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.
FEMA Director Craig Fugate on why the Katrina response failed, why it’s important to talk about “survivors” instead of “victims,” and why citizens can’t just wait for the government to save them in a huge disaster
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
The brash Manhattan billionaire would seem to stand for values they despise—yet conservative Christian voters are flocking to his campaign.
Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him. Yet somehow, the Manhattan billionaire has attracted their support.
According to the most recent polls, Trump is one of the top picks for president among evangelical Christians. One Washington Post poll even had him as the group’s favorite by a margin of six points. His first major rally in the Bible-belt fortress town of Mobile, Alabama, drew an estimated 18,000 attendees. And on September 28, prominent televangelist Paula White will reportedly lead a delegation of evangelical leaders to meet with the mogul in Trump Tower.
A tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor believes young people are drawn to Jesus, tradition, and brokenness.
“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
Understanding social norms for the phone means accepting the fact that the things we call "phones" are actually computers.
When the telephone was new, it was a sensation. And not an altogether positive one. Sure, it was a machine that enabled a person to speak—as if by magic—to another person in another place in real time. But also, what if ghosts were sneaking through the line? This was a real concern.
Another panic point: What if the telephone created an entire “race of left-eared people,” as The New York Timesreported in 1904. “Watch a telephone for half a day, and it will be seen that almost every person that uses the instrument will place the receiver to the left ear.”
Along with questions about the physical and supernatural effects of the telephone came deliberations about etiquette. What was the proper greeting? (“Ahoy hoy,” was Alexander Graham Bell’s pick. Thomas Edison preferred “Hello.”)
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.