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The Sarno-Sacks connection

It’s been a while since I’ve written on the theories of Dr. John Sarno who argues that much of physical pain and distress is caused by the upset mind. (I have to concede I don’t really believe in a “mind” anymore, at least as an entity in any way unattached from the brain, but the word will have to do.) I’m reading through Oliver Sacks’ autobiography and he makes some rather Sarno-esque observations. Sacks started out working at a migraine clinic and had a patient who had recurring migraines every Sunday. Via a pill, Sacks managed to banish the migraines. But they were then replaced with asthma. He offered to give the patient something for the asthma, but…

“No,” he replied. “I’ll just get something else…”
“Do you think I need to be ill on Sundays?”

I [Sacks] was taken aback by his worlds but I said, “Let’s discuss it.”

We then spent two months exploring his putative need to be ill on Sundays. As we did, his migraines got less and less intrusive and finally more or less disappeared. For me, this was an example of how unconscious motives may sometimes ally themselves to physiological propensities, of how one cannot abstract an ailment or it’s treatment from the whole pattern, the context, the economy of someone’s life.

This kind of talking cure is exactly the sort of thing Sarno recommended to his patients. It’s always interested to see these ideas mention by a different source.

My music blog

I feel I should make note here that I have a blog on music theory and guitar playing I’ve been posting to for a while. It’s over here.

The most recent post is called “The Secret to Learning” and is probably of interest to non musicians.

Whenever we attempt to learn something—an instrument, a language, a piece of software, skateboarding, whatever—it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You see what the greats of the discipline do and think, “How can I ever get to be that good?” You pick up a book on the topic and it’s 400 pages long, written in some arcane nomenclature. It can all seem like too much to handle.

But there’s a secret to learning that I will reveal here with a thought experiment.

Let’s say’s you kidnap a man at gunpoint and stuff him in a room. Then you play him those Pimsleur French language learning CDs over and over for 8 hours a day. (Also make sure to feed him!) Whether this guy wants to or not, he will learn at least some French. The information will be coming in and his brain will take note of it. He won’t be able to “not learn.”

And that’s the thing with learning. It’s automatic. We think it requires great effort but if you expose yourself to the right information it will sink in. Obviously there are smarter, better and more organized ways to learn, but it’s really about exposing yourself to the material. Your brain takes care of the rest.

Anyway, I find that reassuring for some reason.

Hierarchy in music and society

In the realm of music there is the genre of what’s called “atonal music.” Basically this is music that avoids a key center. So while standard music is usually said to be in the key of C, or F#, or whatever, atonal music cannot be said to be in key. If you think of the key of most music as being its center of gravity, you could thinking of atonal music as kind of free floating. (In fact atonal music is often used for scenes of outer space in movies.)

In essence, what atonal music is doing is refusing to create a hierarchy of notes. In regular music, the most important note is the same as the key center. For example, C is the most important note in a song in the key of C major. It’s usually the starting and ending note of the song and it’s the note being hit when we feel a melody or musical phrase has “settled.”

My suspicion has been that atonal music grew out of the philosophy of communism and generally anti-hierachical political thought. To that way of thinking one thing should not be more important than any other. Including notes.

I was reading a book this morning on music and it made an interesting point. The whole class system of music which involves keys and hierarchies of notes really came about in the 1700s—right when the complex class system of people was cementing itself in Europe. So I must ponder that while it may be true that atonal music represents a political philosophy, so too does standard key based music.

Of course, part of why communism never really caught on (when it did it basically had to be implemented at the threat of a gun) was because hierarchical notions seem ingrained in our social intelligence (as they do in the intelligence of monkeys, birds and even ants.) And with music, something just feels right about key centers. And atonal music, while at times interesting, is challenging to listen to. It seems like we are wired for hierarchy in both social behavior and music.

Thus I have spoken.

Finding patterns in music

I’ve been thinking again of my idea of a master flow for all art—the idea that all art is basically about presenting tension and then resolving it with calm. (Well, not all the time—the final jump scare in a lot of horror movies leaves the viewer with unresolved tension.)

Maybe tension is not the best word to use here though. Maybe we really mean questions. For example, when a zombie shuffles onscreen in a movie, he brings with him questions. What’s the zombie going to do? Is he going to eat our protagonists? When the zombie is beheaded, those questions go away; the problem is solved.

In storytelling the questions are easy to see. But what about music or other forms of art?

