When a song disrupted cultural transmission

Something in my recent experience, probably watching border troubles in Ireland grow with Brexit, listening to Celtic music and reading about Irish history, triggered an old song memory, ‘The Rising of the Moon’ by Peter, Paul and Mary about the 1898 Irish rebellion.  You know how that goes—the song comes into your mind and rings there for days.  It is still there.  I used to own every album they made before someone stole some out of my dorm room. I did not have many on my ipod so I ordered a CD collection to provide material for memory lane and this is what I remembered.

I was 11 or 12 years old living on Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota when Peter, Paul and Mary hit the radio waves with ‘Lemon Tree’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’, and I liked this music a lot, especially the latter song.  The more I heard, the more I loved it.  One Sunday after church (my parents found a Southern Baptist church even in North Dakota) we had some younger airmen over for Sunday dinner. When I talked about PP&M, one of my favorite airmen spoke up with great disdain, saying they were ‘beatniks’. Now in my family, nuclear and extended, in the Air Force community in the early 60s, and in our church, calling someone a beatnik was a serious deal.  The only people lower than beatniks either resided in the Soviet Union (or behind the Iron Curtain), Cuba, or were agitating in this country for civil rights (which many in my orbit thought was a communist plot as well—is this oh too familiar these days).  I listened as everyone trashed beatniks and wondered how such horrible people could make such astounding, beautiful and moral music.  I seriously doubted that they were really beatniks.

Then a few weeks later I had saved up my paper route money and bought their first album.  Yes, there they were on the cover, clearly beatniks.  I did not doubt them or their music.  I did question the wisdom being transmitted to me by the adults in my life. Clearly they were wrong.  These beatniks were decent people and that implied that many of the ‘others’ were decent as well.  I began to pay attention to a wider reality and the local cultural transmission of orthodoxy failed.  I learned about cultural alternatives and you can guess what ensued after that.

Several months ago I posted about the role of art in cultural change using the musical ‘South Pacific’ as an example.  (See post 3/6/18: ‘art and cultural shifts’).  Recall that Rogers and Hammerstein included in their play the issue of interracial marriage between Asians and Europeans/Americans, and that was controversial in its day, especially the song about how youngsters are taught to hate.  That play and other artworks contributed to the cultural change to where interracial relationships were acceptable.  The movie of the musical came out in 1958; the Supreme Court ruled that laws forbidding miscegenation were unconstitutional in the 1967 Loving case.

Now I remember a time when my culture was teaching me to condemn others who were different in some ways but their music was both beautiful and morally upright. The songs triumphed again, an indecent cultural transmission was disrupted, and I started on a journey to understand and accept the ‘others’ and to advance with skepticism wherever I went.

Art for me is a buoy of illumination marking special places in the cultural landscape.  In our evolution our mental abilities grew from cogitating about the concrete and immediate through the ponderings about past and future events to imaginative creations that no one will ever see ‘for real’.  In a sense these are dream materials and art operates to help us to dream the same dream in time together.  When we dance and make music we join in riding the time wave rolling into the future.  When we view a painting, walk around a statue, or sit in an architecturally beautiful space, we experience art as time rolls on by us.  In both sorts of art (I will call them ‘performative’, i.e., we move in time, and ‘artifactual’, i.e., time moves as we are still) we share the subjective visions and motions that can bind us together as humans.  We do have to be careful about what cultural tropes we admit into our world if we want to improve ourselves and the human condition.  Remember and consider the difference between art and propaganda.  Oh, and be skeptical.   Well, time to travel on.

animal attachment and grief

I have started Frans de Waal’s book Mama’s Last Hugabout animal feelings and making the case that we, humans and other animals, experience many of these in common.  The story of Mama is quite interesting.  She was a remarkable chimpanzee who was the organizing force in her group for many years, not because she was physically formidable, though for a female she was, but because of her personality and social IQ.  Her human researchers came to respect her a great deal and were quite attached, so that when her death was immanent, one of her old human friends came to say good-bye.  Their reunion was heartfelt on both sides and she died some few days later. De Waal uses this story to introduce several facts about chimpanzees, their humans and how research is conducted/interpreted.

Then De Waal goes where few have gone before—he discusses how other animals view death.  What a scientist, doing the research and communicating it to us.   He first recounts what the humans did after Mama’s death.  Breaking with protocol the humans let her body lie in state, as it were, for the other chimps to view.  The males hit and tossed the body as if to wake her up; the females were gentler, lifting an arm or leg and letting it drop, looking into her mouth, etc. When one female tried to move her body, a foster daughter, whom Mama had raised after her friend had died leaving her infant behind, protested and prevented the body being moved.

