More about musical import

Remembering that Susanne Langer called the symbolic information conveyed by art “import” in the effort to differentiate it from linguistic “meaning,” I read with great curiosity a chapter in Origins of Music, which I am close to finishing. In his chapter, “The Question of Innate Competencies in Musical Communication,” Michel Imberty uses language and conceptualizations strikingly similar to Langer’s in Feeling and Form, though he appears not to be familiar with her work. Consider his statements that he defines the macrostructure of music as a “schema of time,” or that music and dance “are ways of feeling—of being with—before being emotions” or identifying the artistic impulse as “something that weaves itself and makes meaning in time.”

Now compare these to Langer’s conceptualizations that I have written about here over the past several weeks in my Re-Reading 4.0 series.

-the primary illusion of music is the sonorous image of passage

-musical duration is the image of what may be termed “lived” or “experienced” time

-the semblance of this vital experiential time is the primary illusion of music

-the most important and novel revelation of music—the fact that time is not a pure succession, but has more than one dimension  [my favorite]

-the commanding form is not essentially restrictive, but fecund

-the great moment of creation is the recognition of the matrix [commanding form].

I could go on and on with these but better for you to read Feeling and Form, especially chapter 7.

Imberty based some of his analysis on work by Michael Stern, a well known researcher of infant/child development, especially two concepts. One is the “vitality affect” which are feelings before they coalesce around recognizable and conventional emotions, feelings more concerned with dynamic properties such as tension, resolution, building, diminishing, etc. These are the very feelings upon which Langer built her philosophy of art. That Stern discerned these in infants is important—more later. The other one is the “proto-narrative envelope” that “constructs the narrative of time, clarifies the reality of human becoming.” It is the matrix that “makes something weave itself and assume meaning in time.” And this too is important for Stern to have discerned in infant development.


So we have here a view of musical composition that begins with an intuitive gestalt (commanding form or protonarrative envelope) formed or abstracted from one life’s experiential passage and then completed with elements (vitality affects or symbolically rendered elements of sound representing those affects) also therefrom.  Listening and appreciation of this artistry would involve recovering some of the form and elements, though not through some inverse process because lives are disparate and complex. Both the composition and recovery is the beauty of symbolic processing whereby minds share information about their experiences.

And the importance of infant development here? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, “Theta moments, the completion of compositions, and cortical fasciculi” coming soon to this blog.  You can’t get there if you don’t travel on.

Traveling on

Just back from a vacation in SW France where I had the great good fortune to see 3 caves with prehistoric art, Lascaux II, Rouffingnac, and La Madeleine.  Lascaux II is an exact (within 5 mm) replica of the Lascaux cave discovered during WWII by some teenagers (one with a good dog who actually found the cave’s entrance newly uncovered by a storm) including some from Paris visiting the countryside of un-occupied France. The paintings deteriorated greatly over time and so the cave was closed to the public with this replica (90% of the cave and its paintings) standing in its stead. It was not a deep cave; the paintings have been dated to roughly 21,000 years ago (+/- 4,000). Remember agriculture had its good start around 10,000 years ago and then cities in the Middle East grew greatly around 6,000 years ago. Here is a Lascaux figure: Lascauxhorse Rouffingnac is a strange cave, very long and deep, and the drawings are several kilometers deep into the hillside. An extinct species of large bear markings have been found down there as well. In addition to the many drawings of mammoths and other animals, graffiti was painted on the walls and ceilings before its access was controlled. Someone named ‘Iris’ was there evidently. Here is one of the prehistoric drawings, author unknown, from around 13,000 years ago: 24rouffignac-bouquetins La Madeleine is quite different. Here I saw rock etchings and carvings into the stone of an overhang. Archeologists figure the site was a village of maybe a 100 people around 11,000 (+/- 3,000) years ago. Stone and dirt covered the art over the years and it was discovered through archeological efforts. Here is a picture: 15000-BC_Magdalenian-bison_Dordogne

Now these artistic images present much food for thought. Our rather brilliant guide focused on the differences in how available the images were to someone beside their creators. La Madeleine would have been seen by everyone in the area, Rouffingnac only by those who went very deep into the cave, and Lascaux falls in between those two, in a cave but not so deep as to need many candles or torches to get to it (and possibly daylight would have penetrated almost to it). Why some very public and why some seemingly very private?

