Sunday, May 18, 2008

Music of the (hemi)spheres.

Why do stories and music pull me so? Perhaps, as researchers into our brain suggest, such creations stem from our mind's own structure. We satisfy our own hungers, built-in to our manufacturing of narrative and our delight at melody. I read this morning two reviews in the June 2008 "Harper's" which paired off well, speaking of the tales told through the brain, the music of our two neural hemispheres.

Gary Greenberg in "A Mind of Its Own" covers five titles in neuroscience. I'm reminded of last week's review of my own on Gerard Donovan's "Sunless," a novel that depicts a near-future of manipulation by the creation of designer drugs for lifestyle maladies which will silence the hypothalamus fear center and the amygdala danger alert in our reptilian core. Greenberg shares Donovan's caution. Greenberg warns: "Because if you are going to live, like it or not, in thrall to your brain, then your future belongs in some way to the doctors who claim to be the only people qualified to explain you to yourself." (84) My wife places much greater trust in the remedies offered by therapy, chemical and psychological, than I do, and this may be a cultural difference going back to, as a line in "The Departed" noted, my descent and not hers from the only people that Freud claimed could not benefit from his cure. Which makes me wonder how our sons will fare.

Our neurons have the ability to make circuits across synapses "in the neighborhood of ten followed by a million zeros. By comparison, the number of particles in the known universe add up to ten followed by a mere seventy-nine zeros." In forty-odd years, scientists predict the Cartesian dualism will succumb: no more body vs. brain or brain vs. mind separations will stand in the way of what biologists will at last comprehend. One author's glimpse of what may be ahead intrigues me.

David Linden in "The Accidental Mind" claims that our brains evolved for narrative. The left cortex tilts us towards religious thought, to making up tales, and it's so powerful a drive that it invades our sleep. When we dream, our brains learn to make cognitive leaps "that underlie nonnaturalistic thought." (qtd. 85) The left brain applies this tendency to what we cannot solve about the mystery of our existence, and we shift into religious explanations. So, is the brain "designed" by an intelligence who wants us to recognize it?

Linden denies this. Rather, and this a word that's a title of another book just out, the brain jimmies up a "kludge," a design that cannot be thought elegant, fathomable, or efficient, but still, in a pinch, works. Sort of like, I might add, what Rube Goldberg or McGyver might whip up given a few hundred thousand years. This is not to say all works logically. Richard Dawkins gave some attention to this haphazard process in "The God Delusion," as does John Marks in "Reasons to Believe" and I recall the spine and the retina being two typical examples that Darwinists haul out for display to vanquish their "intelligent design" foes.

Why can't we tickle ourselves? Greenberg explains what he learned from those five books. He also wonders what's the point. I thought of the same problem that, on the next page, he raises. Why, on the other hand, can we acheive orgasm with no help from a mate? I wondered what's the evolutionary advantage in not tickling, ourselves. Compared with wasting our genital energy in a non-reproductive manner, what's the benefit for our species? I guess it's another by-product of some haphazard evolutionary quirk, and undoubtably a lucky synaptic detour that we humans lucked out on. Greenberg appears about as clueless as I am here; he awaits research.

One last point. He cites Carl Woese who distinguishes "empirical" from "fundamentalist" reductionism for scientific investigation. After I read this, I went on (in between hosting snack time at Niall's Hebrew school in the temple hall, and wondering what those who founded this humble edifice on the less glamourous edge of Hollywood in 1926 would have made of my current reading, and the advances in what we suggest sparks our yearning for the beautiful, the powerful, the shameful, and the transcendent) in my enormous Townsend Ludington (what a name) biography of John Dos Passos. More about him to come, but coincidentally next came in my vigil a block south of Sunset Blvd. the chapter on his 1934 failed sojourn to work at Paramount Studios giving Spanish lessons to the director "Joseph von Stronheim" the Austrian noble-- born Joe Stern in Brooklyn.

Anyhow, lefty libertarian, democratic dissenter Dos Passos has turned utterly fed up with the radical silencing of any opposing views. He senses correctly that the Party will as eagerly crush the little man as will the monopolists with what the book he was developing then called "The Big Money." He's disenchanted with any system, Stalinist or Marxian, capitalist or corporate, which tries to crush the worker or writer's own liberty to create freely his or her best efforts. It's a stance I agree with, and this juxtaposition of flexibility against mold fits Woese's dichotomy.

It's the same distinction the neo-athiests emphasize, from Bertrand Russell to Christopher Hitchens to Dawkins, Marks, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Science admits its mistakes. It's not the final word. Woese notes it's a methodology, a dissection of a "biological entity or system into its constituent parts to better understand it." (qtd. 86) However, empirical reductionism "makes no assumptions about the fundamental nature" of organisms. Fundamentalist reductionism, as the name denotes, turns metaphysical. It's established on "metaphysical" essences: that is, you accept the system. "It is ipso facto a statement about the nature of the world: living systems (like all else), can be completely understood in terms of the properties of their constituent parts."

Whether Greenberg or me, we have to quote Woese himself to ensure this assertion's understood as intended. It matches for me Dos Passos' wariness of the Marxist whirlpool and the Soviet prison-ship that so many of his fellow-travellers had boarded. He kept holding back from that voyage, and by the mid-30s, after returning from what he already sensed a fragile nascent and naive Spanish Socialist Republic, he vowed to step aside. He wondered if America, for all its Hearsts and hucksters, had a chance to return to Jeffersonian ideals that might rescue it from the perils of Capitol, and Kapital. His refusal to let a foreign doctrine, rooted as he saw it in feudal atavism nearly as dangerous, if purged of its humanistic amenities and scientific heritage, as fascism meant ostracism from the Left. Dos Passos might have recognized, seven decades later, his own caution repeated by the scientists and rationalists who seek wisdom not in some permanent and unassailable monolith of an idea, but the most probable cause for the exponential effects we think and live with.