De Waal recounts another observation wherein a younger chimp came up to an elder female who had been quite sick for some time, looked into her eyes and gave a scream of alarm.  Another chimp, too far removed to have observed this interaction, took up the cry of alarm and others followed.  A few minutes later the sick chimp fell to the floor and passed away.

De Waal gives many more anecdotes about how animals experience the death of another and he cites Barbara King’s 2013 book How Animals Grievein establishing observational guidelines for determining if an animal is grieving, e.g., a marked change in behavior.  Many species, including most mammals and some birds, show such changes.  Animals show awareness that the other is dead and if they were attached, they grieve.  Chimpanzee and cetacean mothers have been known to carry/support their dead offspring around for days.  Elephants visit the site of another’s death and pick up and hold a remnant, e.g., a bone or a tusk, of the deceased (remember this happens repeatedly over a long passage of time) and even pass it around to others in the herd.  And of course, we have many stories of dogs waiting for their dead humans’ return in the spot where their reunion used to occur, e.g., Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Working from a human’s sense of mortality, i.e., our awareness of our own demise, that we cannot confirm in other species, de Waal suggests perspicaciously that these others have at least a sense of finality—that a life is irrevocably over.  Consider how such a sense of finality works when an animal loses someone to whom they are attached.  Jaak Panksepp discusses the biological basis of attachment and loss in a chapter of his wonderful book, Affective Neuroscience.   Two systems operate in an oppositional tandem, one he calls the PANIC system that deals with separation from caregivers and another that inhibits that system in response to renewed social comfort.  The two systems depend upon different neurotransmitters yet still interact quite a bit.

Panksepp makes several interesting points.  The social comfort system is based upon one of the opiate receptor systems and the oxytocin system.  When the PANIC system is aroused, that motivates seeking social contact and comfort, i.e., gregariousness.  When social comfort is obtained, the opiate system inhibits the PANIC system. (Consider the important factor of joblessness and depressed communities in our current opiod epidemic).  Mammals become attached to a home location, so that just being ‘home’ reduces separation distress. (Our mostly warm feelings upon returning to the old home place may be another manifestation of this). Different species and different individuals within a species have different sensitivities to social distress. The famous example of the two voles, one monogamous and one not, show different sensitivities here.  Also, in general males are less sensitive to separation distress, presumably mediated by testosterone, than females (this in most species) and we are all less affected by separation as we age.  All of these phenomena reflect the neurochemical balances in our brains and body.

Panksepp cites research showing that chicks give a distinctive peep when distressed and that putting a mirror in their enclosure or petting them reduces the frequency of those peeps because the chicks ‘see’ or feel that they are not alone.  Most interestingly, listening to music also calms the PANIC system and so represents a form of social comfort.  Panksepp and others have studied how some music gives us ‘chills’, a sign of distress, and also warms us up, a sign of social comfort.  That music operates at such a basic level in our neurological systems is of profound interest.  Remember that Alzheimers’ patients often keep musical memories better than other sorts of memories—our brains preserve this form of social connectedness even as other functions deteriorate.

I always learn something new when I review sections of Panksepp’s book.  In this instance, the social regulation systems, i.e., PANIC and social connection/comfort, are anciently tied to the thermoregulation system that promotes homeostasis (thus all mammals share something of this).  Music, as it interacts with these systems, chills or warms us; it motivates small variations around the homeostatic range, and this feels good (or lovely or beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, etc.).  He finishes his chapter 14 with this, that some music generates “a wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion”.  (Hmmm, did he love listening to Americana and Celtic tunes like I do now?)  But also, we animals grieve with loss, knowing the other is finally gone yet still yearning for more contact, and that helps us maintain our homeostatic balance set in place over the years of social comfort with our intimates.  So Greyfriar’s Bobby, that wonderful dog who waited for his human to return from work for years after the human’s death, was listening to the neural music of attachment and grief and keeping it steady as she goes.

I will conclude this post with an observation by Susanne Langer (of course) who said that humans’ distinctive minds began when we realized that our lives are but single acts with a beginning and an end.  Knowing this began a cascade of insight into our existence and understanding of our ownmortality.  And reflecting on this illuminates how this sense/knowledge of our ownmortality lies at the heart of much cultural development, including our religion and philosophy, as we share our feelings about cope with the loss of others and ourselves.  And our science helps us to understand this more deeply.  Travel on.