Indeed, why paint/carve at all? Humans had certainly been communicating with language (Langer’s discursive forms) for many, many generations by then. Remembering the timeline, fire-making, cooking, and burials had been done for tens of thousands of years. Susanne Langer posited two illusions underlying all artistic performance. The first is the primary illusion that is the creation of the medium itself, e.g., painting is virtual space, sculpture is virtual volume, music is virtual time and emotion. All permit the creation of vital forms rendering some specific complexity of life, or the secondary illusion, (Langer’s presentational form). By this line of reasoning, art arose when it did as our ancestors’ minds developed both the virtual capacity for rendering imaginary complex forms and the intuitive sense of ineffable vital, particular life, i.e., some feeling too complex and sacred (in a broad sense) to be spoken. And so a new learning curve began.

So why public/private? Perhaps the beginnings of some mystic sense of helping life forms emerge from stone and darkness or of some privileged caste protective of their medium (oh, those silly priests) or that the art lasted longer in private or that the cave ambience yielded a canvas and suggested palette conducive to artistic efforts or that fewer distractions helped the mind’s eye to awaken or even that perhaps the first artists were disapproved of and needed secrecy, e.g., the clan leader or shaman believed this new mode of expression was not good, that it was evil in some manner, and thus needed to be controlled, even curtailed. 10,000 years later Plato would ban poets from his ideal republic because of their nefarious potential, and goodness knows how many invading and conquering peoples have destroyed art that they believed pernicious. Consider ISIS today. The carvings of La Madeleine were thus more permanent and perhaps from a culture that first came to appreciate openly the value of good art and its function in forming community and its memes.

Anyway, it is a good trip that leaves so many paths yet to wander. Travel on.

Thoughtful research on music

I have come across a study that I really like and think is important in extending our understanding of art, i.e., Langer’s presentational symbolic forms. Entitled “Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters” is on PLOS at Wow, they used fMRI to study the responses to familiar and unfamiliar music and to liked and disliked music. The methodology is complicated as the subjects surveyed musical passages first to find which ones an individual recognized and/or liked, then a few weeks later listened to a selected list individualized for each subject with 4 groups, +L+F =liked and familiar, +L-F=liked and unfamiliar, -L+F=disliked and familiar, and –L-F=disliked and unfamiliar. While these passages played, the researchers recorded fMFI activity to look for neural correlates in the processing of the four groups. The technical expertise to do this is beyond my ken, but I am glad to work at understanding their results.

fMRI machine

fMRI machine

Two things about this study stand out for me. One is that they explicitly set out to explore our aesthetic sense. Most researchers never mention art, much less aesthetics. Now they do this by ranking how much or little we like a song and they relate this to the strength of emotional processing ensuing after perception, i.e., how much does the limbic system fire up its engagement as a reward circuit in response to the auditory segment. This brings up the second thing that caught my eye. The reward system is heavily biased towards the immediate situation, and an aesthetic appreciation of symbols, presentational ones in the form of music, paintings, sculpture, dance, architecture, etc. is abstracted and displaced. In Langer’s terms, the symbolic form’s artistic import is composed by the artist who is engaged in an intellectual rendering of vital life. So the immediate motivational rewards of a stimulus does not really capture this aspect.

And it turns out that the biggest factor associated with greater processing energy is not +/- liked but +/- familiar. More familiar tunes, especially those subjects liked, promoted greater limbic engagement; this makes good sense because these circuits process the stimulus’ valence (is it positive or negative) and autobiographical memory. I would think these are the raw materials for any artistic work, but the raw materials only. Songs that were –L-F were the least engaging. But what about +L-F, the songs that were liked but had not been heard before? What guides that sense of liking before the brain develops the contexts of reward and experience very much? Ah, here is a glimmer of an aesthetic sense, the feeling forward into time. Here is where complex feelings not amenable to the simplicities of verbal expression are rendered musically. Is the song exciting, coherent, true? Are its forms based upon congruent cultural mores? Is it vital?


Of course teasing all this out is currently impossible but these researchers found a way to go further forward. I am still studying their neurological findings and if I can make some sense of them I will do an additional post on this study. I want to end with a quote from Chapter 5 of my book entitled, Meaning and Culture, and it begins:

William James’ notion of the ‘remembered present’ is literally apt when we consider the small but significant amount of time for visual and auditory stimuli to be sensed, perceived and integrated. Aptly enough our ‘remembered present’ can also be considered the conscious process of ‘feeling the future,”   . . . .  To do this we make meaning [and artistic import] using symbolic forms to control the process.

