After a decade in a minor key, the rapper Dessa scanned her brain to fall out of love

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On a rainy night two years ago, rapper Dessa stopped at the side of the road to answer a call. The name of a man he had been dating for years passed quickly through the identification of the caller; they were no longer dating, but the image of his name still inspired a "fullness of feeling" in his chest.
She picked up. I had not called for anything important.
After hanging up, she felt deflated and then furious with herself. "I asked myself, what exactly did you expect to happen?" She says. "Were you waiting for him to be parked behind you with a bouquet of flowers?" Such action would not make sense, and she knew it. "Why can not you stop waiting? What would it take you to fuck?"
Writer and musician, her collection of essays My own devices: True stories of the path of music, science and love without meaning will be published this fall. Dessa had always been interested in philosophers, writers and poets such as Bertrand Russell and David. Foster Wallace, Mary Oliver for answers to your questions about loss, love and connection. But that night he crystallized his inability to let go and, perhaps, the need for a different kind of response.
A few months later, he found the work of the well-known anthropologist and love researcher Helen Fisher. Love, like so many other things, is not only social and psychological, but also biological. Scientists like Fisher have used brain scans to find the so-called neuronal correlates of love or places in the brain where love "lives." The experiment that followed would mark his foray into science and influence his new album Chime, which comes out today. She began a study of one, to see if brain imaging and a technique called neurofeedback could help her, finally, stop loving.

Dessa is tall, measures two and a half meters in her highest kicks, hits one of her new songs, with blond hair and faded shoulders. After a lifetime in Minnesota, she moved to New York City part-time in 2016. The move gave her the time and space to forge a new routine after separation, she says, plus she had always been In love with New York as a literary capital, and she wanted to be part of that world.
He is also a member of the hip hop independent collective Doomtree, and now has four solo albums and a Hamilton mixtape song to his credit. She has written heartbreaking songs about relationships before, and she has people who approach her with their own lost love stories that they could not shake after five, 10 or even 30 years.
"Jesus, how many people are silent, devious, obsessed with a love they can not have?" He says when I sat down to interview her the day after Valentine's Day. It's a question that was asked many times before Chime, which influenced the single "Good Grief". While some years of mourning for his ex made sense, "at 12 [years] I do not perceive that I am growing up and learning. I am stuck, and I am not helping him and he is not helping me."

Dessa's turn towards neuroscience in search of answers is part of a long history of science that shapes music and vice versa. The ancient Greeks believed that music, mathematics and astronomy were intertwined, says Peter Pesic, pianist, scholar and author of Music and Manufacturing of Modern Science. The interest of the astronomer Johannes Kepler in music influenced how he thought about our Universe. For Isaac Newton, music appeared in the way he treated color. He created seven colors in the spectrum, ROYGBIV, because he wanted it to match the number of notes on a musical scale. "Music, like octaves and half notes, are audible proportions," says Pesic. "Music was the first place where people had the idea that numbers were not just physical things in the world, and that is the origin of modern science."
Musicians have also been inspired by science (although perhaps the most famous example – the orchestral ensemble of "Planets" by Gustav Holst – actually referred to astrology and not to astronomy). Kate Bush sang a song about "Pi", John Adams wrote an opera about the Manhattan Project, and in 2011, Björk created a conceptual album called Biophilia about music and science, with songs like "Virus" and "Cosmogony".
Chime, which Dessa helped produce, is not an album about science and technology, but about science as another way of investigating experience. There are no songs about brain waves or explain how electrodes work. All the people I spoke with emphasized that the Dessa case study is not published research and does not pretend to be an official scientific study, but rather a lens to examine your questions about love and loss through art.
To get rid of something, a good first step is to discover where it is. Dessa went to the Magnetic Resonance Research Center at the University of Minnesota to discover where her love was, in a neurological sense. Cheryl Olman, a professor and brain imaging expert at the university, agreed to take Dessa inside a huge machine that uses magnetic fields to measure blood flow in different parts of the brain and display them in images. (The technique is called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.) Emotion is difficult to pin down because there is no region or chemical exclusively responsible for it, but if a region of the brain shows more blood flow when someone experiences a certain emotion, that region probably plays a role in regulating that emotion.
The brain is always working, so certain parts will always light up during a functional MRI scan. The trick, then, was to discover what Dessa's brain scan looked like when he thought about his ex, and, although it was a process of elimination, what made him different. Olman took pictures of Dessa's brain while showing his photos of his ex ("friend A") and then pictures of a male platonic friend ("friend B"). By comparing the two, according to the theory, they could subtract the activity areas generated by the "type B" image from the "type A" image to see which part of the brain was still active, the place where the love and obsession.

FMRI image of Dessa's brain, with the area that is activated when he looks at his ex, but not when he looks at a platonic male friend. Image: Magnetic Resonance Research Center

