?

Our project is subtitled, “The Binaural Observation and Exploration of the Scale Illusion.”

Essentially, our brain has a remarkable ability to subconsciously reinterpret stimuli so that what it perceives is not what we hear. This discrepancy – sensation vs. perception – can be seen in various music compositions, such as Brandenburg concerto for orchestra, where each section has disjointed movement, but when put together, the resulting orchestrations become a melodious piece.

How did you approach your research?

We were able to use live replications of the scale illusion instead of automated sounds, testing how frequency affects perception of the illusion and using a binaural recording device to track sound in 3D space. I did the psychology research and looked at how we’re interpreting the stimuli. Pam did the electrical engineering aspect, working in the MATLAB (matrix laboratory). We created the illusion with my violin. We were able to test different frequencies amplitudes and angles. We wondered if we were picking out different sounds or hearing the illusion.

What excites you most about this research?

This is the coolest project. It opens up possibilities in music composition and recording enhancement. Composers can be more aware of the grouping principles our minds use, and this knowledge can be used to create increasingly complex patterns that cater to how we best perceive sound.

What else interests you in the realm of the brain?

I’m very interested in the concept of neurosexism, or the use of neuroscientific research to support preexisting ideas about inherent sex differences.

What do you like best about your interdisciplinary studies?

My favorite courses are the ones that combine fields, such a political science course on Feminist Futures, which looks at feminism through political, economic, social and historical lenses. I took a lecture and lab on Social Identities and Science in the Genomic Age, which was taught by a sociologist and a biologist. I also enjoyed Minds and Machines, a philosophy course that examines the relationship between the mind and the brain.

What other interesting connections have you made while at Union?

When I was in Brazil on my term abroad, I learned Portuguese and a lot of Brazilian history, and took courses like Representations in Brazilian Cinema, which looks at minority and racial identities. Out of my comfort zone and challenged every day, I found myself growing academically in this different culture. It was simultaneously the most terrifying and exciting experience.

Why did you choose Union?

I wanted to be somewhere that allowed me to focus on all of these different subjects and bring them together in new and unexpected ways.

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