Quick music review

Once in awhile I am lucky enough to attend a concert that goes beyond remarkable into the marvelous, say by Rodney Crowell, Emmy Lou Harris, Leonard Cohen, Joan Osborne, Richard Thompson, and Rhiannon Giddens (twice).  Last night this old man lucked out again with a jazz performance by pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.  Wow!  Their musical talent seems boundless, they are clearly both virtuosos, and they clearly, luminously play together with wonderful joy.  How humans can do this always amazes me, but some manage to do so.  Wow again.

Here is the deal specific to them:  My heart filled with joy with their music and their engagement together and with us. This is music from the earth and its peoples who rise above mundane existence.  Both are from Cuba and draw upon their heritage as well as many other sources (one encore included a riff on Michael Jackson’s thriller).  Their friendship and collaborative passion shine through their performance.  Enough said. They are just starting a tour so check out their websites, alfredomusic.com and pedritomartinezmusic.com, for dates, then see and hear for yourself what power their art has to elevate the mind. Travel on to there.

Garden thought

I have been spending a lot of time in the garden this summer. Sometimes I think about what I am doing and sometimes my thoughts wander. Sometimes they wander someplace interesting but sometimes not. I believe research shows that the mind’s negativity bias grows stronger with age. My defense against that is to think about what I have been reading and what I might write about when I get time and energy enough. Our weather turned hot and dry about 2 weeks ago so I have had to water every few days for the first time this summer, and when I water, I put on my ipod. It is the perfect activity for music listening. I can get our gardens watered during Dvorak’s 9th and one more movement of another symphony or it takes around 2/3 of Bob Dylan’s greatest hits. Yesterday I finished in the time it took to listen to Beethoven’s 5th and the first two movements of his 7th. Great stuff for communing with your plants, monitoring the water flow and enjoying our beautiful farm.

My mind wandered during the 5th symphony. My 8th grade music teacher in Minot, N.D., introduced me to this piece and used the trope of ‘fate knocking on the door’ for the opening notes. I found that distressing as I listened to this fabulous work. First of all, the knocking notes are an all too effective ear worm and tend to distract from the beautiful later movements, but my mind came to rest when considering the difference and interplay between the music and the verbal trope, between the art form and the verbal label, between Langer’s presentational and discursive symbols.

Briefly, because I have discussed this so much before, presentational symbolic forms, epitomized by art, carry import through gestalt-like forms composed from elements that have no significance outside of that form, while discursive symbolic forms, epitomized by language, carry meaning through linear syntactic combinations of elements which bear their semantic load independently of any new combination. The vocabulary of art, so to speak, may be culture bound but is otherwise unlimited, variant and intuitive with their creation limited only by the creativity of the artist; the vocabulary of language is established through social convention and though invariant, may be used in novel constructions.

So the artist’s work is not really ‘translatable’ to the work of art educators and critics. Art appreciation is more the apprehension of artistic import, though given the creatures that we are, we try to supplement this through discursive thought.   The boundary between art and the critical, i.e., talking, effort to express thoughts about it, is, I think, impermeable, and that was the real source of my distress when thinking about fate knocking while listening; the trope interfered with my appreciation of the import (and also while I find most critical efforts uninteresting).

Suppose those opening notes are not fate knocking (and what about fate? Not exactly a modern meme except in literature and drama, and oh yes, the theology of John Calvin). Suppose the notes are any number of things, the sounds the fetus hears made by the uterus’ first contractions of birth or the flap of sails in the first gust of a storm or the banging of an anchor being raised to the deck or the Western Union man at the door or well, you get the idea. The notes signal an opening literally of the musical piece and then symbolically of some experience. These are all suppositions and music is music, the lovely symbol of time and vital experience as a complex flow, multidimensional, and human and available only for direct apprehension.

So I have to go water the garden again and practice listening to music while forgoing the intellectual fog of talking about it even to myself. The plants know all about it but can only model it, not teach it.

Beyond hippocampus redux

Another article in Science News (4/30/16) shows our further understanding of this remarkable structure and lets me speculate even more. This new report is about research that shows that the hippocampus maps social objects, i.e., conspecifics or people if you are Homo sapiens as in the experimental study, or maybe rats if you are a rat, a mammal in which the hippocampus evolved early to serve memory especially for spaces and sounds in their case. This brings up two issues: one is how we conceptualize and talk about such phenomena and our research into them and the second is the difference between experimental laboratory studies and in vivo ecological studies, i.e., real life not the lab, and my speculation on what we will find we can do more of the latter.