In music, perhaps we need to think not in terms of questions but of patterns. When we have a predictable pattern we are confident in what’s going on. When we have unpredictable patterns we are not. So what’s a predictable musical pattern? A steady beat is an obvious example. If we can tap along with it we are predicting the next beat and are rewarded when we tap in time. If a beat is unsteady we don’t really like it. And there are at least two kinds of unsteady beats: beats that are unsteady because the person performing sucks (which we find frustrating and amateurish) and beats that seem deliberately askew, as in the music for horror films. For this second kind we feel like we’re being deliberately foiled, there’s something aggressive happening. We feel under attack. (Granted, these sensations are all pretty subconscious.)

Volume is another way music can offer patterns. If a song is going along at a certain volume, the volume itself is a kind of pattern. If the song suddenly gets loud (as certain classical pieces do) the tension goes up. Whoa, I didn’t see that coming, we say.

Musical harmony (two or more notes played at once) also offers predictable and unpredictable patterns. In harmony you have what’s called consonance (roughly speaking: pleasant sounds) and dissonance (ugly sounds.) Each sound is of course made up of wave forms of vibrating air. The wave forms of consonant notes match each other pretty well; their peaks and valleys basically line up with each other. Not so with dissonant notes. Check out this description of a wave form of two dissonant notes (The graph can be found at the “Musical Beats and Intervals” section at the link.)

Observe (look carefully) that the pattern of the resultant is neither periodic nor repeating (at least not in the short sample of time that is shown). The message is clear: if two sound waves that have no simple mathematical relationship between their frequencies interfere to produce a wave, the result will be an irregular and non-repeating pattern. This tends to be displeasing to the ear.

Of course, we don’t think: “Wow, those wave forms are out of synch.” We just think, “That sounds weird.”

There’s an added component here. Psychologists will tell you that some people are novelty seekers, while others are more conservative. Are novelty seekers more accepting of dissonant or less patterned (rhythmically, volume-wise etc) music (modern classical, jazz, some heavy metal, industrial)? I dunno… maybe… it wouldn’t surprise me.

Related: another post of mine on musical dissonance.

The narrative form in cinema

I’ve been thinking a bit more of my notion that all art forms are basically about creating and relieving drama (or tension as some call it.) It strikes me that film is an interesting art form to examine as it really is a combination of different art forms. Film uses storytelling, dialogue, music, framing and various other devices. To really build drame well, all these tools need to work in concert.

For example, let’s say we wanted to write a movie scene that captured a sense of mystery. Here’s some bad dialogue.

Bob: What was that sound?
Mary: Huh… I dunno, I didn’t hear anything. It’s probably the neighbor’s cat. He always prowls around when I leave food outside and I did this morning.

Bob: Oh, ok.

Much better would be something like…

Bob: What was that sound?
Mary: You heard it too? It sounded like it was coming from inside the walls. But that’s impossible… Isn’t it?

But film can’t just stop at dialogue. The music needs to be spooky too. If some Katie Perry song is playing in the background it deflates the mood. You need some creepy, Bernard Herrmann-esque chords to amp up the tension.

And the framing of the camera comes into play. If the camera just positions the characters in the middle of the frame… BORING! The camera should shift uneasily, like the view of a person itching to make a break for it.

You could say that in all these art forms a language has arisen than communicates a mood such as suspense. But, just as with spoken language, repetition becomes cliche. Certain music sounds creepy but corny. So artists have to be always experimenting to find the new thing that audiences will find novel and exciting.

Thus I have spoken.

The Monkey Journey

‘The Hero’s Journey’ is a familiar trope in fiction and goes back to Greek myths. The basic conceit is that man (it’s usually a man) leaves his comfortable home for some reason and comes back changed, usually more of a man. Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars is a perfect example. He starts out a dopy farm boy and ends up a Jedi.

I’ve been reading a book on monkey behavior (among other things) and it notes something I think we’ve all heard. Male monkeys are born into a troop but at a certain point leave their home troop and join a new one. They, of course, have to spend some time alone in the wilderness searching for the new troop.

Their are good Darwinistic reasons for this. Troops are basically a big family and you shouldn’t have children with your brothers and sisters. It’s in everyone’s interests for the males to seek out new genetic material with which to commingle. Of course, the monkey isn’t thinking, “My DNA is too similar to everyone else round here; I should find some new monkeys.” To my knowledge nobody really knows whether this tendency to wander at a certain age is caused by genetics or culture or both.