Yet, Greenberg-- he skips past Woese but never looks back-- ends his essay with a similar skepticism that Dos Passos as an artist, and not merely the chronicler, would also share about easy answers to hard questions. He wonders how science will dim the mysteries that, for now perhaps if in our ignorance, still elude our grasp as facts and formulae. "Negative capability undoubtably has its limits, but the certainties of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen seem dispiriting in contrast with what has come before." (88)

Israeli pianist and mathematician Zalmen Rosenfeld in "Feeling and Form" considers Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain." Now, and you can turn to this month's earlier blog entry on Tod Wodicka's novel "All Things Shall Be Well" for more on her, I've never liked Sacks since in the "Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" he reduced, if empirically, St Hildegard of Bingen's visions in their falling-star patterns to brain misfirings. The mystical medievalist in me, I suppose, bristles even as the moping modernist nods dutifully.

Still, for Rosenfeld (as for Greenberg satisfyingly, and I follow suit), what's under review matters less than what that reading ignites in the writer's mind. Rosenfeld summarizes Pythagoras' discovery of ratios expressed through a blacksmith's hammering producing "pleasing musical intervals"-- or agonizing ones, as Plato soon noted! And so to the music of the spheres echoing eternally our earthbound relationships, in our equilibrium, our songs, and our poems.

Darwin believed, Rosenfeld mentions, that music preceded speech; Steven Pinker argues the opposite but calls music "auditory cheesecake," a phrase that sounds delightful, as dessert for our neurological good behavior after speech arrived! Against this, Rosenfeld paraphrases how Sacks incorporates Merlin Donald's "Origins of the Human Mind." This propounds that music-- a mimetic system of representational signs-- preceded language. Rosenfeld interpets the two scientists' concept as perhaps forming "a sense of communal consciousness" which may have "fostered the early stirrings of religious feeling." (90) Music may have come before or after speaking, but once speech arrived about 100,000 years ago, people still needed songs: for pleasure and for group bonding.

The links with poetry being well-known, and the mnemonic power of music haunting our own persistent memories of nursery rhymes and advertising jingles (and maybe a snappy limerick or for my sons a rap lyric, I guess), our body therefore remembers. Rosenfeld runs through Western culture nimbly as he pursues this irrational, deeply channelled, and time-shattering "form of knowing" that music can summon. I dash off after his insertion of Augustine's typical hesitation: "Thus I fluctuate between the danger of pleasure and the beneficent effect" of sacred music, a Pythagorean-Platonic ambivalence that only Palestrina's deft liturgical compositions could finally overcome after plainchant and polyphony pushed the Tridentine Church into backlash at encroaching harmonies.

After Bach, Beethoven, Kant, Nietzsche ("Bach even made him forget for a moment that God was dead," Rosenfeld whispers) and Wagner, it's Darwin again. "It didn't take much for music and the feelings it evokes to be seen in terms of ordered sound and neural firings." (93) It's back to Greenberg's citation of Woese's two types of reductionism, but Rosenfeld pauses.

This may be "the default orthodoxy in the biological sciences," but Roger Penrose rescues music from it being but a sum of our neuroscientific firings and sizzles. It's back to Plato. Penrose opines that moral, mathematical, and musical truths may exist in an ideal realm that our consciousness can access. We can grasp, he elaborates, Mozart: how the composer's mind understood "a completed work" in its entirety. I might not be alone in demurring: yeah, but that's the smartest person who ever lived, right? Still, Wolfgang was not divine, so Penrose's cognitive leap wobbles but stays upright.

David Chalmers in "The Conscious Mind" thinks consciousness no less than mass, spin, charge, and location may be woven into "the very fabric of existence" as "a property our brains have learned to exploit." (97) We got used to gravity, sex, and Muzak, so I suppose this may be true, although how to "prove" this locked into our own frames of flesh and circuitry may be as elusive as that God vs. Darwin debate we've been having the past century and a half. Music's charms do soothe our savagery, even as they may incite it-- a proviso that Plato or Augustine appeared to stress, perhaps understandably, more than practioner Rosenfeld or level-headed reductionist Sacks.

Study the caption for the painting shown! Two songs by Queen, "Sheer Heart Attack" & "Brighton Rock," have been stuck in my mind lately. What better method than to link madness with music and memory to demonstrate my musings above? Play on.

I've never heard this LP, but speaking of Mnemosyne's magic, I hazily linked, and correctly so, this artwork with a rock track. It appeared as the second song, side two, of Queen's second album, "Queen II." Recorded late 1974, an ambitious production apparently in their prog days. Freddy Mercury'd drag the band over to the Tate to see this painting during downtime in its recording.
Richard Dadd: 1817-86: "The Fairy-Feller's Master Stroke" 1855-64

Oil on canvas. Presented by Siegfried Sassoon in memory of his friend and fellow officer Julian Dadd, a great-nephew of the artist, and of his two brothers who gave their lives in the First World War 1963.

Richard Dadd painted this work in the Bethlem Hospital where he was sent after murdering his father and being declared insane. The scene was drawn from his imagination. It shows the ‘fairy-feller’ poised to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct Queen Mab’s new fairy carriage. The style, subject and shifting scale of the painting all contribute to a sense of the fantastic that fits the critic Herbert Read’s idea of an imaginative tradition running through to Surrealism in the early twentieth century. (From the Tate Gallery display caption July 2007)

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