So remembering the channels referred to below, I want to spread some good news. First, consider the channels, specialized neurological structures and functions that readily open to admit certain information to pass through much like cell membranes that open and close to admit key elements for metabolism, e.g., calcium, potassium, oxygen, testosterone, oxytocin, serotonin and the like. The MEMBRAIN channels visual information through a series of processing steps from retinal stimulation through figure/ground, outlines, motion or still, distance, etc. until finally a face is seen as recognized and familiar or not. Eric Kandel in his most interesting book, The Age of Insight , provides a excellent account of this neural activity dedicated to facial recognition.
And then Dr. Kandel discusses how this train of processing sometimes ends up going down another, quite different track as when we view a painting or even more so, when the artist conceives and enacts a picture’s expression. This track originates not in the impact of the perceptual world but in the artist’s (and art appreciator’s) feeling for life. I think this involves the nucleus in our interiority (still neuropsychological) of the self as it interacts with the MEMBRAIN. This follows Langer’s idea that art is the abstracted expression of felt life, that art’s import, as opposed to linguistic meaning, is a vital form rendered from the self’s experience, conscious and unconscious, of his or her life. Kandel discusses Viennese painters contemporary with Freud as they pioneered a non-representational or symbolic style and what is known and unknown about how our brains accomplish such actions.
I have already mentioned some how the MEMBRAIN deals with information processing in decoding the phonetic stream of speech into the phonemes that convey semantic information (meaning). Consider this some more. Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics with his understanding of syntactic structures and transformational grammar. He also theorized about how phonemes are encoded as grouping of distinctive features of the acoustic signal. These basically are acoustic clues about how the sound was made, thereby providing cues to what it encodes. These features include aspects such as place (lips, tongue, teeth), and manner (vowel/consonant, continuant/stop, fricative, etc). For example ‘p’ differs from ‘b’ in onset of voicing relative to lip opening and ‘p’ differs from ‘th’ in the latter’s tongue-teeth utilization and in ‘p’ being a stop and a plosive while ‘th’ is a continuant. And ‘th’ differs from ‘t’ in the latter being a stop. And the list goes on. Different languages and language families use different sets of distinctive features that infants readily learn and then can process language with facility, i.e., the MEMBRAIN channels permit such information in and out automatically with little fanfare. This processing is peripheral and does not involve the core self. The meaning carried may engage core self processing as in autobiographical reference or it may not and instead comprises some declarative knowledge, .e.g, the council of Nicea was in A.D 325. This knowledge is not really pertinent to my self even as I make use of it in my thinking and writing. Art involves more of the self nucleus, whatever it is.
And then we have music and today’s good news that patients with dementia so severe as to not recognize family and friends, even perhaps not to know much of who they are or were, still recognize the old tunes. Those MEMBRAIN channels still work and admit a sense of wonder back to the mind. I saw a story about a group Music & Memory that uses music (and they need ipods) to help patients with cognitive impairments due to dementia or stroke recover some function. Looking a little more I see some research over the past decade or so showing brain response to familiar and unfamiliar music and to music associated with emotionally based autobiographical memories (there the medial prefrontal gyrus becomes involved perhaps generating a coherent memory around the music). Music therapists have known for a long time that a personalized playlist helps to calm, brighten and stimulate Alzheimer patients with plenty of anecdotal reports of recovered memories such as is involved in person recognition.
So it seems that these cultural memes that the MEMBRAIN channels through special functional routes operate even in the twilight of mental life, bringing a bit of light, as it were, to our dustier interiority. Now I understand anew why this old man likes his iPod so much.
Now hit ‘play.’