Biomusic is an innovative technology that translates the physiological representations of emotional and mental states into musical output.

The interface autism and biomusic blurs the distinctions between human and technology, emotion and art, public and private.


Interfacing Biomusic and Autism: The everyday ethics of representing the physiology of what moves us is an intersectoral, interdisciplinary and international initiative consisting of 4 events that will take place from April 23-25, 2017 in community, cultural, and academic venues in Montreal. This initiative hosts an unprecedented encounter between a group of citizen stakeholders who are joining forces to create Canada’s first autism-friendly city (www.autisminclusivecity.com), industry representatives who have vested interests in the technological manifestation of physiological states, and academic scholars from the humanities (anthropology, art history and communication/media studies), social and natural sciences (engineering, rehabilitation).

Biomusic is an innovative technology that translates the physiological representations of emotional and mental states into musical output. The interface autism and biomusic blurs the distinctions between human and technology, emotion and art, public and private. It unsettles common sense assumptions that portray technology as “cold” and associated to a calculating rationality; instead, it highlights the potential of translating physiological signals into music to humanize how we, as a society, attune to and recognize the presence of persons who are marginalized due to diverse communicative capacities.

Thus, it also constitutes a privileged space to explore the everyday ethics of representing the physiology of what moves us; that is, the physiological signals as well as aesthetical values inspiring action—best encapsulated by literary critic Kenneth Burke’s (1941/1973: 234) observation that, “aesthetical values are intermingled with ethical values and the ethical is the basis of the practical.”

Description of the research to be disseminated, exchanged, mobilized

Autists directly link their experiences of socio-spatial exclusion to neurophysiological sensitivities and differences (Davidson, 2010). The increasing prevalence of autism and its depictions in media has raised this clinical category to the level of a social and cultural phenomenon. Yet, neither the economic calculations of its global burden (Baxter et al., 2014), nor its place of prominence “in ongoing social science and humanities debates about intersubjectivity, intentionality, empathy, and the social construction of disability” (Solomon, 2010: 242) address the very real personal and actual cost of misunderstanding and stigmatization of autists and their families (Kinnear et al., 2016).

Biomusic, by enabling others to “tune in” to meaningful changes in an individual’s physiological state, has been shown to increase the sense of presence and personhood of persons who have diverse communicative capacities (Blain-Moraes et al., 2013). Thus, biomusic has profound implications for persons on the neurological spectrum, as it pushes the boundaries circumscribing subjectivity by offering a potential new mode of becoming aware of others’ sensitivities, counteracting (often misread) culturally informed ways of interpreting another’s expressions and actions (Kirmayer and Ramstead, Forthcoming), and thus, potentially supporting more inclusive ways of interacting with others.

However, providing uninvited insight into an individual’s electrophysiological states has the equal potentiality of being misused and abused, which raises a number of overlapping everyday ethical, aesthetic and practical concerns that must be addressed before it can be meaningfully integrated into everyday life. Everyday ethics, an emerging field of philosophical inquiry in fields ranging from ethnographic, first- person anthropology (Mattingly, 2012; Mattingly, 2014; Lambek, 2015; Keane, 2015) to neuroscience (Zizzo et al., 2016) and philosophy (Massumi) shifts attention to how contemplations of the best good, that guide our actions, emerges in our everyday interactions with other. Since biomusic “reveals” otherwise tacit embodied expressions, the everyday ethical concerns pertain, amongst other things, to potential transgressions of the boundaries of privacy and power (Sterne, 2012) and misreading or imposition of meaning during the process of translating (Latour, 1999) physiological signals to emotional states. How do we decide what is the best good for a range of particular situations with unique personal experiences? The aesthetic concerns pertain to the history of cultural representations of disability at large and of autism in particular, in which individuals identified as “others” to the norm are held to be representative of atypical traits rather than unique sensibilities (Gilman, 2014; Prince, 2010; Gilman, 1988; Gilman, 1985; Prince-Hughes, 2013). To what extent might biomusic have the potential to fall in a similar trap, as the aestheticized (musical) expression of non-neurotypical physiological responses? Finally, the practical concerns we wish to address concern the design, implementation and use of biomusic as a communication technology across diverse neurological experiences, and its potential furthering of the stigmatization of persons with invisible disabilities.

