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.
Black poverty is fundamentally distinct from white poverty—and so cannot be addressed without grappling with racism.
There have been a number of useful entries in the weeks since Senator Bernie Sanders declared himself against reparations. Perhaps the most clarifying comes from Cedric Johnson in a piece entitled, “An Open Letter To Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Liberals Who Love Him.” Johnson’s essay offers those of us interested in the problem of white supremacy and the question of economic class the chance to tease out how, and where, these two problems intersect. In Johnson’s rendition, racism, in and of itself, holds limited explanatory power when looking at the socio-economic problems which beset African Americans. “We continue to reach for old modes of analysis in the face of a changed world,” writes Johnson. “One where blackness is still derogated but anti-black racism is not the principal determinant of material conditions and economic mobility for many African Americans.”
As Coldplay blandly strained for the universal, she and Bruno Mars pulled off something more specific and more daring.
What a perfect Beyoncésong name: “Formation.” All great pop involves people acting in formation. So does all great change. And while fans scream that Beyoncé’s a “queen” and “goddess,” her core appeal really is as a drill sergeant. With Beyoncé in command, greatness is scalable, achievable, for the collective. Everyone waves their hands to the same beat. Everyone walks around like they have hot sauce in their bag.
But in pop and in politics, “everyone” is a loaded term. Stars as ubiquitous as Beyoncé have haters, the “albino alligators” who “Formation” informs us she twirls upon. And in a more general historical sense, “everyone” can be a dangerous illusion that elevates one point of view as universal while minimizing others. Beyoncé gets all of this, it seems. As a pop star, she surely wants to have as broad a reach as possible. But as an artist, she has a specific message, born of a specific experience, meaningful to specific people. Rather than pretend otherwise, she’s going to make art about the tension implied by this dynamic. She’s going to show up to Super Bowl with a phalanx of women dressed as Black Panthers.
The insects are miniature transformers that can compress to half their size and still run really fast. The creepy little buggers might even inspire a new generation of search and rescue robots.
Cockroaches get everywhere. There they are, somehow, against all odds, in that room that looked to be totally sealed from the outside world, in that cupboard you swore was tightly shut. Now, Kaushik Jayaram and Robert Full from the University of California, Berkeley have discovered the secret behind their feats of infiltration.
By confronting American cockroaches with an ever-narrower series of crevices, the duo found that although this insect typically stands 12 millimeters tall, it can squeeze through gaps of 3 millimeters—the height of two stacked U.S. pennies. It does this by squatting down and then compressing its body by half. It is the world’s worst Transformer: instantly changing shape from a cockroach into a much flatter cockroach. Delightful.
Will the Democratic Party nominate a candidate who hasn’t been a member of their party, and who has long denounced it?
When a party chooses its presidential candidate, it also chooses its party leader in the election. This year the Democrats face an unusual situation. Bernie Sanders isn’t just an outsider to the party establishment; he’s not even been a member of the party, and has long excoriated it in unsparing language. Although the media haven’t much focused on this history, the early signs suggest it could become a problem for Sanders in getting the nomination—and a problem for the party if he does get it.
According to the entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, there was a 30-percentage-point split between self-identified Democrats and independents in their support for Sanders. Hillary Clinton won 56 percent of self-identified Democrats but only 26 percent of independents, while Sanders won only 39 percent of Democrats but 69 percent of independents.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison accomplished it in eight words: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Most people in the U.S. believe their country is going to hell. But they’re wrong. What a three-year journey by single-engine plane reveals about reinvention and renewal.
When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.
Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.
A photo series reveals what expectant mothers in various countries bring with them to the hospital.
For most expecting mothers in the Western world, a hospital bag is something that makes the birthing process marginally more comfortable. You’ve just brought a new being into the world; you deserve to wear your own sweatpants.
But in some parts of the world, hospitals are so bare-bones that women in labor must tote everything with them, from rubber gloves to water pans to gauze.
To draw attention to the difficulty of giving birth in regions where water is scarce, the organization WaterAid recently dispatched photographers to ask expecting and brand-new moms in various countries to open up their hospital bags. Here are their photos, as well as lightly edited interviews with the moms conducted by WaterAid.
The former president’s heated assault on Bernie Sanders is a reminder of how the Clintons have long reacted to any opposition.
One of my oldest Hillary Clinton memories: Twenty-six years ago, I stood in the second-floor rotunda of the Arkansas Capitol half-listening to a news conference by Tom McRae, an earnest Democrat challenging Governor Bill Clinton for re-election. Then I heard it: Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Click. Clack.
The sound of Hillary Clinton’s low-heeled shoes on a hidden marble hallway jarred McRae, who in 1990 was Bill Clinton’s biggest obstacle to a fifth term and a presidential bid two years later. The first lady of Arkansas rounded the corner and stormed his news conference. “Tom!” she shouted. “I think we oughta get the record straight!”
Waving a sheaf of papers, Hillary Clinton undercut McRae’s criticism of her husband’s record by pointing to McRae’s past praise of the governor. It was a brutal sandbagging. “Many of the reports you issued not only praise the governor on his environmental record,” she said, “but his education and his economic record!”
Tracking them down is a globe-trotting adventure that rivals any jungle expedition.
In the darkness of the Akeley Hall of Mammals, swarms of kids gawk at beautifully staged dioramas of Africa’s wildlife. The stuffed safari, nestled in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, includes taxidermied leopards stalking a bush pig, preserved ostriches strutting in front of warthogs, and long-dead baboons cautiously considering a viper. In one corner, in a display marked “Upper Nile Region,” a lone hippo grazes next to a herd of lechwe, roan antelope, and a comically stern shoebill stork.
“This is my favorite one,” says Evon Hekkala, pointing to the display. “There’s a taxidermied crocodile tucked away down there.”
It takes a while to spot it and I have to crane my head to do so, but yes, there it is—a large crocodile, in the back, mouth agape, next to the hippo. It’s mostly hidden from view, and until recently, it was hidden from science, too.
Immediately, the pings from fellow journalists (and media-adjacent folk) came pouring in, all saying something along the lines of, “Can you actually let me know what you find out? I’m addicted to that stuff.”
They mean “addicted” in the jokey, dark-chocolate-and-Netflix-streaming way, but the habit can border on pathological. For me, rock bottom was a recent, obscenely long workday during which an entire 12-pack of coconut La Croix somehow made it down my throat, can by shining can.