I have often felt a little envious of my professional musician friends. Not for the obvious reasons (getting to play in a band and get paid for it, or the accompanying status/sex-appeal), but because they had such a direct line to an audience's emotions. Writers can certainly influence a reader's emotions, but only by engaging the person's mind, first. The words have to be processed intellectually before they can be understood and felt emotionally. It's a quiet, thoughtful impact, even when it happens. A far cry from having an entire audience jump to its feet, almost involuntarily, and start moving in response to the rhythm, harmony, and energy issuing forth from the stage.
A brilliant orator might bring an audience to its feet, but the response would be to an idea, even if the idea was emotionally expressed. And the crowd would know what it was cheering about. Ask someone why a piece of music moves them, and they will probably find it harder to explain. For music speaks to a place deep inside of us that feels more than thinks; that knows resonance without questioning the details; that can hear and be comforted by the outpouring of heartbreak and survival in a blues ballad without even knowing the words.
But some researchers suspect that music and words may be more closely linked than I ever would have thought. So closely linked, in fact, that the study of music may actually be able to help ameliorate the language deficits of children with dyslexia.
How is that possible? The exact mechanism of the process isn't clear yet, but researchers at Harvard University have apparently seen a correlation between early-childhood music training and "enhanced motor and auditory skills, as well as improvements in verbal ability and non-verbal reasoning," And that correlation, they say, is even more pronounced in children with dyslexia. Gottfried Schlaug, one of the researchers, told the Acoustical Society of America that the results "suggest that a music intervention that strengthens the basic auditory music perception skills of children with dyslexia may also remediate some of their language deficits."
Those results are also supported by another paper being presented at the Acoustical Society of America meeting next week. Dr. Laurel Trainor and colleagues at McMaster University in West Hamilton, Ontario, have conducted several studies of children to gauge the impact of musical training. In one study, they compared two groups of children: one who were starting music lessons, and one who were doing other activities, like sports. They tested the electrical activity in the children's brains for a year and found that while both groups changed as the children developed, the children taking music lessons changed more ... especially in the areas "related to attentional processing."
"This is significant," Trainor wrote, "because it suggests a mechanism whereby music lessons could affect other cognitive processes, such as language and mathematical skills."
Now granted, music lessons involve a more focused learning process than simply sitting back and enjoying a collection of sounds. But there may also be a link between language and the evolution of music itself--which might help explain the ability of music to impact language processing.
A while back, I read a piece by Natalie Angier in the Science Times about the evolution of both language and the human ear. It appears that eight genes involved in shaping our ears underwent significant change over the past 40,000 years, and that our ability to distinguish and use a complex language evolved along with our more refined auditory infrastructure. "Moreover," she says,
"the avidity with which our auditory sense seeks to organize ambient noise into a meaningful acoustical pattern--a likely consequence of our dependence on language--could help explain our distinctly human musicality."
And a love of music is, apparently, a uniquely human trait. Other mammals, Angier notes, do not really appreciate music, despite the prevalent myth about music's power to soothe the wild beast. "If you give monkeys a choice between music and silence, they choose silence pretty strongly," reported Dr. Josh McDermott of the Center for Neural Science at NYU.
A similar thought was put forward in an article last December in The Economist on the evolution of music. It explored various theories about why we like and react to music, from sexual selection to group and community bonding. The sexual selection theorists believe that expertise in music evolved because it provided a courting advantage, similar to a peacock's colorful tail--which would certainly seem to be true in terms of musicians' ability to get dates after performances, at least in the rock and roll world. Music may also have evolved as a way to bring groups together as a community.
But according to Dr. Steven Pinker, a language theorist at Harvard, our appreciation for music may have evolved as a side-effect of our focus on sounds--a focus necessary to develop a complex language. As the article put it, just as a body that's designed to seek sugar and fat for survival finds itself enthusiastic about cheesecake, even though cheesecake itself isn't required for survival, "a brain devoted to turning sound into meaning is tickled by an oversupply of tone, melody and rhythm." So in the course of learning to distinguish nuances of difference in tone, sound and shape of vowels, consonants, and complex verb forms, we may have developed a delighted appreciation for all sounds and tones.
But even if all those correlations and theories are true, they still don't fully explain why music resonates so directly and brings forth such a range of emotions in people. Why do particular musical sounds move us so? The sounds in a word--even a really good word like "inexplicable"-- don't have the same effect. Researchers are looking into that one, too. But perhaps it's because we have been surrounded by sound far longer than we have known words: Our mothers' heartbeats and swishing blood and fluid even before we were born. The singing of birds, rain on a tin roof, the creaking of a porch swing, or the rustling of leaves by a gurgling brook. The cry of another child, the terrifying crack of lightning, or the scary howl of an animal nearby.
In the end, maybe the reason we respond to music more viscerally than language is simply because music was actually the first language we ever learned ... before thought, before words, when emotion was all we knew.
Note: I will be offline for the next week finishing a book project, returning November 3rd.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
The singer’s violent revenge fantasy was intended to provoke outrage, and to get people to talk about her. It succeeds on both counts.
Of all the scandalized reactions to Rihanna’s music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” my favorite comes, as is not surprising for this sort of thing, from the Daily Mail. Labelling herself in the headline as a “concerned parent” (a term to transport one to the days of Tipper Gore’s crusade against lyrics if there ever was one), Sarah Vine opens her column by talking at length about how so very, very reluctant she was to watch Rihanna’s new clip. Then she basically goes frame-by-frame through the video, recounting her horror at what unfolds. “By the time it had finished, I wondered whether I ought not to report [Rihanna] to the police,” Vine writes. “Charges: pornography, incitement to violence, racial hatred.”
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The unwillingness of the former secretary of state to take questions from the press contrasts sharply with Jeb Bush’s marked affinity for public disclosure.
Howard Kurtz reported on Sunday night that the Hillary Clinton campaign has decided to open itself to more press interviews. Kurtz quoted the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri: “By not doing national interviews until now, Palmieri concedes, ‘we’re sacrificing the coverage. We’re paying a price for it.’”
Meanwhile Jeb Bush chatted July 2 with the conservative website, the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller interview broke an unusually protracted no-interview period for Bush. It had been more than two weeks since he appeared on the Tonight show with Jimmy Fallon. Bush spoke that same day, June 17, to Sean Hannity’s radio show and ABC News. Five days earlier, he’d spoken to Germany’s Der Spiegel—altogether, five interviews in the month of June. That brought his total, since the beginning of February, to 39, according to the Bush campaign.*