The sequence of events and selection of locations over the three-day event embody the values of integrated knowledge mobilization. We will explore:

  1. The capacities and challenges facing initiatives to create autism-friendly cities led by citizen stakeholders in a public venue;
  2. The background and potentialities of physiological signal analysis, followed by a multi-sensory experience of translating physiological signals into biomusic in cultural institutions for the sciences and the arts; and
  3. An open roundtable discussion on the potentialities, including everyday ethical challenges of using biotechnology to ameliorate inclusion in an interinstitutional research center.


The overarching goal of this Connections Grant project is to generate socially accountable knowledge in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences by providing an actual, real-world focus—the potentialities of biomusic in the creation of autism-friendly cities. To meet this goal, Interfacing biomusic and autism has four main objectives:

  1. It aims to cut across traditional divisions between science and art, public and private, non-profit and commercial entities by bringing together leaders in educational, cultural, and business organizations—many of whom have personal as well as professional stakes in an autism-friendly city— in direct conversation with academics pioneering in the fields of universal design, critical phenomenology, critical neuroscience, disability and communication/ media studies, engineering and industry representatives of electrophysiological monitoring technology.
  2. It provides a citizen-led, integrated knowledge mobilization across societal sectors and academic disciplines to dialogue about the potentialities of biomusic to (1) increase inclusion by increasing awareness of neurodiversity, provide biofeedback to autists,1 and/or support intersubjectivity and communication across linguistic and physiological divides as well as (2) increase stigma by othering, reaffirming norms, and/or focusing attention on individual, in contrast to attitudinal barriers to social exclusion. The knowledge to be exchanged in this face-to-face format includes: practical experiences of social inclusion/exclusion of families with children and youth on the autism spectrum; biotechnology; and emergent theoretical developments focused on everyday ethical life from critical phenomenological, embodied cognitive, and communication/media perspectives.
  3. Interfacing biomusic and autism offers a number of intersectoral and multidisciplinary training and mentoring opportunities for students and emerging scholars. In addition to the opportunity to engage 1 Preferred by insiders.
  4. In the public outreach event and closing reflections, students will also be able to experience biomusic and postdoctoral fellows will receive feedback on their presentations from invited academics on the everyday ethics as opposed to bioethics related to their fields of inquiry (science and technology studies, cultural anthropology, social inclusion and participation). Notably, the initiative—through the applicants and invited participants—will include a range of students from universal design, art history, engineering, rehabilitation, communication/media studies, and transcultural psychiatry.

Creating social-spatial inclusion for autism-inclusive cities

Our outreach initiative begins with a public town hall to be held at the Salon 1861, an inclusive social innovation space located at in Montreal’s Little Burgundy (www.lesalon1861.com). Selected in collaboration with the Giant Steps Foundation, eight citizen stakeholders will relate the challenges and successes they have faced in creating inclusive spaces.

Panelists include parents of children and youth diagnosed with autism who hold key positions as employers, education administrators, and universal designers as well as representatives of municipal services and cultural institutions.

After an introduction Eric Lewis, Director of the Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas, Nick Katalifos and Thomas Henderson of Giant Steps will give the background to the autism-inclusive cities project. To frame this event for the public audience, Keven Lee, a professional dancer and doctoral candidate will present on how his work “moving-with” children with autism reshaped his own sensibilities about where and with whom interventions for social inclusion might be situated. Key invited guests include a social geographer with a focus on social-spatial exclusion from critical autism studies perspective (Joyce Davidson), scholars, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students in the humanities (anthropology, museology, education, art history, communication/media studies) and sciences (engineering, rehabilitation). This town hall event is open to the public and ample time will be given to engage dialogue around practical concerns pertaining to social inclusion.