To review a bit for the newer readers of my blog, the hippocampus (actually hippocampi, right and left) is a cortical structure which receives input of highly processed information from the posterior perceptual areas for processing as old or new, remembered or to be remembered, and feeds its results into frontal areas to support intentional guidance. It is one of my favorite areas for discussion so I have several blog posts on it over the years. It is an area between midbrain and cortex, so that is either at the peak of midbrain evolution and operates as the cortex for the limbic system, the emotional core of the brain or at the beginning of the neocortex and the evolution of the cerebral hemispheres and higher cognition.


Hippocampus on the left side under the cut away cortex and on top of the limbic system

The Science News article focuses on studies with rats when mapping tonal sequences or time’s passage is important and a study with humans undergoing a computer simulation of hunting for a new home or job. The subjects interacted virtually with different characters and formed judgments about their power and approval of the subject. The interaction with the virtual characters correlated with activity in the hippocampus and upon further analysis, the judgments formed correlated with some behavioral traits associated with social anxiety. So imagine in the real world, going to a party with mostly familiars or with mostly strangers, we would imagine that our hippocampi would keep up with, i.e., map, the people we meet in different ways for strangers and familiars, that people with different social approaches, e.g., low or high social anxiety, introversion or extroversion, would map the interactions quite differently and subsequently remember the events quite differently.   So later on, say that night while sleeping, the hippocampi would consolidate particular memories of the party; they would extract the more salient experiences for memory input based upon their emotional stance.

The articles I read in Plosbiology are quite technical and I can only partially digest them. Still what I can glean there is interesting. They all used the electrical activity (EEGs of various sorts) to correlate with behavioral/mental activity. One looked at how the hippocampus grows quieter during REM (dream) sleep, where by quieter I mean more synchronized, i.e., less analysis going on, and with lower energies. This would seem to indicate that its role as memory organizer for input has momentarily paused while the selected memories are consolidated for later recall. Another article reports research showing that, contrary to current thinking and models, memory input-recall is done unconsciously as well as consciously. Many currently think conscious processing is needed for input and recall, though why I do not know. There is a lot of literature now showing that subconscious processes do much of the work—see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink for one perspective on this.

The third article is the most interesting to me because it shows differences between right and left hemispheres in detecting new information. Specifically the left hippocampus works more at detecting violations of expectations while the right hippocampal circuit monitors novelty and changes more generally. Are we using our left sided linguistic abilities to set and codify expectations for monitoring? Sure, look at the science about inner speech. Is the right side more concerned with the ongoing present, our consciousness being the remembered present (to use William James’ term)? Sure, look through my blog.

Now all these studies looked at the brain’s and the hippocampus’ response to events impacting our perceptual systems as set up by experimental designs. Leaving the strictly positivistic behind while still remaining empirically oriented I want to ask about functioning in the natural world (in vivo and ecological), about how we talk about hippocampal processing, and most especially, about the brain’s own creative processes that underlie artistic activity.

Consider how the hippocampus and its functions presumably develop early in life. Mostly immature at birth it quickly matures during the sensitive early years to acquire the ability to map space and time, things, and animate objects, not just people–remember toddlers’ affinities to other animals, especially dogs. These social maps, in conjunction with other areas such as the higher visual cortex for facial recognition and the lower limbic areas for attachment and emotional regulation, come to demarcate family and intimates from others, familiars from strangers and safety from danger. Imagine the impact on these incipient maps when intimates turn out to be dangerous as happens in instances of childhood maltreatment. Treasure the impact of healthy families on these same maps.

Consider what is actually being mapped here. Yes, experimental science, in order to progress in a sure-footed manner, must study aspects with careful controls. So studies have shown that the hippocampus maps space, time, things, and others. In a more holistic sense the hippocampus maps our experiences. Remember the patient H.M. (see post on ) who had a bilateral hippocampectomy, i.e., surgical removal of both hippocampi, in the effort to control severe epilepsy. He lost the ability to make new memories even though he could remember educational material and some events from his long past. He failed to recognize his doctors and other medical personal and the scientists studying his neuropsychological deficits even though he saw some of them almost every day, even though he had seen them an hour beforehand. He could converse and express himself on many topics and retained some procedural memories of how to do things. One conversation I find remarkable is reported in Joseph’s Neuroscience text. H.M. asked someone what he had done in the past little while because he was worried he may have done something wrong. He knew he had done something but he did not know what and so worried about that. His consciousness lacked the experience of the remembered present. (To my mind his worries mark him as a true gentleman as opposed to some politicians and sociopaths who worry about this not at all).