Dessa's hands are covered with silver rings and jewelry that she does not remove even when she sleeps and showers, she says, holding her hands in front of her, fingers outstretched. None of that could enter the functional MRI machine, where she lay on her back feeling dizzy when the first image of her ex flashed on her. I was looking directly at the photographer in the picture, and it looked like I was looking directly at her. The study was simple blind, which means that while Dessa obviously knew which man was which, Olman did not know. "But, actually, it was pretty obvious," Olman says. "His brain was clearly more in type A."
The results came while Dessa was sitting in a cafe on the Upper East Side. The regions of the brain that were activated when he looked at his ex were the anterior cingulate, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the caudate. According to Olman, these regions are generally involved not only in emotion, but also in reward, motivation and the pursuit of goals.
Dessa started crying while looking at the fMRI images. Of course, she knew that she was in love; that's what inspired the whole project. "But seeing an image that represented that feeling, it's almost like this love that had been driving me crazy for so long, that someone else could also see it," he says. The scan provided something quantitative and empirical, outside of his subjective experience. "I was very surprised to have a postcard of this feeling," he said, "something I could touch." (Later, he printed the caudado in 3D, during a presentation, he turned it into a huge disco ball that hung from the ceiling.)
"I liked the idea of ​​a universe in which it feels as if we all actively traced our courses, but in reality, their environment is such that it is predetermined."
Dessa had found the location of her love. The next question was what he would do or could do with this information. "I thought, do I have the ability to choose to stop loving this man?" He asks. Or did she even want?
"Half of You", one of Chime's pop songs, asks that question. During a synthesizer rhythm, she asks, "What if I could heal from you? / Am I so sure which pill would I choose?" Perhaps, he reflects, he would be happier with "half of you" than in "clean rooms but empty. "
But after so many years, it was time for a change. You might think of a brain scan as a music playlist, one where the activated regions or brain waves represent the songs and moods you play over and over again. Dessa wanted to stop playing the same song, the one in which she was perpetually disconsolate.

Penijean Gracefire, a Tampa-based mental health doctor, often used Dessa's music, songs like "Alibi," "Dixon's Girl," and "Into the Spin," in her work with victims of domestic violence, so when she saw Dessa asked on Twitter if followers had access to fMRI or electroencephalography (EEG), Gracefire responded immediately.
Gracefire uses a method called neurofeedback with patients to help relieve conditions such as anxiety and depression. The first step is to use an EEG to read brain waves and help patients visualize what their brain is doing. The electrodes connected to specific points on the outside of their heads register the electricity of the neurons so that patients can see their brain activity on a screen in real time and understand their patterns.
If brain scans work as a visual playlist, Gracefire explains, the specific shape of these waves tells you if your brain is always playing the blues station or a hyperneurotic dubstep channel. And because brains love patterns, once you train them to spend a lot of time in a "station," like thinking about your ex all the time, they get stiff and less able to play the other songs. Its goal is to make the brain more flexible and play more than just songs on minor keys. To get rid of something like obsessive love, where the brain is trapped in a loop, you have to train the brain to work differently.
Gracefire and Dessa met at the home of Dessa's father in Florida. There, Gracefire took EEG readings from the rapper's brain and compared them to existing studies that show the typical range of brain activity involved in the cognitive and emotional parts of romantic love. It was clear that Dessa's readings, the shape of his brain waves, were outside the typical range.

Electrodes used in the training program. Photo by Dessa

Then, Gracefire developed a training program. For a couple of weeks, the two had nine neurofeedback sessions of 30 minutes. Each time, Gracefire connected electrodes to Dessa's head and played a specific pattern of harp tones as they watched their brain waves take shape on the screen.
Our brains are trained to notice what is different, and a sharp sound will get their attention, says Gracefire. Brains like to hear high-pitched sounds, and so, when Dessa's brain pattern matched the desired shape, a high-pitched sound would play as a reward. His brain would want to hear it again and create another wave the way he wanted, and so on. It was a passive program; Dessa did not need to think about her ex. He just needed to sit there, watch the scribbles on the screen and let his brain process and learn.
After, Jokes Dessa, she decided that she no longer believes in free will. His love for his ex had not felt like free will, and sitting with electrodes glued to his head had been a passive experience, but he had made something change. That tension is present in the first line of a soft song, for piano and with violin in Chime called "Velodrome". "I do not believe that my will is completely free / I am half machine, at least half steam".
"I felt that they had let me through so many secret doors."
"I liked the idea of ​​a universe in which it seems that we are all actively tracing our courses, but in reality, their environment is such that it is predetermined," says Dessa. Intuitively we feel free, but the feeling is not reality, and we are influenced by so many things that we can not see or fully understand, like our brain. Dessa had not been able to fall in love by sheer will alone. Playing some high notes for his brain did not seem to want it either, but the machinery had changed.
After the experiment, Gracefire's EEG results and another brain scan by Olman showed physiological differences. But, as Olman says, "the value is not in the scanner, the value is in if she felt different."
The emotions were still there, she had not been lobotomized, but the obsessive feelings that had haunted her for so many years had lost their power. "He knew our history, yet, and respect and consideration and attraction and remorse and jealousy, were all still there," Dessa says. "But it seemed that the absolute compulsion and the total fixation had been reduced a little, and the immediacy of all those feelings of madness had dissipated, I felt colder."
When his father asked him how he felt after the experiment, he tried to avoid the importance of not reading too much in a case study: how it can not be extrapolated from a person and, perhaps, if they repeated the experiment, they could do it. have completely different results. But his father was not interested in the technical details.
He simply said: "You look different."

Of course, an album is also a playlist. Dessa's brain became more flexible from the neurofeedback sessions, and in Chime, his music also shows more diversity in style. There are aggressive bangers, "rap noir", a piece about gender politics about how "a single woman should be from outside the city", a ballad called "Boy Crazy", a pop song.
A song makes reference to the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (although it is not too expository, he jokes, because "I do not like when it's like" I'll tell you in rhyme form exactly how this thesis works. " keep it quiet. "). Another talks about the contractions of the heart. Other topics include light and heat, secrets that are not preserved, and the body as a machine, as physical material that nevertheless creates so much experience.
"To be able to 3D print the structure of my brain responsible for these feelings for the last 10 years and keep it in my hand" – Dessa holds her left hand in front of her, palm out – "well, what different kind of research to feel that anyone could have done before, "she says. "I felt that they had let me through so many secret doors to understand these feelings from a different perspective."
More information about the dates of the Dessa tour is available on their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


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