N.E.R.D

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Dimitri Ehrlich
Craig Mcdean

As part of the production duo The Neptunes, Pharrell Williams has won Grammys, helped to sell millions of albums, and become the face of nerdy cool in hip-hop. More recently, Williams has branched out into fashion and art, designing sunglasses and modeling for Louis Vuitton, working with Paris boutique Colette, as well as launching his own clothing line, Billionaire Boys Club, a footwear line, Ice Cream, and partnering with textile firm Bionic Yarn. Last year he collaborated with artist Takashi Murakami and jewelry house Jacob & Co. to create The Simple Things: a cupcake, a bag of Doritos, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, a Pepsi can, a sneaker, a condom, and a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Lotion—encrusted with 26,000 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds inside the mouth of a Murakami sculpture—shown at Art Basel in Switzerland. Oh, and he still finds time to make music: Last month,Interscope released the soundtrack to the animated comedy Despicable Me, which Williams co-wrote, and this fall, he will unveil his fourth album with his group N.E.R.D, which includes Shae Haley and Williams’s Neptunes cohort Chad Hugo. As the name of the alt-rock trio suggests, the 37-year-old Williams is a connoisseur of cool, but not a slave to it.

What is less known about Williams is his interest in science—specifically, the brain. He recently became fascinated with the work of Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Ramachandran, director of the university’s Center of Brain and Cognition, has been called one of the “hundred most prominent people to watch” in the 21st century by Newsweek magazine. Still, it would be difficult to imagine two less likely collaborators: one is a pop-music icon, the son of a handyman and a schoolteacher from suburban Virginia who now rolls around Miami in an Enzo Ferrari. The other is a neuroscientist, born in India and educated at Cambridge. What could they possibly have in common? A lot, as it turns out. But in the following conversation, it’s easy to see how both men feed off of each other with the thrill of discovery, and take mutual pleasure in zigging while the rest of the world zags.

Some people just have that innate thing that allows them to express themselves in a way the majority can follow. That’s when you’re affecting culture—Pharrell Williams

Current Issue
November 2014

DIMITRI EHRLICH: Dr. Ramachandran, let’s begin with you. I’m assuming Pharrell’s music is not on the playlists of the majority of your colleagues in neuroscience. How did you first become aware of him?

DR. V.s. RAMACHANDRAN: Through my son, Jaya. He showed me some videos on YouTube.

EHRLICH: And Pharrell, how did you first become aware of Dr. Ramachandran and what drew you to him?

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: I think my first time seeing him was probably also on YouTube. But I’d seen him on the Discovery Channel a couple times before, and I was just so intrigued by the way he approached neuroscience. Sometimes when you’re listening to a neuroscientist, they have a tendency to use a particular type of jargon that works in their world perfectly but that would lose the average layman. And while I can keep up with most of them, he just had an eloquent way with his words and I understood it. I mean, it was like listening to [the late astronomer] Carl Sagan or [astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both of those guys just have this thing, and that’s why they’re rock stars in my opinion, because they have the ability to translate genius to the masses. What we all do is art, you know? We are noticers, we’re sensitives, we notice the rhythms in certain things and we identify them, and then we coin terms for them, and most of the world is not able to keep up. But some people just have that innate thing that allows them to express themselves in a way the majority can follow. That’s when you’re affecting culture.

EHRLICH: A couple of years ago, Pharrell released an album with N.E.R.D called Seeing Sounds [2008] which was loosely organized around the concept of synesthesia—the mixing of sense consciousnesses, like “hearing” colors and so forth. Dr. Ramachandran, you’ve also done some experiments in the field of synesthesia, right?

RAMACHANDRAN: Yes, I’ve long been interested in the creative process, whether in art or in science. People think of art and science as being fundamentally opposed to each other, because art is about celebrating individual human creativity, and science is about discovering general principles, not about individual people. But in fact, the two have a lot in common, and the creative spirit is similar in both. It’s about seeing hidden links, which nobody else has discovered before. And in synesthesia, what’s going on is the brain sees all these amazing links, which you and I can barely glimpse. With grapheme-color synesthesia, every time a person sees a number, a letter, or hears a note, he sees a particular color. For most of us, that doesn’t happen. But some people, maybe one in a hundred, have this ability. And it’s been believed to mean that you’re crazy. But now we’ve shown in our lab, using brain imaging, and also by doing psychological testing, that, in fact, it’s a perfectly real, legitimate phenomenon, and it’s also eight or nine times more common among artists, poets, and novelists than in the general population. The question is why does that happen? Well, it turns out that synesthesia is caused by excessive cross-wiring in the brain. In the fetus, or a really young child, all the different brain areas are connected to each other, diffusely. And as the brain develops, the excess connections are turned off, so you get very specialized areas. So most people have really specialized talents. What happens in creative people is this pooling doesn’t take place. This creates a propensity to link seemingly unrelated things, like tones and colors. But also, because of the excess links, it makes them see hidden connections, made just between things that are seemingly unrelated to most of us. Like when Shakespeare says, “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” That’s a beautiful metaphor. You think, She’s radiant like the sun, she’s warm like the sun, she’s nurturing like the sun. Shakespeare’s brain probably had more of these connections that enabled him to make these amazingly, hauntingly beautiful connections, which most of us can’t. So my interest in synesthesia is trying to find the link between art and science, and trying to get a scientific understanding of things like creativity and artistic talent. I was invited to watch Pharrell work in the studio, and I was absolutely mesmerized—Pharrell, fill him in on it.