So by feeling the future we can often complete another’s utterance or project what notes come next even in an unknown melody. And as can be seen (sort of) in this study and my discussion of our preferences for “liking” art, our aesthetic sense, that, when meeting a new work of art, operates as a guiding standard for engaging or embracing what new forms may come. This illustrates one way how we feel the future. (And then when we like something, we can create the familiar, and that is important as we age. Remember the post of 8/27/14 about lasting memories of music evident even through dementia). And the band plays on.

mysteries 4.1

Just to be clear about my favorite mysteries cited again in the last post, the origin of life and the beginnings of intellect (and so our humanity) in lower animals. Didn’t Darwin see beyond the facts (a lot of them too) to some very helpful and thus enduring truth? One facet of our humanity is our fascination with mysteries. This fascination is also a mystery because we fabricate them in our minds, i.e., the interior of the MEMBRAIN, so why are they mysteries, as opposed to unknown but knowable or the unknowable? The mysteries explored by ancient peoples were mainly deemed unknowable until the Enlightenment, when we began to develop a more intellectual understanding of our earth, our universe and ourselves, empirically based, treasuring errors and their correction, and providing an increasingly powerful basis for interacting with our world. The unknowable shrank and the knowable grew fatter. I like my favorite mysteries because they pose questions whose answers are unknown but knowable and because how we do answer them can lead back to the ancient thread of all mysteries, well articulated by William James, the mystic experience, our sense of what lies beyond the North wind, our sensory experience which we can only apprehend but do not and maybe cannot comprehend, the prime unknowable.

So to be clear about where these mysteries originate, here is a rough diagram of mine.


From the 4/17/15 post:

“Call the body of any organism its soma; to remain vital a soma must ingest food, etc. Organisms with somas in which brains have evolved have been quite successful—they have spread, grown larger and more complex. While much of the brain remains dedicated to somatic vitality, certain parts have evolved to form what I call the MEMBRAIN of the mind. These structures surround and create a virtual interiority, larger on the inside than outside, constructed with information old and new”.

Somas exist ‘for’ genetic transmittance and they exist by metabolism; they take in nutrients, use them, vent the wastes and move around to sustain and replicate. All of this is done in real, i.e., immediate, present or non-displaced, time. Somas with brains begin the sentient evolution powered by the nervous system’s transduction of ambient energies and guidance toward or away from what is out there, all very much in service to their somas. This is the basis for an embodied mind, the organic one, the one with an inherent, not external, power source. From the beginning the transduction of ambient energies leads to displacement, i.e., they are transformed to be processed as old/new information. Nervous processes involve at least this displacement of information.

Now, according to my way of thinking, the MEMBRAIN evolved as the embodied self was able to co-opt sentient processes independently of the current ambient and process information autogenically (to use Langer’s term) or autonomously (to use another term). MEMBRAINs began with recognition (new becomes old) and recall (old becomes new) and then, with the social opportunity of intimacy increasing, moved on to symbolic formulation and control and communication of the interiority. So where are these so called mysteries?

Well, they exist within the MEMBRAIN’s interiority but they arise between MEMBRAINs, in their interstitial communication back and forth, so to speak. This highlights, perhaps, that the unknowable mysteries are the limit of consciousness in apprehending the present embodiment of the mind and the limit preventing us from apprehending what is in another’s mind. And somewhere between these two limits, these two mysteries, we find the mystic sense. Travel on.

So you hallucinate 2?

One of the things I learned as a psychologist is that many people, healthy and otherwise,  report unusual experiences such as seeing and hearing things that are not there. On some well standardized tests asking many yes/no questions many adults and even more adolescents answered such questions ‘yes’, they had seen things others could not see. These were not patients but the normative sample of presumably healthy people. I find this interesting on several counts. As I have stated before, Susanne Langer posited two types of biological action, impactive that results when energies and objects from outside the organism impinge on it, and autogenic that results from the organism’s own autonomous vital processes. Hallucinations would seem to derive from the latter; they are of our own making. (Then again, even though our perceptual world is impactive in origin, we do construct it as well).

One of the glaring errors behaviorism made (Oh, was there more than one? Oh yes), was to ignore, even deny, autogenic activity in their assertion that, if mind did exist (doubtful to many of these lost souls), it was due to conditioning as we interacted with the environment, as sort of extreme tabula rasa ala John Locke. Our brains show a lot of spontaneous activity. A neuron, even a sensory or perceptual one, is firing even as it ‘waits’ for an outside stimulus to arrive. Neurons in other parts are even more active as they maintain muscle tone, process memories, formulate intents, dream, imagine beauty, etc. and hallucinate. Neuronal responses to stimulation are overlays on their ongoing activity.   The connectome is complicated, self-generated and self-maintaining, as it manifests our mental experience.

