Back in March my collaborator Michael R. Winters, Ph.D. and I premiered our Brain-Computer-Interface (BCI) Installation Tender Rhythms at the Georgia Tech Music, Art and Technology Fair. Many lined up to make music with their brains!

How can you make music with your brain?

Tender Rhythms is based on recent neuroscientific research which shows that when people deeply connect with each other, their alpha-brainwaves synchronize. Our installation invites two participants to sit down in front of each other while wearing EEG-headsets. When touching, engaging in eye contact or kissing, the brain waves between participants start to synchronize. Our headsets measure this synchronization and our installation translates this into sound. Practically, this means that without a connection there is no music, but once a connection is established music starts to play, increasing in volume as the connection grows stronger.

Tender Rhythms is part of my PhD dissertation.

This BCI-Installation forms the artistic chapter of my PhD Dissertation with the same name: Tender Rhythms. Neuroscientists show that in moments of deep connection, our brains form a complex non-linear 2-in-1 system. Depending on the school of thought, this 2-in-1 system is indicated by many different names. Philosophers refer to it as “intersubjectivity;” recent psychoanalysts call it “affect attunement” or “the rhythmic third.” But Freud’s very first patients — the so called hysterics — referred to it as Zärtlichkeit or “Tenderness.” Sadly, Freud did not elaborate much on this fascinating concept.

In my work, I define tenderness as those moments where you become só connected with another, that the boundaries of your sovereign self dissolve and entangle with those of an other’s self. Put differently, in moments of extreme closeness there is no longer a strict distinction or split between ‘me’ and ‘you.’ Think of pillow talk moments, playing music together, caressing or kissing and feeling ‘at one’ with someone or moments of sexual ecstasy or in-sync dancing. When done well, what all those moments have in common is that you hardly know where ‘you’ stop and the ‘other’ begins. What I claim in my dissertation is that during these encounters we literally become tender selves.

Tenderness etymologically means: to stretch and to be stretched.

When analyzing the etymology of tenderness, we find the Indo-European root –ten, -tan : to stretch or to be stretched. What this means is that we should understand tenderness as a becoming-stretched by another. It does not seem a coincidence that tenderness has this root in common with musical and rhythmic words like “tone,” “tune,” “dance” or “attunement.” Being tender refers to a state in which we highly attune to another. Sometimes this can be aided by outside music, like when two individuals dance to a similar song. Yet in other times, both attune to a co-created rhythm. For example in moments of intimacy like caressing, kissing and lovemaking. Again, it is not surprising that “tantra” also shares this Indo-European root with tenderness!

Our Installation translates this Tenderness into music.

With the help of EEG dual-brain measurements and sonification techniques, our installation translates these tender moments of intense connection into music. Why? Besides it being quite incredible to make music with your brain, Tender Rhythm has an underlaying message.

Have you ever felt a disconnect with someone, but they deny it? For example, you tell your partner that they feel distant. Or you complain that something feels ‘off’ when you try to be intimate. When they disagree with you, it ends up being their word against yours. And often the disconnection continues, because in order to connect and attune, both need to be willing to be vulnerable. Put differently, it is scary to become-tender with another. It requires a kind of openness which, especially in our autonomy-centered and individualistic culture, rarely becomes prioritized.

But what if the connection between you could ‘talk?’ This is where Tender Rhythms comes in as an artistic gesture aiming to literally ‘give voice’ to the connection between people. The relationship becomes prioritized and can finally ‘speak up.’ In this sense, Tender Rhythms is a subversive art installation, undoing the monopoly of individualism and invulnerability and working towards a more relational, interconnected and tender world!

Want to read more? Visit my Tender Rhythms page.

Mike and I at the end of a successful Exhibit
Picture by Jérôme Carniaux