WILLIAMS: Well, he just kind of watched me make a song and how, as a musician, we react to something being right, how we react to something being wrong, and we go searching for it out of what’s seemingly thin air. But for us, we’re noticing rhythms, we’re catching something. My explanation is that curiosity illuminates the correct path to anything in life. If you’re not curious, that’s when your brain is starting to die. And discovering, I think, that’s what separates us from the rest of the other species. It’s that we discover and pioneer, we don’t forget from whence we came. My parents played a lot of Earth, Wind, & Fire, and the lead singer, Maurice White, was part of the Ramsey Lewis Trio, so he had an extensive jazz background, and so all of the songs had very interesting changes that I was privy to as a child. But at the same time, I used to see those colors as a kid. I thought everyone saw music in that way: That’s kind of burgundy, or, This is baby blue! But you start to notice when your friends are like, “Okay . . .” I just kind of blew it off, but what Dr. Ramachandran witnessed with me in the studio was, I’m just the average musician but I was just allowing my GPS to do what it does.

RAMACHANDRAN: When I first listened I was saying, “My god, Pharrell is being very insistent on repeating the same thing.” But it became more and more rich. It’s not just one rhythm. Many layers of rhythm are superimposed on each other and become resonant with each other, and Pharrell’s brain is probably seeing colored landscapes when he hears these things. It enriches the experience for him enormously.

WILLIAMS: That’s exactly right. A genius is somebody who seemingly just reaches out of nowhere, but he’s totally right. In our minds, it’s just mapped out. And if it’s not mapped out, we kind of have arrows in our brain to tell us where to go. So as much as I want to sound smart, I mean—it’s not. It’s just something that you see, sense, and feel. It’s like everybody else sees a bunch of mixed-up pieces, and for whatever reason, you figure it out. I don’t know if it’s a Rubik’s Cube, or a jigsaw puzzle, but whatever it is, you got it! And when your friends don’t get it, they look and they go, “Well, what is that?” Musically, it’s the same thing, it’s like you hear these pieces, or you feel this direction, or you sense a feeling, and you just kind of cut it up, or you add to it, or you go left, or you go right, or you go up, or you go down, or you make it spin—it’s all the same thing for us. They’re all moving parts. I think it’s the same reason why I was able to do some design or the reason why the professor’s intrigued in the many things that he is, because he understands that it’s all the same thing; we’re all linked, it’s just there’s different modes of expression. But a song is no different than a painting, and a painting is no different than geometry, and geometry is no different than science, which actually gives you alchemy, I believe.

EHRLICH: I’m curious, Dr. Ramachandran, if you have any insights about how the brain is affected physically by music? Some people have said music is close to heroin in the way it affects the brain. Like, you don’t go see a movie a thousand times, but you’ll listen to the same song a thousand times. It creates some neural pathway—some chemical thing happens in the brain where you want to hear that song literally a thousand times. From a neurological point of view, why is that?

RAMACHANDRAN: There’s a lot of pop psychology on this, so you have to be careful. But on the whole, I think it’s correct to say that the left hemisphere is more logical and the right hemisphere is almost like an antenna to another realm. In India, we have raga scales, which are basically different [musical] scales. So, I might say I’m in the Hindol mood today, and anybody who knows the raga will instantly understand what I’m talking about. There’s no way to articulate that, but it conveys a specific nuance, a blend of often ecstatic, divine emotions which are hard to describe in any language other than music and great art. Great art allows you to transcend your mortal frame and to reach for the stars. I think great science does the same thing. In terms of what’s going on in your brain, I can easily tell you that a brain’s regions, like the septum and the nucleus accumbens, involve pleasure-seeking and generate pleasure. But that kind of pleasure is going to be created by anything—by sex or gourmet food. So it’s not which kind of pleasure you get with music, it’s a multidimensional experience.

My explanation is that curiosity illuminates the correct path to anything in life. If you are not curious, that's when your brain is starting to die. And discovering, I think, that's what separates us from the rest of the other species. It's that we disover and pioneer...—Pharrell Williams

EHRLICH: Have there ever been successful specific studies on the way the brain is affected by music in particular?