Reflecting on the Potentialities of Biomusic

We will begin our theoretical exploration of biomusic technology at the Montreal Science Center, which hosts a permanent exhibition featuring biomusic, “Mes émotions sont à fleur de peau” (opening February 2017).

Co-applicant Stefanie Blain-Moraes will present a history and technical background of biomusic to situate the group to the realities, possibilities and limitations of this technology. Daniel Bender, an industry representative from Empatica will then introduce issues related to commercializing technology for physiological monitoring. Engineering students under Dr. Blain-Moraes will guide participants through the biomusic exhibit, which gives a first-hand experience of the technology.

The group will then re-convene to hear a series of keynote presentations given by leading scholars in their respective fields on the potentialities as well as everyday ethical implications at the interface of autism and biotechnology.

Experiencing the aesthetics of Biomusic

We will host an engaged experience of biomusic at a workshop in the exhibits and Studios Art & Education Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier of the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal (www.mbam.qc.ca/education/studio-art-education-michel-de-la-cheneliere), our cultural collaborator on the project.

This event grounds technical and theoretical knowledge exchange in a common, embodied experience. Thirty participants (10 groups of 3), deliberately grouped to represent intersectoral stakes (e.g. citizen/academic/student, citizen/industry/student) will experience biomusic. Each group will be given a E4 physiological sensor paired with a smartphone which will play their biomusic over headphones and will follow pre-determined paths through the exhibit halls, created to elicit diverse emotional responses. Using a simple program designed by engineering students (ECSE 456) under Blain-Moraes, the physiological sounds of specific individual will be available for participants to “tune in” to on the smartphone.

After a 90-minute period to explore the exhibits, participants will be able to join or observe an improvisatory movement session with professional dancer (Lee) in the Atelier. The variety of physiological responses of the participants to various multi-modal experiences will also provide feedback on how certain exhibit pathways and the newly renovated space of the Atelier impacts on the experiences of a range of visitors. Thus, this workshop component, designed in collaboration with arts educator (Lajeunesse), art historian (Tembeck), and museology graduate student (Laurin) poses questions about the potentialities and ethical considerations around privacy, power and representation. After a group debrief, a reception will follow for continued reflections.

Enacting inclusion

Our initiative for social inclusion will close with a panel discussion at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music and Media Technology (www.cirmmt.org), a multi-disciplinary and inter- institutional2 research group housed at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University. Interfacing biomusic and autism aligns with the Center’s mission to promote an interdisciplinary culture and form partnerships with the public and para-public sectors in Quebec, Canada and internationally.

This setting creates space to synthesize the implications and outcomes of the past two days and propose future directions, with a particular emphasis on training and mentoring for accountable research. First, postdoctoral fellows who are connected to rehabilitation research centers will reflect on how this citizen- led initiative has impacted their thinking, using their current foci in areas ranging from technology and social inclusion to autism. The keynote speakers for the potentiality panel will provide commentary, followed by an open question and answer period, which is free and open to the public. We then will split into cross sector break-out groups, organized according to the themes that emerged over the past two days. Break-out groups will prioritize the everyday ethical, aesthetic and practical aspects related to their theme (e.g. citizen-led design brief for biomusic and/or environmental user design in higher education, workplaces), future steps, and re-convene to share discussions and confirm future partnerships.

Description of the main audience

Given the range of the questions raised by our investigations at the interface of autism and biomusic, it is clear that these concerns cannot be successfully addressed by any one discipline. Instead, they require a concerted effort across the entrenched silos of philosophy and practice, natural sciences and the humanities, the plastic and the mechanical arts. As such, this project was designed as an integrated knowledge mobilization project in order to disseminate knowledge multi-directionally across disciplines and sectors: citizen stakeholders, such as parents, who possess experiential knowledge of what this technology could offer; academics holding both theoretical and technical knowledge; members of the tech industry and universal designers who can provide insight into best practices; and local bureaucrats committed to creating more accessible public spaces. The days’ events will also be filmed by Productions Spectrum to create public service announcements to be distributed via the links and networks of invited participants.


Created By
A Sinn