Brain Pickings

How Music and Language Mimicked Nature to Evolve Us

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How auditory cheesecake was made with mother nature’s milk, or why our brains were not designed for reading.

Speech and writing are our two most fundamental forms of communication yet, while we’re extraordinarily good at them, they remain an ever-mystifying frontier of intellectual inquiry. We’ve previously looked at how sounds evolved into shapes, 5 essential books on language, and 7 must-reads on music and the brain. Now, from evolutionary neuroscientist Mark Changizi, comes compelling new evidence to unite these three domains of fascination. In Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, Changizi explores the evolution of language and music as they came to separate us from our primate ancestors.

Our brain’s tight fit to writing and speech is not because we evolved by natural selection to read or comprehend speech, but, rather, because the structure of writing and speech culturally evolved to fit our brain…by looking and sounding like nature, just what our brains can brilliantly process. I call this nature-harnessing — that’s the secret sauce.” ~ Mark Changizi

Changizi builds on his previous research for the excellent Vision Revolution and psycholinguist Steven Pinker’s work in The Language Instinct to examine how it’s possible that we appear to be designed to read, yet we have no actual reading “instinct.”

The answer is that, rather than our brains being designed for reading, reading is designed for our brains. Writing is a technology that has been optimized over time by the forces of cultural selection to be good for our visual system. We have no reading instinct. Instead, writing has a brain instinct (i.e., is designed for the brain), something neuroscientist Stanislav Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling.’” ~ Mark Changizi

Curiously, in the majority of our interaction with the world, we seem to mimic the sounds of events among solid objects. Solid-object events are comprised of hits, slides and rings, producing periodic vibrations. Every time we speak, we find the same three fundamental auditory constituents in speech: plosives (hit-sounds like t, d and p), fricatives (slide-sounds like f, v and sh), and sonorants (ring-sounds like a, u, w, r and y). Changizi demonstrates that solid-object events have distinct “grammar” recurring in speech patterns across different languages and time periods.

Artwork by Kerry Hyndman for Wired UK

But it gets even more interesting with music, a phenomenon perceived as a quintessential human invention — Changizi draws on a wealth of evidence indicating that music is actually based on natural sounds and sound patterns dating back to the beginning of time. Bonus points for convincingly debunking Steven Pinker’s now-legendary proclamation that music is nothing more than “auditory cheesecake.”

Ultimately, Harnessed shows that both speech and music evolved in culture to be simulacra of nature, making our brains’ penchant for these skills appear intuitive. Perhaps most interesting of all is what this might suggest about our evolving communication diets as we contemplate the future of information and the Internet and ponder what the web is doing to our brains — are these media, nascent in evolutionary terms, evolving as simulacra of nature as well, or are they taxing our brains with unnatural and counterintuitive mechanisms that make for impossible cognitive loads?

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Colour Mania: A Global Spectrum of Unitone Design

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A global ethnography by way of design, or what chocolate packaging has to do with indie music.

As a hopeless lover of both color and minimalism, I was instantly enamoured with Colour Mania by Victionary — a magnificent collection of stellar unicolor works in nine colors and a rainbow tone, spanning graphic design, illustration, packaging, branding, interior design and more. Each of the book’s ten color-based chapters, separated by peel-off color tabs, features a meticulously curated selection of eye candy in the respective hue — yellow, orange, red, pink, purple, blue, green, brown, achromatic / black-and-white, and rainbow.

Color initially conveys no meanings when it stands alone, but it connotes feelings and values that vary from places, culture and time and are subject to personal feelings at the same time.”

The lavish volume features over 300 pages of cross-disciplinary contributions from all over the world, offering an implicit ethnograhic tour by way of color.

Unforgivingly vibrant and visually delightful, Colour Mania is an absolute treat of eloquent unitone minimalism and a beautiful exploration of color as a storytelling device.

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Rare Early Photographs of Musicians Around the World

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Playing the hurdy-gurdy, or why African-American jazz bands were banned in Australia until 1954.

Music is one of humanity’s oldest and strongest forms of social glue, yet our collective memory has retained precious little of music’s communal history outside the Western tradition and before the days of rock concerts. Collected here are some fascinating archival images of music-making from around the world and across time, culled from several excellent Flickr sets compiled by musician Sam Bennett.

Quartet of Musicians in Meiji-era Japan

Okinawa Soba posted several CC licensed stereoimages by T. Enami and others documenting life in late 19th and early 20th century Japan (the Meiji period). The original image, circa 1901 and by an unknown photographer, is presented for parallel viewing and depicts a quartet of Japanese musicians. It is but one of many fascinating stereo compositions. This animated gif version exploits motion parallax to give a stereo illusion without eyestrain, to see what the photographer envisioned.

Dancing Dervishes, Cairo

Half of a stereoview (NPG, Berlin ca. 1910)

Village orchestra of Ruthenian and Jewish musicians

Verecke, Bereg County, 1895

Chinese band postcard

Hari Dasu, India. c. 1900?

Hand captioned 'Indian Juggler,' but subsequently identified as Hari Dasu

Egypt

NYPL photographs and prints of Egypt and Syria

Hungary

Photograph by Buchsbaum Gyula - Debrecen

Mexican picnic

Photo by Hugo Brehme, Mexico, D.F.

Street musicians

Photograph shows two men, sitting on bales of hay and playing instruments outside a barn or stable. One man plays guitar and the other plays a bowed instrument similar to a cello; both men simultaneously play kazoos.

Real photo postcard

Verso reads: 'This is myself and my youngest brother Bert. We had our heads clipped and then shaved and look like old men. The side view is my self.'

Fi. Musician? (LOC), ca. 1910-1915

Street musician playing a hurdy-gurdy

St. Marks Place

Photograph by James Jowers, 1968

The Colored Idea Band of Sonny Clay arrives in Sydney, 1928 / Sam Hood

The band entered Sydney Harbour playing their newly composed 'Australian Stomp' on deck, with their dancers performing. After good reviews, the Truth newspaper organised for the band to be raided. They were found with Australian women and deported. African American bands were banned from visiting until 1954. The Library has photographs of the Louis Armstrong tour, the first Afro-American entertainer to visit after the ban was lifted, and of the Harlem Blackbirds in 1955, the first Afro-American group to visit.

For more archival fascination, be sure to see these collections of vintage photographs of ballet dancers from the 1930s-1950s, lantern slides of Egypt in the early 1900s, and hand-colored images of life in early-20th-century Japan.

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