Daniel Joseph Levitin
Eminent American-Canadian Neuroscientist, Cognitive Psychologist, Musician, Record Producer and Writer
DEBANANDA S. NINGTHOUJAM, PhD
There are great scientists. There are equally famous artists. But as, C P Snow famously said, the two cultures usually don't meet, i.e. the scientific and the artistic worlds don't intersect.
Some scientists however have shown that sciences and arts are two intersecting sets and the two worlds are bridgeable areas of human creativity and not separated by a permanent chasm.
Here, we shall profile the life and career of Daniel J. Levitin, who is a multi-faceted scientist par excellence: musician, neuroscientist, cognitive psychologist, record producer and writer.
Levitin was born on December 27, 1957 in San Francisco to Lloyd Levitin, a professor and businessman; and Sonia Levitin, a novelist.
He grew up in Daly City, Moraga, and Palos Verdes, California.
Daniel completed his schooling from Palos Verdes High School.
Levitin entered MIT to pursue his higher education; then he studied music at the Berklee College of Music. He soon dropped out of college to join a succession of music bands, work as a record producer, and help found a record label, 415 Records.
When he was already in his thirties, he resumed college education at Stanford University, studying cognitive psychology, and earned a BA degree in 1992.
He then proceeded for further studies at the University of Oregon, from which he received an MSc degree in 1993 and a PhD degree in 1996.
Levitin received postdoctoral training at Paul Allen's Silicon Valley think-tank Interval Research, Stanford University Medical School, and University of California, Berkeley.
Scientific career and contributions
Levitin has been a visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).
As a cognitive neuroscientist, he is credited with fundamental work which radically changed the way we think about auditory memory. He developed the Levitin Effect, which says that long-term memory preserves many details of the musical experience that previous theorists regarded as lost during the encoding process.
He also drew attention to the role of cerebellum in perception of music, including tracking the beat and discriminating familiar from unfamiliar music.
Beyond the Academia, Levitin has also worked as a stand-up comedian and joke writer.
Levitin is currently holding three academic positions.
He is James McGill professor emeritus of cognitive psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.
He is also the founding dean of arts and humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI.
Levitin is also a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, USA.
He has published a number of scientific articles on absolute pitch, music cognition, and neuroscience.
His research has shown that music can influence our productivity. When you listen to music that you enjoy, the brain releases the neurotransmitter (a brain chemical that enables the nerve cells to "talk" to one another) called dopamine, which elevates your mood, and reduces your stress and anxiety.
However, music with lyrics may decrease our mental performance at work but instrumental music could boost our productivity.
Good music may also enhance our physical performance.
Levitin's work has especially demonstrated that good music can make repetitive tasks more pleasurable and enhance our concentration on the task. One study has shown that music could improve the performance of surgeons in repetitive nonsurgical laboratory tasks.
Levitin began playing piano at the age of 4, took up clarinet at age 8, and bass clarinet and saxophone at age 12. He took up guitar at age 16 and has been a member of a several bands including The Alsea Band, The Mortals, Judy Garland, The Shingles, Slings & Arrows, and J D Buhl.
He began writing songs at the age of 17, and received acclaim from a number of top songwriters.
Levitin began writing articles for several music industry magazines in 1988. He has also written op-eds, reviews, and essays for New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The Atlantic.
He has also authored several popular science books.
Levitin has written the bestseller, This is Your Brain on Music (regarding the effects of music on brain) (2006). It was nominated for two awards-The Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Quill Award.
The World in Six Songs was published in 2008 and figured in the Canadian and New York Times (NYT) Bestseller Lists. It was also nominated for the World Technology Awards.
The Organized Mind came out in 2014 and it was also included in the NYT bestseller list.
A Field Guide to Lies was published in 2016 and it appeared in several bestseller lists in Canada, the US, and the UK. It was the most acclaimed of Levitin's books. It garnered several awards including the National Business Book Award, Mavis Gallant Prize, and Axiom Business Book Award. It was also a finalist for the Donner Prize.
Levitin was featured on the CBC Radio One show Freestyle (2006-2007).
Two documentary films were based on his book This is Your Brain on Music: The Music Instinct (2009, PBS) and The Musical Brain (2009, Nat Geo TV). He also appeared on Artifact , a 2012 documentary directed by Jared Leto.
His TV and film appearances have reached more than 50 million viewers worldwide.
Levitin has also appeared in The Big Bang Theory and as a guest on BBC 4's Start the Week program, along with cognitive scientist Margaret Boden.
Awards and honours
Levitin has received a slew of awards for his musical and scientific contributions.
He is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
He is also a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, a fellow of the Psychonomic Science, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (FRSC).
He is a frequent commentator on the media channels, CBS and NPR.
Levitin was married to Caroline A. Traube (m. 1999).
He subsequently married Heather Bortfeld, who is also a cognitive psychologist like Levitin.
His scientific papers, popular articles, broadcasts, TV presentations, musical records & shows, public lectures, and popular science books are Levitin's best legacy to the scientific, the intellectual, and the cultural world.
Daniel J. Levitin (1957-) has left lasting trails in the intellectual and the scientific world as a trailblazing cognitive psychologist, broadcaster, musical record producer, behavioural neuroscientist and as a popular science writer.