RAMACHANDRAN: Not in detail. I’m writing a book [The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, to be published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. in January 2011] on the uniqueness of the human brain, seeing what makes us different from the brains of the great apes, for example. Any ape can reach for a peanut, but we humans can reach for the stars. But what parts of the brain are involved in visual art versus different musical styles, we don’t know.

WILLIAMS: If you think about all the different genres of music, they’re all descriptions of something else that has nothing to do with music—like the blues. Whoever coined that term, they completely got it right, they knew that those chord progressions, and the nature of those chords, the way that they were built, would give off a hue that was more blue, and not necessarily happy and sunny.

EHRLICH: Pharrell, you once said that you were inspired by one of your business partners, the Japanese fashion designer Nigo, because he taught you that you can turn your imagination into reality if you really want to. The Buddha also said that we create our reality with the way we think and the way we see, and even the way we speak, with the power of words. I was curious, do you think there’s a scientific basis for believing that we can create physical reality out of our imagination?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, everything—the device that you’re speaking on right now was an idea. Every piece of technology, every piece of art, basically everything manmade comes from an idea. I would venture to say that a very large percentage of inventors were probably synesthetes, because they used their senses to blueprint things that are essential to us these days. Like forks. The fork has a long, extensive history that I know nothing about, but I’m sure it was an idea first. And when you have an idea, it has to be expressed from your sixth sense, which is, in my opinion, your mind. You have the gustatory, olfactory, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. When you combine them all, that is a unit that is aware. But then there’s a “super consciousness,” which is like instinct and intuition, which I feel gives us a seventh sense—that’s the thing that you can’t really describe. It’s where hunches come from, or gut feelings. And I just feel like that is what separates us as a species, and that’s where all great ideas come from.

RAMACHANDRAN: Looking at it from the point of view of the neuroscientist, Pharrell is saying a lot of things which make a lot of sense to me. Even though he speaks in a language that is metaphorical, I can substantiate it in terms of neuroscience. Remember, one of the tangential points he made is the importance of curiosity in humans. You know, other animals have curiosity, especially the great apes, but in us, we celebrate our curiosity, we nurture it, and if you lose curiosity, you’re barely human. And in terms of creativity and synesthesia, there’s one type of synesthesia which we call number form, and it is common among scientists. They say that great mathematicians sometimes see numbers in specific locations of space. Number one may be the left upper corner; number 362 might be at the bottom, on the floor. So there’s an elaborate, convoluted system of numbers, spatially organized. And they can see hidden links between the numbers, which most of us wouldn’t be able to see, allowing them to make discoveries about number theory, about mathematics. So this is an example of synesthesia being used in science to promote and enhance creativity. Going back to us creating our own reality, to some extent that must be true, because of course there’s one reality out there in the world, but if you show a complicated picture to a pig, the pig has no inkling of what’s going on. If you show it some Shakespeare, the pig just sees a bunch of splotches. You show it to a human being, the human being will read it and understand it literally, but not get the punch. There are a few human beings who can instantly see the beauty of it, and the power in the language of Shakespeare. This is what Pharrell was saying about different degrees of awareness of the world, and different extents to which you create your own reality. He spoke of the five senses, that human begins alone can transcend these five senses and create a sense of what’s common between the senses. There’s a specific brain area called the left inferior parietal lobule, which is especially pronounced in humans and not seen at all in lower animals. It’s where all the senses come together—touch, vision, hearing, the other senses—and when that’s damaged, people lose the ability to engage in metaphorical thinking.

EHRLICH: Dr. Ramachandran, I believe Richard Dawkins called you “the Marco Polo of neuroscience.” Since we’re discussing the use of metaphors, what are the potholes on the Silk Road of your career? What are the biggest obstacles that you face in your work?

RAMACHANDRAN: There are certain problems about human nature, things like falling in love, metaphor, creativity, humor—and all these things people stay away from because they say it’s too complicated, that you can’t study them scientifically. But if you have the right tools, the right imagination, ask the right questions, and are driven by intense curiosity, like Pharrell was saying, you can discover very simple explanations for amazing phenomena. So really the only opposition that I’ve faced is people saying, “Well, this is too complicated. How can you study it using such simple techniques?” And, “How do you even approach something like creativity?”

EHRLICH: Interesting. A lot of hip-hop and also punk rock got the same criticism: that it was too simple. But the difference is that in pop culture, the masses vote with their wallets.

RAMACHANDRAN: I think simplicity and elegance go hand in hand. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

EHRLICH: Pharrell, in addition to Dr. Ramachandran, I know you’re also a fan of Carl Sagan. For those of us who are stupid, how would you summarize the main message of [Sagan’s] work and why did you connect with it?