But you see where I’m going with this. Is the behavior described in the hero’s journey just a dressed up version of monkey wandering?

Why is there less gun violence?

With the San Bernardino shootings we’re being exposed to another spate of articles about gun violence. One point that occasionally jumps out of these news bits is that gun violence has actually substantially declined in over the past 20 years. You’d think this would be a fact people would celebrate but it’s all but ignored. Most people couldn’t be blamed for thinking gun violence is getting worse. (This is an example of one of my beefs with the news—good news does’t sell.)

It would be interesting to figure out why gun violence has gone down. Well, The Washington Post takes a shot (ha – get it?) at it in this article: We’ve had a massive decline in gun violence in the United States. Here’s why.

Some reasons are not too surprising: more cops, better policing etc. But some do seem unexpected. Americans are drinking less alcohol. And, a drop in exposure to lead could make people less violent.

Besides alcohol, lead is another substance that has been shown to make humans more aggressive. Lead is toxic, and it can affect the behavior of children who are exposed to the metal while their brains are still developing. After the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, refiners were required to sell unleaded gasoline. Jessica Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, has argued that the children born after that law took effect breathed in less lead from car exhaust and that their brains were healthier as a result. She has estimated that the removal of lead reduced violent crime by no less than 56 percent.

This idea was the gist of a Mother Jones piece a few years back and while I approached the article dubiously, it made a strong case.

Coffee fights diabetes?

I’m never one to miss a chance to tout the benefits of various maligned substances such as coffee and wine (and heroin!) Time mag reports that coffee may offer some protection against Type 2 Diabetes.

The link between drinking coffee and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes onset has been previously discovered, though scientists were unsure why the connection was there. While there was some speculation that the caffeine in coffee might have a role, other data has suggested that people benefit even if they’re drinking decaf.

When a person has diabetes, he or she become insulin resistant. Unregulated blood sugar levels also characterize the disease. The researchers found that cafestol increased blood sugar intake in the cells and that both cafestol and caffeic acid increased insulin secretion. The fact that the two components targeted systems and actions related to diabetes suggests they could be the components that give coffee its protective benefit. The dual benefit of cafestol was especially noteworthy to the study authors.

The usual caveats apply. The study was done on rats and scientists don’t think they understand all the details. Still, have another cup on me!

Sugar spikes caused by different events

I’ve talked a bit in the past of Gary Taub’s (and others’) argument that much mainstream advice on nutrition is wrong. Fat and meat have been condemned, they say, when the real culprits are carbs. The reason being that digested carbs convert to sugars which causes a blood sugar spike, raised insulin levels and increased fat storage. This leads to diabetes, heart issues and obesity. The message is: avoid carbs and sugars.

However, a new study discussed over at ScienceDaily says it’s not that simple. Not everyone gets a blood sugar spike from the same foods. One person can eat a banana and get a sugar spike and eat cookies and not get one, and the reverse is true. And…

The scientists were able to show that lifestyle also mattered: The same food affected blood sugar levels differently in the same person, depending, for example, on whether its consumption had been preceded by exercise or sleep.

This rings a bell for me. For a long time a treat for breakfast was waffles and syrup—basically all carbs and sugars. It was a great tasting meal but often I would get what felt like a sugar crash (meaning, I think, that I’d had a spike and it had depleted) just before lunch—I would get really really hungry fast. I don’t experience this with my usual breakfast of beans, a bit of potatoes and protein (eggs or meat.) However, I’ve also noticed that even if I eat a high carb dinner it’s never followed by this sugar crash. There’s something about the evening meal that just feels different, less likely to lead to a sugar spike.

Musical musings

What makes a song work? Is it a few components or many pieces working together to build towards a greater whole?

Some people will say something like, “The reason I like this song is that I like the chorus” implying that the chorus and only that is what drives their appreciation of the tune. (My brother, years ago, prompted some thought on my part when he said he didn’t like songs, he liked “parts of songs.”)

Other people will imply that they like the whole song. I find myself really observing that what makes me like a song is many different elements. As the song progresses I might first note a tasty lyrical turn of phrase, then note the catchy part of the chorus, then note the pleasant additional of a mandolin on the second verse, then note the intriguing opening lick of the guitar solo, then note how the final chorus is delayed by a bar creating a disorienting sense of anticipation. It’s the culmination of all these things that pushes the tune into greatness.

Thus I have spoken.