Steffen Herff receives SNSF Spark grant

Spark grants are awarded to projects that “show unconventional thinking and introduce a unique approach”. © Steffen Herff

Spark grants are awarded to projects that “show unconventional thinking and introduce a unique approach”. © Steffen Herff

Postdoctoral researcher Steffen Herff from the College of Humanities (CDH) Digital and Cognitive Musicology Lab (DCML) has received more than CHF95,000 from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) for a one-year project on the relationship between music and imagination.

Steffen Herff’s unique project, “Wanderful music: A systematic investigation into music-induced mind wandering”, aims to test and empirically characterize how music stimulates imagination, or mind-wandering.

Unlike other studies on how people experience music, Herff plans to focus on music’s impact on imagination rather than emotion, which presents unique methodological challenges. His investigation, which will involve both qualitative and quantitative methods, will be predicated on two main ideas: that music can reliably induce visual imagery in listeners, and that one’s relative orientation in time and space is retained during the production of this imagery.

Music and the mind

The qualitative side of the project will involve harnessing expert knowledge through structured interviews with composers, especially those specializing in film or video game music. Meanwhile, Herff explains that the quantitative work will involve deploying a “new paradigm” to measure the perceived passage of time and distance travelled during imagination.

“Preliminary results have been very promising, and show that the imagined passing of time and distance travelled can be predicted using musical features of the inducing music,” he says.

If he can characterize the cognitive effect music has on imagination, Herff believes that his results could inform the use of imaginative cognitive stimulation as a tool for detecting and treating mental disorders, such as depression. For example, current forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and imagery rescripting all use techniques that rely on imagination.

“If we can better understand the mechanisms behind imagination, and learn how to influence them, we can improve such forms of therapy,” he concludes.

Herff joined the DCML in 2019 to lead the empirical side of the ERC grant project, “Principles of Musical Structure Building: Theory, Computation, and Cognition”, awarded to DCML head Martin Rohrmeier. Prior to EPFL, Herff received his PhD from the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour, and Development in Sydney, Australia. He also received a DAAD-UA grant to conduct the "Noisy Ear" project in Germany, which explored context effects of background noise on memory, before accepting a position on statistical learning and memory in the auditory domain at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

The “Wanderful music” project has been funded by the SNSF’s Spark program, which supports the development of new scientific ideas and methods that “show unconventional thinking and introduce a unique approach”.

Author: Celia Luterbacher