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.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run severalstories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to twonew books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.
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.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
In a recent dispatch from Ferguson, Missouri, Jelani Cobb noted that President Obama's responses to "unpunished racial injustices" constitute "a genre unto themselves." Monday night, when Barack Obama stood before the nation to interpret the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, he offered a particularly tame specimen. The elements of "the genre" were all on display—an unmitigated optimism, an urge for calm, a fantastic faith in American institutions, aneven-handedness exercised to a fault. But if all the limbs of the construct were accounted for, the soul of the thing was not.
There was none of the spontaneous annoyance at the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, and little of the sheer pain exhibited in the line, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." The deft hand Obama employed in explaining to Americans why the acquittal of George Zimmerman so rankled had gone arthritic. This was a perfunctory execution of "the genre," offered with all the energy of a man ticking items off a to-do list.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.