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Erica Cao


Erica is interested in how music, the arts and humanities enrich clinical research, learning and practice. Her research with Prof. Ian Cross explores how people with autistic characteristics perceive emotions in music and other domains. Do individuals with autism perceive emotion differently, and does it matter whether the emotions are in music, speech, vocal sounds or faces? She hopes that a better understanding of autistic emotion perception will stimulate new interventions and therapies for people with autism. Her studies are funded by a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.


Prior to joining the Centre for Music and Science in 2013, Erica studied Psychology and Music Performance (piano) at Princeton University. She co-founded the Princeton Music in Mind Society, and in the process of doing so met her soon-to-be mentor, Prof. Phil Johnson-Laird, with whom she began research in music cognition. With funding from the Princeton Center for Civic Engagement, Erica developed a novel music program which taught juvenile delinquents to write songs for pediatric patients, and her senior thesis research demonstrated the benefits of the program in increasing empathy, self-esteem and pro-social behavior.


Erica’s collective experiences in music psychology, engagement in music with others and personal identification with music as a child have led her to believe that music, and the arts and humanities as a whole, is a window to understanding human nature and connecting with others. These multidimensional understandings of what it means to be human is crucial not only for medicine and the doctor-patient relationship, but for society at-large.


In fall of 2014, Erica will attend medical school at the Columbia University College for Physicians and Surgeons. As a physician, she hopes to shape a more creative and compassionate medicine through interdisciplinary research, medical education and programs in the medical humanities. She founded the Cambridge University Medical Humanities Society and keeps a blog, The Artistic Synapse, on the arts and sciences in society. In her free time, Erica enjoys reading Victorian literature and playing ukulele.

Key Publications

Cao, E.L., Lotstein, M., & Johnson-Laird P.N. (2014). Similarity and families of musical rhythms. Music Perception, 31(5), 444-469. doi: