May 17th, 2013 by Wil
Our ability to recognize faces is a fascinating and oft commented on topic. How is it that we can differentiate between the tens of thousands (if not more) of people we come into contact with over the course of our life? Also, why is it that we differentiate between the faces of our fellow humans, but cannot differentiate between animal faces? One giraffe looks pretty much like any other.
In “The Age of Insight” Eric Kandel address this. It turns out at one point, we CAN differentiate between animal faces.
The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than at other objects…. Three-month-old infants begin to see differences in faces and to distinguish between individual faces. At this point they are universal face recognizers: they can recognize different monkey faces as readily as different human faces. They begin to lose their ability to distinguish between nonhuman faces at six months of age, because during this critical period in development they have been exposed primarily to different human faces and not two different animal faces.
Presumably, were a child raised by wolves, he would be able to differentiate between various wolf faces. That’s good to know.
May 14th, 2013 by Wil
I am a huge lover of music, both as a producer and consumer of it. As a teenager I can recall having love affairs with music compositions; periods where I had to listen to a certain song over and over.
I still love music, but I have to concede that I burn out on it more easily now. I find myself not intrigued with much of what I listen to. I also find myself more and more aware how a certain song sounds quite a bit like some other song (often I find myself humming a melody from song A over song B.) It’s been a long time since I’ve had a real musical “crush.”
Nestled in away David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” is his acknowledgment that he doesn’t listen to a lot of music. I think he mentions listening to music while doing the dishes, and going out to see live music a couple times a week, but that’s about it. And he describes being annoyed — as I am — at the constant onslaught of background music numbing your ears when you go out to a restaurant or coffee shop. (I’ve pretty much sworn off Carl’s Jr. because they now have these video screens that blast awful music videos or incredibly stupid pop-culture shows.)
It seems a little weird for a professional musician to imply that we should be listening to less music. But as I concede that I’m constantly burning out on music, I’m wondering whether I should give this idea a try.
When you think about it, our access and exposure to music has increased dramatically over recent centuries. Imagine living in Europe around 1750; in that world, seeing a symphony or opera was a big deal. You probably spent weeks looking forward to it and, when you went, the music absorbed your attention. Additionally, aside from such events, you wouldn’t hear much music in your life; maybe just people humming, or the playing of musicians in your family. It was probably common for some people to go for months on end without hearing musical instruments.
That lifestyle didn’t change much until the advent of radio. Suddenly music was being pumped into your house. Of course, radio had its limitations. The sound quality could be meager and you had to listen to what the radio played (which wasn’t always what you wanted to hear.)
Now we’re at a point with Spotify, YouTube and music piracy that you can pretty much hear any song you want immediately. There are very few barriers preventing you from scratching your audio itch. And it’s almost impossible to go through a day without hearing some music blaring out of cars, being played in restaurants, in the background of TV shows.
Many people have noted that over the past 10 years the barriers to creating and distributing music have substantially decreased. And as a bedroom music producer myself, I freely concede a lot of good has come from this. But I also think it’s decreased the shelf life of music. It used to be that a genre of music would emerge from the primordial soup, percolate within a certain subculture, eventually break into popular consciousness, and finally become passé. But that process would take years; nowadays, it’s much faster. A couple months ago I became really aware of dubstep music and within a couple weeks heard it being used in something like a Bank of America commercial. It’s now much easier for a song or genre of music to have a thrilling sudden ascent and achieve worldwide popularity, but it’s also much easier for people to burn out on that same product. Music is becoming more faddish, easily consumed and easily disposed of.
I’m thinking the solution — at least for me — is to follow Byrne’s advice and limit how much music I’m exposed to. I’d like to maintain the philosophy that listening to music should be an event, not something occurring in the background of my consciousness. If I can’t give music my attention, then I shouldn’t be listening to it.*
*I’m aware that there are forms of music — ambient electronica or Erik Satie’s furniture music — that are expressly designed to be played in the background.
May 10th, 2013 by Wil
As I read about Freud and his influence on the Viennese artists of the early 1900s, I can’t help but wonder if there’s something of a paradox at work. Freud encouraged people to look deeply inside themselves, to peel back the layers of their unconscious, to seek out their neurosis. But did he, I wonder, thus create a generation of psychologically dysfunctional people? After all, anyone who looks hard enough at themselves is going to find some psychological deficit that could cause them anxiety. By encouraging people to look deeply into themselves, did Freud doom them to inner torment?
The way I figure it, there’s two big psychological approaches to life. One is Freud’s idea of deep self analysis, of obsession with the self. The other is a general attitude of “Move along, I’m not all that important – God/Peace/the Universe is. Nothing to see here.” One is adorning the ego, the other is ignoring it. Pretty much everyone is stuck somewhere between the two philosophies. But did Freud (and those he influenced) tip the balance towards ego adornment for awhile, causing an uptick in psychological distress?
May 9th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve mentioned my interest in the theory that as the history of humankind has unfolded, our basic experience of being alive has changed, perhaps radically. I was reminded of this today as I continued to read the book “The Age of Insight.” At one point in the book, we are introduced to Arthur Schnitzler, a writer and playwright who lived in Vienna in the early 1900s and purportedly invented the technique of internal dialogue. This is the practice of presenting the character’s inner voice on the page. An example included in the book is from Schnitzler’s story “Lieutenant Gustle.”
How long is this thing going to last? Let me look at my watch… it’s probably not good manners at a serious concert like this, but who’s going to notice? If anyone does, he’s not paying any more attention than I am, so I really don’t need to be embarrassed… it’s only a quarter to ten?
And on and on…
Internal dialogue probably found its most prominent use in the thought balloons of comic book characters, as I’ve mentioned here.
The problem, of course, is that nobody really thinks that way. You don’t think, “Gee, I really need to get to work. I guess I’ll wear my blue tie today.” You just have a general sense of being late, and a fleeting desire to put on your blue tie. Maybe a few of the words pop into your head – “late,” “blue” – but you don’t think in full sentences.
Having said that, I do sometimes find myself kind of thinking in full sentences. Maybe that’s based on some assumption on my part that that’s how I “should” be thinking — because that’s how people think in books, movies and comic books. And I wonder if this idea, this concept of thinking in internal dialogue, is something relatively new to our species, perhaps starting with Schnitzler’s invention.
There’s another area be explored here. To think in even a kind of broken down internal dialogue requires us to have language. How do creatures without language — cavemen, or children raised by wolves — “think?”
May 8th, 2013 by Wil
In the past, I’ve mentioned Jaron Lanier and his condemnations of Internet culture. I just stumbled on this article by George Saunders (who is apparently some kind of intellectual) which carries the topic forward. He bemoans the way the Internet “reprograms” your brain in such a way that you always have a little voice telling you there’s something else (on the Internet) you should be doing.
I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I’d get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911. So I had to start watching that more carefully. But it’s interesting because (1) this tendency does seem to alter brain function and (2) through some demonic cause-and-effect, our technology is exactly situated to exploit the crappier angles of our nature: gossip, self-promotion, snarky curiosity. It’s almost as if totalitarianism thought better of the jackboots and decided to go another way: smoother, more flattering – and impossible to resist.
Twitter is a deliberate abstention. Somehow I hate the idea of there always being, in the back of my mind, this little voice saying: “Oh, I should tweet about this.” Which knowing me, I know there would be. I’m sure some people can do it in a fun and healthy way, but I don’t think I could. Plus, it’s kind of funny – I’ve spent my whole life learning to write very slowly, for maximum expressiveness, and for money. So the idea of writing really quickly, for free, offends me. Also, one of the simplify-life things I’m doing is to try to just write fiction, period. There was a time there a few years back where I was writing humour, and screenplays, and travel journalism so on – just trying to keep the juices flowing and kick open some new doors. These, in turn, led to a period of sort of higher public exposure – TV appearances here in the US and some quasi-pundit-like moments. To be honest, this made me feel kind of queasy. I’m not that good on my feet and I found that I really craved the feeling of deep focus and integrity that comes with writing fiction day after day, in a sort of monastic way. So that’s what I’m trying to do now, as much as I can manage. And Twitter doesn’t figure into that.
May 6th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve been reading an interesting book called “The Age of Insight” by Eric Kandel (a famous neuroscientist who co-hosts Charlie Rose’s Brain series.) In the book, Kandel looks at turn-of-the-century Vienna and the interaction between scientists and artists that took place there. Freud was operating in Vienna at the time and his observations about the unconscious had a big effect on painters and writers of the day who turned from merely representing the physical world to hinting at what was happening “underneath the surface” of their subjects. Artists also integrated the ideas of Darwin into their work.
What strikes me while reading this book is how different the relationship between artists and scientists was back then as compared to today. Now there seems to be this big dividing line between artists and scientists. Scientists are generally mistrusted by artists. (This was perhaps best expressed in the Insane Clown Posse song “Miracles” in which Shaggy 2 Dope rapped, “And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist. Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.”) In general, I think artists tend to feel they work at unveiling a “greater truth” about the human condition, a truth that scientists – with their obsession with diagnostics and numbers – can never approach.
For the most part, I suspect modern artists are full of shit in their views. Much of modern music, whether it be pop or niche, seems largely self-obsessed – a bunch of losers bemoaning their shitty love affairs, or shitty jobs or shitty feces stained life. This stands in stark contrast to the Viennese artists who were attempting to explore themes of the human mind or birth of our species.
What is needed today is a great artist to arise and rejuvenate the connection between science and art. That artist could be me, but most people are too dumb to appreciate my genius.
May 5th, 2013 by Wil
Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about using visual images to serve as the template for pieces of music. For instance, I might take a scene of a bunch of houses and represent them musically. If I was describing a tall mansion made out of brick I might using reaching melodies that go up into the sky (illustrating tallness) and perhaps a series of quick, dense chords (illustrating the tiny, hard units that are bricks.) Similar processes could be used to illustrate other houses in the group.
This is, of course, what a lot of movie soundtracks do: describe or augment the visual with the musical. And often what the music is describing is a person’s inner state – anxiety is illustrated by manic violins, calm denoted with long smooth tones.
To explore this idea I need to clearly define the term object. As I use it, the term can describe actual physical objects – cars, animals, stars etc – or mental units – thoughts, feelings, perceptions.
The idea here is that we correlate different types of objects with other objects. We understand that the slow cadence of a walking elephant has a correlation with a down tempo series of tuba honks. We understand that the overwhelming onslaught of emotional stress can be captured in a single large painting of vibrant red. We understand that an image of a wide peaceful lake correlates to the calm sensation of a peaceful mind. In a weird way elephants ARE tubas, stress IS red, lakes ARE peace. In a psychological/perception sense these objects are interchangeable.
I was just reading about Freud’s theories about dreams. As you probably know, he posits that a lot of things we see in dreams represent something else – e.g the peacock is really your vanity, the bellowing walrus is your obnoxious uncle, the cigar you place in your mouth is really a long, hard, sweaty penis. Freud was basically making the same point I am – that objects can be correlated to each other.
May 1st, 2013 by Wil
Harvard Magazine has an interesting look at the study of placebos – fake medical cures that should have no effect but often do.
Two weeks into Ted Kaptchuk’s first randomized clinical drug trial, nearly a third of his 270 subjects complained of awful side effects. All the patients had joined the study hoping to alleviate severe arm pain: carpal tunnel, tendinitis, chronic pain in the elbow, shoulder, wrist. In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. And in both cases, people began to call in, saying they couldn’t get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels. “The side effects were simply amazing,” Kaptchuk explains; curiously, they were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. But even more astounding, most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill. These were exceptional findings: no one had ever proven that acupuncture worked better than painkillers. But Kaptchuk’s study didn’t prove it, either. The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study wasn’t aimed at comparing two treatments. It was designed to compare two fakes.