Sure, dreams and hallucinations often reflect our experiences but some definitely do not.   And anyway we combine the elements according to our own impulses,  More importantly, our finding beauty and constructing beautiful things must come from within us, i.e., we generate it autogenically; beauty is not really out there but in here. In my current reading in Joseph’s Neuroscience text I am finding out that most dreams and hallucinations, at least the more complex ones, depend upon temporal lobe functioning. Indeed, Joseph says that much of what we call conscious experience and our memories thereof depend upon temporal lobe functions (of course in conjunction with other lobes and remember the claustrum from an earlier post). So many things happen in the temporal lobe that are important to our humanity, even perhaps, as Julian Jaynes postulated, the voices of our gods.

temporal lobe is green

temporal lobe is green

In looking at Joseph’s citations I noticed an article by John Lilly, a name often in the news long ago but not so much now. He was famous back in the day for consorting with dolphins & beat poets and for doing research with the sensory deprivation tank, a tank with warm salt water in a diffusely lighted and mostly soundless room in which you could sit or float with a minimum of sensory stimulation. He first experimented on himself, believing that was the ethical thing to do, and then had other subjects. The relevant point here is that with such extremely reduced stimulation, people hallucinate. Our minds have to do something even if there is nothing sensorily to do.


Expert meditation practitioners can block perception, sort of a sensory deprivation controlled from the inside (by the MEMBRAIN) rather than from control of the outside. To do this they focus on an image or on their breathing and let the mind’s flow go unimpeded or through other methods. Daniel Goleman in his book, Destructive Emotions, reports early research by Richard Davidson into meditation and EEGs. He (Davidson) found that good meditators quickly show typical EEGs which are slower and without the bumps and jumps instigated by ongoing objective experience. At the highest level of meditation practice, the person in deep meditation did not respond to a simulated gunshot from just behind him or her. Most people’s EEGs spiked with the startle reflex but the experts’ hardly bumped up at all. When asked they said that the gunshot was like a bird flying across their field of vision.


In a way, then, meditation is the analogue opposite to hallucinations, both autogenic actions withdrawn from impactive stimulation but one is relaxed and open in its interiority and the other void filling activity. More later and until then, maintain your own meditation and dream of beauty.

What about this polarizing thing?

A longer, denser (perhaps too much so?) post.  

In the third volume of Mind, Langer discusses the question, How do we think about the seeming “truths” of the ancients and recent primitive peoples in light of the development of scientific thinking supported by mathematics? How do we understand such outrageous and patently false statements about ghosts, monsters, impossible events, etc.? She posits that their truth, being less reckoned with objective considerations, was of a different sort, that someone who talked about the unverifiable domain of mythic events in an exaggerated or more powerful way could have more impact on his fellows and their cultural memes. This derived early on, she hypothesized, from the first emergence of symbolization and the exuberant creativity thereby endowed on the mind.   While truth as a modern objective matter in the ancient, pre-scientific world may have been limited to the more practical matters of life, death, agricultural, husbandry, and raw material processing (metallurgy, fermentation, healing herbs), how people conceptualized and understood all matters, the myths of origin and nature’s regularities were subject to the dialectic between subjects’ individual imaginations and social response. And individuals who were creative and could provide an exhilarating story could be powerful figures even as their stories violated any reality constraints; their lack of verifiability was essentially irrelevant.


         While reality constrained this dialectic, inevitably this development went awry, which brings us closer to our modern times. Langer cites among others the Aztec blood thirst in their pursuit of magical power that led them to kill and blood more humans than they could reproduce (and that is a basic evolutionary no-no). They sought to compensate with military conquests but that does not exactly help your culture’s reputation, which does matter in a meme sort of way, and survival. Such extremes or polarization of conceptualizations, memes, and ideologies are not generally adaptive even if they do succeed over the short haul. Another truism from biology is that evolutionary ‘progress’ derives from past developments and even though the new supercedes the old, the old still operates albeit with new limits. This brings us to the modern world.

         I have been thinking about the logic of our current geopolitical situation. What is wrong with polarization? Ah, the golden mean. There is something to this quantification thing. Differences not in kind but in degree. Cultural movements such as dogmatic religious movements (think Aztec, the Inquisition, Nazis, KKK, Jim Jones, ISIS, etc.) violate the general progress of human evolution. We trust that the dialectical constraints will curb such extremes (the civilized nations will act to negate uncivilized behaviors by groups such as ISIS, etc.), but no guarantees exist that balance will be maintained. Be careful.

