Psyche Loui
Class of 1998


Assistant Professor
Creativity and Creative Practice
Department of Music


I am writing from Boston, USA, where I work as a professor, teaching and doing research in music and the brain. The COVID-19 situation has affected my work by severely limiting the number of hours when I can work during the day. I have gone from working 8-10 hours per day on campus — in my office, in my lab, and in the classroom — to working 2-6 hours from home (6 is if I'm very lucky and my spouse can take over the bulk of the childcare). All my teaching has moved to Zoom and Slack, and I find myself playing the dual roles of lecturer and life coach as my students range from vulnerable to resilient. Our daughter is almost 5 years old and is full of energy and imagination, and we now have no daycare for the foreseeable future. I am also, by necessity and by choice, spending a lot more time cooking and doing housework. In some respects this is not an unwelcome change — prior to the pandemic I had found myself wishing for more time at home with my family — but the uncertainty and feelings of anxiety and helplessness are certainly not what I would have bargained for.

From the perspective of my research in the psychology and neuroscience of music, it has been very interesting to see how people around the world have turned to music making as a way to cope with the crisis. Instead of consuming music made by a small group of artists on commercial streaming platforms such as Spotify, we see celebrities live-streaming performances from their homes, but also everyday acts of small-scale creativity from the public: Italians singing on balconies, a Bostonian singing outside the window of loved one's nursing home, the rise of virtual choirs, and I myself have turned to songwriting, for the first time. Over and over again, we see music being used for social bonding in times of stress and anxiety. This should not be surprising: Music exists in every culture, and is used for social bonding throughout history and across the lifespan. Listening to familiar music has been shown to reduce stress and decrease heart rate and blood pressure — a particularly familiar example comes from lullabies being sung by mothers to soothe infants around the world. But during this time of uncertainty and anxiety, I find it more important than ever to advocate for my friends, family, and students to engage in music appreciation, music making, and acts of creativity more generally.

Music, at the most fundamental cognitive level, is a game of predictions for our mind: when we hear the beginning of a melody, for example, our minds automatically form predictions for the notes that come next. In choosing to make up a new song, we are empowering our minds to generate and refine these predictions, thus providing ourselves with a safe and comforting mental playground in which to test out our musical ideas. Playing in this mental playground restores our sense of agency, and is thus psychologically empowering. It is this empowerment and sense of agency that will battle the depressing sense of helplessness in an unpredictable world, and thus be key to restoring our hope and our well-being as individuals and as a society.



Left/Top: This MRI image shows activity in the brain's at default mode network, which is important for creativity and imagination.
Right/Bottom: The MRI image shows activity in the hippocampus, which is important for memory.