Perhaps most interesting: placebos work even when patients know they are placebos.
But years of considering the question led him to his next clinical experiment: What if he simply told people they were taking placebos? The question ultimately inspired a pilot study, published by the peer-reviewed science and medicine journal PLOS ONE in 2010, that yielded his most famous findings to date. His team again compared two groups of IBS sufferers. One group received no treatment. The other patients were told they’d be taking fake, inert drugs (delivered in bottles labeled “placebo pills”) and told also that placebos often have healing effects.
The study’s results shocked the investigators themselves: even patients who knew they were taking placebos described real improvement, reporting twice as much symptom relief as the no-treatment group. That’s a difference so significant, says Kaptchuk, it’s comparable to the improvement seen in trials for the best real IBS drugs.
The article lists various caveats and skepticism but overall it seems like there’s something to the placebo treatment.
May 1st, 2013 by Wil
Recently, I read something to the effect that humans can differentiate between half a million smells. So I thought I would really make a point to smell the world more. Today I was jogging and I passed a row of some plants or grass or something and was hit with a smell. It was, and I’m amazed I’m using this world to describe a smell, but it was beautiful. Really pleasant and magical.
As I was walking back from my run it struck me that smells are beautiful in a unique way. Generally we use the word beautiful to describe things we see. These are people or objects, and even as we are amazed at their beauty, we covet them. Their beauty creates a yearning. With sound, the term beautiful is usually applied to music. And again, we want the song, we are filled with need. To some degree this is true with strong tastes – food or drink; We must have it again and again. Touch is a more ethereal sense but we do covet a lot of things that appeal to touch – warm things, plush things, rugs, coats etc. (Sex of course involves the sense of touch.)
But smell is different. We don’t seek to own smells, indeed we know we can’t. We’re (mostly) content to enjoy them and let them pass.
Now you might be saying, “What about perfumes?” Yeah, I thought of that, but, speaking for myself, I don’t really covet perfumes. I’ve never smelled a perfume and thought, “I have to have that.” Perfumes aren’t really about the smell itself, they are about making you smell like that smell. A perfume is more like a mask than an object that exists on its own terms.
Thus I have spoken.
April 30th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve long been a part of a email list which discusses the topic of repetitive strain injuries (RSI). Whereas RSI is not much of a problem for me these days, I still follow the discussions on the list. There’s really two camps of people on the list: 1) People who believe de-stressing techniques such as meditation/yoga will alleviate RSI, and 2) People who believe RSIs are largely physical, structural problems that can be relieved via practices like massage/surgery/ergonomics/electrotherapy.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know I reside in the former group. (Truthfully, most people on the list are probably open to both ideas but they clearly have a dominant belief.)
Meditation comes up a lot on the list. Today someone was addressing an obvious question: If meditation is so great for you, why is it so hard (and often boring?) Why does our mind resist calm? His reason was sound and thought provoking.
Lots of meditation has shown me how my mind is built to resist the ‘inner journey’ of using yoga and deep relaxation to slow it down and get it to release stuff and let me see how it works. My theory is it has to be like this because if we all went after the bliss this can bring we would all have been a bunch of wimpy meditators and eaten by predators a long time ago!
It makes sense – in the world of our ancestors we had to pay attention! We couldn’t be sitting around in nirvana. Our mind resists efforts geared towards its deconstruction.
He continues on a tangent that sounds a little elitist but is probably correct.
Evolution favours diversity – only some can do this inner journey which produces the sages [who] keep us from going too crazy and destroying ourselves. Others cant and are useful for more real world things.
There’s another possible theory here. Earth is under observation by an aggressive alien lizard race who plan on conquering us. They planted the concept of meditation in our minds hoping that the practice will spread until most of humanity exists in a meditative trance. Then they will attack our planet, eat our young and rape our grandmothers!
But I’m just being silly. It’s nothing to worry about. Go back to meditating.