I appreciate science as it operates with a self-correcting process; mistakes are communal learning opportunities. I appreciate art because there are no mistaken beliefs; an artist’s work can inspire community or be relegated to the dusty aesthetic box up in the attic. Neither have had, I don’t think, a violent war between competing paradigms. Look out. Finally consider the sort of political statements all too common today by some leaders and some editorial letters and stances (I am looking at you Fox news) wherein verifiability is irrelevant—it is all about the extreme thrill of some sort of delusional righteousness. To survive and progress we must adhere to the dialectic, not the absolute.

ReReading 2.2


Another post about my re-reading Langer, this one not about what I did not remember but about what I misremembered. For a long time I have thought of empathy as beginning in mammals and setting the stage for symbolization. Empathy in this view is broadly conceived as the awareness of another’s interiority and then feeling what the other feels based upon their empathic communication and our own prosocial identification with them. The advent of symbolization transforms this ability, empowering it through imaginative means, but is also based upon it. Unless we are aware of another’s interiority and can identify with it, symbols are merely mental structures without communicative purpose.

I thought I had drawn this from Langer until a few days ago, when I re-read her idea that empathy is emotional contagion among non-human animals and that she terms the human capacity sympathy. Oops. The term emotional contagion is still used today by the more reductionistic among us. Think of trees filled with monkeys when one sees a tiger and calls out and then the whole tribe joins in. I don’t like the term ‘contagion’ because it connotes a diffuse process, happenstance vectors of excitement composing a cloud of social response. I term such calls ‘evocative’, i.e., they evoke rather isomorphically a particular response. Von Frisch’s bee dance is another example. Empathy is evocative and more, as can be seen, say, in dyadic interaction between primate parent and child, between mates, between tribe members of different standing in the social hierarchy. Here contagion is certainly not appropriate.


The interaction is too focused and nuanced according to the mental states and processes of the actors involved. Consider one more counter example to the concept of contagion. Watch dogs at play and you will see them feint, acting one way to elicit one response from the other before changing the action to one more intent and strategic in the effort to gain advantage. Empathy, not contagion.


How did I diverge from Ms. Langer so markedly when so much of my thinking grew from my readings of her work? Well, I figured that out so I hope you are comfortable because this train of thought is a local along old tracks. Back in the day when she published her 3 volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, in the late 60s and 1970s, and I was a younger man learning about all of this through linguistics, speech and language pathology, and neuropsychology, we ‘knew’ several things that were true as far as they went but left much to be desired. And some did not go very far at that. We thought that no new neurons formed in the adult brain, that the right hemisphere was mainly silent or that the right brain operated on a holistic, gestalt basis (artistically, so to speak) while the left side operated verbally, logically, and that we only used 10% of our brain capacity. This last is my personal favorite for boneheaded mistakes, obviously wrong even then and still repeated today. Ouch.


Well, we learned much in the next 40 years. First we learned that some had right hemisphere learning disabilities due to developmental aberrations or trauma. We learned that damage to the right hemisphere resulted in unilateral neglect, i.e., the intact left hemisphere still monitored the right perceptual field but the left was unknowingly neglected while damage to the left had much less effect because the right hemisphere was monitoring both sides all the time anyway. We learned that the right side specialized in emotional communication. And we learned that a deficit in empathy was an important component in Asperger’s syndrome, psychopathy, and the psychological sequelae of family violence.

Oh my, how to keep this short. People with Asperger’s syndrome are often quite bright in particular ways, especially those involving pattern recognition and memory, but they are mystified by the emotional coin of human interaction. Psychopaths are often keen observers of other’s emotions but do not identify prosocially with the other; rather they use their empathic skill instrumentally to get what they want regardless of cost to the other. Even further, some are twisted enough to enjoy the cost to the other. Simon Baron Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil, provides an excellent statement of this science. Finally, witnessing family violence is a prime factor in the development of child and adolescent psychopathology, including the appearance of sexual aggression. While this often occurs in a context of child neglect and abuse, even the witnessing of marital violence can bruise the child’s developing empathic capability and lead to problems with emotional regulation and healthy relationships.

So as I learned about these phenomena I evidently departed from Langer’s conceptualization without realizing it. No problem as I still recognize in my thinkng her great insights into the human mind as she explored the nature of our aesthetics. And art does involve empathy, big time, through presentational symbols. Just another benefit of re-reading; make it so.