There’s an “Inverse Piano” in Your Head

By David Noonan

Neuroscientist James Hudspeth has basically been living inside the human ear for close to 50 years.

In that time Hudspeth, head of the Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience at The Rockefeller University, has dramatically advanced scientists’ understanding of how the ear and brain work together to process sound. Last week his decades of groundbreaking research were recognized by the Norwegian Academy of Science, which awarded him the million-dollar Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. Hudspeth shared the prize with two other hearing researchers: Robert Fettiplace from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Christine Petit from the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

As Hudspeth explored the neural mechanisms of hearing over the years, he developed a special appreciation for the intricate anatomy of the inner ear—an appreciation that transcends the laboratory. “I think we as scientists tend to underemphasize the aesthetic aspect of science,” he says. “Yes, science is the disinterested investigation into the nature of things. But it is more like art than not. It’s something that one does for the beauty of it, and in the hope of understanding what has heretofore been hidden. Here’s something incredibly beautiful, like the inner ear, performing a really remarkable function. How can that be? How does it do it?” After learning of his Kavli Prize on Thursday, Hudspeth spoke with Scientific American about his work and how the brain transforms physical vibration into the experience of a symphony.

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