Consider what we do not know about hippocampal functioning during artistic endeavors such as dance, novels or music. I am quite sure that dancing, at least well with others, involves hippocampal maps for guidance. Ritualized and choreographed motions would necessarily involve maps for space, time, and others as well as procedural memories for the actual movements. Ritualized motion would summon emotional involvement in a consistent acculturated manner; modern choreographed motions would summon emotional involvement in a dramatic manner. What about novels with their virtual space, time, characters and experiences, all from different perspectives? Here I do not think we know much about how the hippocampus might function in support of the virtual domains involved and I do not think the hippocampus as a part of the perceptual-motor system dealing with objective events is sufficient for virtual operations. For these I think that dorsal and ventral loops involving longitudinal fasciculi in the cortex must contribute (see post Important stuff 2/11/16). So I wonder how Faulkner knew Yoknapatawpha County so well and how Gandalf and Aragorn knew all the paths of Middle Earth.

Finally consider music that I have focused on here so recently. Memory for tones, rhythms, melodies, beats seem basic and probably involve procedural memories as well. Memories for the biographical frames of favored songs are among the last to be lost with dementia, sometimes lasting even after one’s own identity is forgotten. This highlights again an important feature of hippocampal functioning, the setting of a standard or the stabilizing memory of the song’s emotional tone and echoes in a fashion analogous to its noticing things are out of place or out of order as reported in the previously cited studies and in H.M.’s worries. We experience only as we are able to fit moments together and this requires that we organize our mental functions coherently in an integrated fashion as moments in our life. Somehow our brains know what melodies work for a particular culture–no atonal tunes for me please–and some brains know innovative genius upon hearing; think of the responses to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  So good job, hippocampus, and thanks for the memories.

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.

Re-read 4.1: Langer on “the virtual time created in music”

I find Susanne Langer’s prose clear and eloquent. She would seem to be at her most passionate when she writes about life and art to share her understanding of their relationship. Consider this passage: “What, then, is the essence of all music? The creation of virtual time and its complete determination by the movement of audible forms.” Why is this important? Why is music important? Because, as she explains later in Chapter 7 of Feeling and Form, with music we may understand again the nature of time, not the moment by moment succession of mechanical ticks of the clock (which she calls “metaphysically a very problematical instrument”) in a one dimensional train, but the multi-dimensional passage of duration. Music is an image of lived or experienced time, it is vital and not mechanical, it is creative and not restrictive.

I recently talked with a young man about Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest mythologists, and his notion that modern man was somehow diminished by our lack of rituals of passage, by our loss of a shared contextual duration of lifespans and the rhythm of life. I agree with this but given how we have changed since Campbell formulated his ideas, I think he had no idea of what would come about, when so many consider their lives richer in texture through electronic friending and multi-tasking. As Charlie Chaplin recognized in his movie, Modern Times, we have reduced the richness of life by clocking. Even some of the emphasis on fitness seems narrowly focused on achievement, on adrenalin and endorphin surge, on faster and better, even as we willfully ignore the necessity and richness of the quiet reflection needed to experience fully our time here with Gaia. Consider the experience of thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail and the many who describe it as a time of grounding, of expansive spirit among the difficult journey, and of a deepening understanding of our time here. Then consider the yokel who recently set the speed record for completing the journey and considered himself a superior man. As Yoda said, “All wrong that is.”


One more passage from Langer: The great office of music is to organize our conception of feeling . . . to give us an insight into what may truly be called the ‘life of feeling,’ or subjective unity of experience; and this it does by the same principle that organizes physical existence into a biological design—rhythm.” So, as I understand this, when we listen to music, we hear an image of life’s song emerging from matter’s noise, not as a scientific or positivistic progression of tick-tocks but as the mystic experience of attunement with some universe.

Langer was an excellent musician herself and she appreciated the modern luxury of electronic recordings, but she also said these taught us how not to listen, how to have music as the background of our lives and to miss thereby its richness. Sort of empty, non-nutritive calories, I guess, like so much of our fodder today. As we wander these trees, looking for the forest and a way through, listen for the song of the Waldenhexe. Travel on.