WILLIAMS: Carl was a pioneer and he created this amazing book and television series called Cosmos. Much like the professor, he just has that thing where, when these guys talk, man, it’s just so much information and such an interesting point of view, but at the same time their articulation is unmatched. From that point, I was a fan of his. I felt the same way when I watched the professor speak. I was like, “Okay, I’m a fan, and at some point I’m gonna reach out to him.” And he and I actually have, like, a little undercover project that we’re working on—there are no words, basically, to describe how fortunate and blessed I feel to have been introduced to his material and to him as a human being. To do any work with this guy is life-changing, man. Because it’s great thinkers who change the world. It’s great thinkers who allow us the liberties that we take so for granted, you know? It’s just an amazing feeling to be personally engaged with someone like him, and Carl Sagan was like that. I wish I could have met him. They are the real rock stars to me. Seriously. The music that they make are the numbers and the equations that we survive on to this day. We’re nothing without science. Nothing.

EHRLICH: Speaking of science, you are part owner of an eco-friendly fabric company, Bionic Yarn. How involved were you in the scientific aspect of that? If I understand it correctly, you’re using recycled plastics to create fabric for clothing, is that the idea?

I'm not sure what happens before you get here or when you leave, but I know that while we are here, we are these animate, mobile beings, and there's certainly electricity flowing through our bodies....—Pharrell Williams

WILLIAMS: Yeah, basically we just replaced polyester with our product and it takes a double helix and it weaves around the yarn. You can lower or raise the percentages. Like, when you look in the back of your shirt, it may be 35 percent cotton, 25 percent polyester, or whatever. But we were able to replicate any material, at any point, at any juncture. So when they explained the technology to me, I was like, Okay. I’ve got to jump in tune to this. We aspire to be as big as a 3M, but we aspire also to make sure that this product is for the common man as well as luxury. I aspire to take this to the next level not because I can run around saying interesting facts, like, “Seven plastic bottles can make one pair of jeans.” Yeah, that’s interesting, but more importantly it could change the standards for the way that we live. A lot of people are scared of “going green,” and I don’t think it’s necessary to keep preaching “green.” Let’s just teach by example, and let’s change our standards.

EHRLICH: Pharrell, your group, N.E.R.D, is an acronym for “No one ever really dies.” The Buddha, who was, in a way, also a neuroscientist, said that matter can never come from non-matter, and consciousness can never come from non-consciousness—meaning he felt there was a scientific basis for the principle of rebirth, because in the material world, everything we can observe transforms. Trees die and they turn into soil, the soil might run into the sea, the sea could evaporate into clouds, et cetera. So nothing really disappears. Is that what you meant when you said “No one ever really dies?”

WILLIAMS: That is what I meant, for sure, one hundred percent. I’m not sure what happens before you get here or when you leave, but I know that while we are here, we are these animate, mobile beings, and there’s certainly electricity flowing through our bodies. Interestingly, I’ll add, our bodies are about 75 percent water—much like the planet. There’s electricity that comes from us, hence dragging your feet across carpet and touching the doorknob, you know what happens?

EHRLICH: You get shocked.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s energy! So there is proof. If you had to run a simple test, that’s the easiest one to do. There is electricity going through us. That is an example of one facet of the energy that we harness as beings. When I was coming up with that name, I wanted to celebritize being smart, because I noticed that being a nerd when I was in high school was the corniest thing you could ever do. But for me, I was like, “Those are the guys that grow up and drive BMWs! I don’t get it!” So I was like, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna take my music and I’m going to slowly but surely punch away at that notion that being a nerd is not cool.” Being smart? I want to work that up, and that’s what our aim was, and I couldn’t find a better acronym.

Einstein said energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be conjured and spread—I’m not even sure if you can create it—and so therefore, if we know that our bodies are filled with energy, when the flesh dies, what happens to the soul? It’s gotta go somewhere. I don’t know where it goes, I don’t have the proof to speak blindly on the phone in this interview, but that’s it. That part I’m sure of: No one ever really dies.

Dimitri Ehrlich is a contributing music editor at Interview.

I wanted to celebrate being smart, because I noticed that being a nerd when I was in high school was the corniest thing you could ever do. But for me, I'm like, 'Those are the guys that grow up and drive BMWs!'....—Pharrell Williams

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M-A-M

08/18/10 5:57pm

Amazing interview! Love the unique approach and the connection between science and art. Thank you for giving us this look into the mind of Pharrell.
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mellany

08/17/10 9:37pm

I've always likes Pharrell's music but I must say this article enlightened me on how deeply thoughtful and curious he is... How refreshing
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Heraldo

07/30/10 9:33am

Great interview. Hmm thought provoking and intriguing. I feel guilty for thinking that maybe Pharell is overrating his musical and artistic abilities just a little bit though. He's no Mozart or Picasso.
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