Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience’

12 AUGUST, 2013

The Art of Looking: What 11 Experts Teach Us about Seeing Our Familiar City Block with New Eyes

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“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life — in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism. And yet: “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates — and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages. In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

Horowitz begins by pointing our attention to the incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call “reality”:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This adaptive ignorance, she argues, is there for a reason — we celebrate it as “concentration” and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else. (“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” Horowitz tells us. “It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”) But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived — and unremembered — life, day in and day out.

For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her “curly haired, sage mixed breed” (who also inspired Horowitz’s first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:

Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to “attend to that inattention.” It is not, she warns us, “about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse.” Rather, it is an invitation to the art of observation:

Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block — the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.

In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.

Her approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city.

First, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language. (“The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners,” she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, “how does a Q-tip escape?”; turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and “its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives.” Stunning.)

But as soon as she joins her experts, Horowitz is faced with the grimacing awareness that despite her best, most Sherlockian efforts, she was “missing pretty much everything.” She arrives at a newfound, profound understanding of what William James meant when he wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”:

I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.

These “blinders,” despite psychologists’ concentrated efforts to dissect this strange phenomenon we call “attention,” remain largely a mystery — or, at best, a series of misconstrued hypotheses:

Though paying attention seems simple, there are numerous forms of payment. … To concentrate, to pay attention, is viewed as a brow-furrowing exercise. Sit still, don’t blink, and attend.

[…]

This may do for a moment of concentration, but it is not the way to better attention in your daily life. For that, we need to know what attention is. The very concept is odd. Is it an ability, a tendency, a skill? Is it processed in a special nugget in the brain, or by your eyes and ears? …

The longtime model used by psychologists is that of a “spotlight” that picks out particular items of interest to examine, bringing some things into focus and awareness while leaving other things in the dim, dusty sidelines. The metaphor makes me feel like a headlight-wearing spelunker who can only see what is right in front of her in the darkness of the cave. Such a comparison can be misleading, because in fact one can still report on what was within one’s peripheral vision at rates better than chance. And despite that spotlight, we seem to miss huge elements of the thing we are ostensibly attending to.

A better way of thinking about attention is to consider the problems that evolution might have designed “attention” to solve. The first problem emerges from the nature of the world. The world is wildly distracting. It is full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things.

Thus, evolution’s problem-solving left us modern humans with two kinds of attention: vigilance, which allows us to have a quick and life-saving fight-or-flight response to an immediate threat, be it a leaping lion or a deranged boss, and selective attention, which unconsciously curates the few stimuli to attend to amidst the flurry bombarding us, enabling us to block out everything except what we’re interested in ingesting. (Selective attention, of course, can mutate to dangerous degrees, producing such cultural atrocities as the filter bubble.) Much like French polymath Henri Poincaré argued that to invent is simply to choose ideas, to attend, it turns out, is simply to choose stimuli — but what sounds so deceptively simple turns out to be marvelously complex. In her walks with expert companions, Horowitz tickles this latter type of attention to unravel all the unseen, unsmelled, and unheard miracles of a city block, the wonderlands of sensation and awareness that bloom behind the looking glass of our evolutionarily primed everyday inattention.

The first “expert” Horowitz walks with is her very own toddler, from whom we learn that a walk is not necessarily the purposeful and linear transfer of a body from point A to point B, but rather an exploratory exercise in touching and — eek! — tasting textures and surfaces, pointing at sights, pausing to absorb the tickling brush of the breeze:

A walk is, instead, an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.

Much of what makes the story so compelling is Horowitz’s ability to swiftly weave scientific insight into the details of these anecdotal experiences. Here, she notes:

The perceptions of infants are remarkable. That infants reliably develop into adults, who for all their wisdom or kindness are often unremarkable, blinds us to this fact. The infant’s world is a case study in confused attention. … The world is not yet organized into discrete objects for these new eyes: it is all light and dark, shadow and brightness.

Infants, in fact, seem to experience syneshtesia as a baseline sensory given. (Perhaps MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin touched on a bigger cognitive truth when she reflected that “children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.”) But, eventually, they grow out of this wondrous multidimensional awareness, which William James called “aboriginal sensible muchness,” and we, the sensible and selectively attentive adults, emerge:

Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it. The world still holds these details. Children sense the world at a different granularity, attending to parts of the visual world we gloss over; to sounds we have dismissed as irrelevant. What is indiscernible to us is plain to them.

Part of toddlers’ extraordinary capacity for noticing has to do with their hard-wired neophilia — the allure of the new and unfamiliar, which for them includes just about everything that we, old and jaded, have deemed familiar and thus uninteresting. (Horowitz points to one systematic exception for us adults — vacations — which brim with enough novelty to produce such fascinating, reality-warping psychological phenomena as the holiday paradox. The reason, Horowitz argues, lies in two factors: “We actually do see new places and second, we bother to look.”)

In a way, “experts” have a toddler’s ability to zoom in on the details, the very fabric of experience, that most of us glide adaptively by.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes'

From beloved artist and reconstructionist Maira Kalman — a woman of boundless wisdom on life and unrelenting faith in walking as a creative device, whom Horowitz aptly describes as “a hoarder, in the finest sense of that word, of both experience and image” — we learn that looking at the ordinary, looking and really seeing it, seeing its extraordinary wonder, is a special talent that takes patient cultivation. Horowitz writes:

One perceptual constraint that I knowingly labor under is the constraint that we all create for ourselves: we summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance—all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day. The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or without thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage. My son was as entranced by the ubiquitous elm seeds near our doorstep as any of the menus, mail, flyers, or trash that concern the adults.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s timeless words on the shared magic of the child and the artist, Horowitz writes:

To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen.

Once you look at what seems ordinary long enough, though, it often turns odd and unfamiliar, as any child repeatedly saying his own name aloud learns. I had the suspicion that walking with Kalman would be the ambulatory equivalent of saying my own name aloud a hundred times.

But Kalman’s singular spirit came to life not in the purposeful stride of a destination-walk but in the creative digression of an amble:

With Kalman, walking around the block entered a fourth dimension. … Eventually, we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all of the later letters of the alphabet. … Objects and people on our route became possibilities for interaction, rather than decoration or obstruction, as the urban pedestrian might define them.

Kalman gently nudges Horowitz to remove the “invisibility cloak” so familiar to us urbanites as we shield ourselves from strangers, and the two do something city dwellers — especially New Yorkers — never do: They talk to policemen, movers, a mailman, churchgoers, and the social workers tending to a halfway house. In other words, they cease to simply coexist with their fellow citizens and, for the duration of the walk, live with them instead, attend to them with presence and curiosity, see them; they slow their cadence, now tourists in their native fast-paced New York; they amble. Horowitz once again returns to her potent blend of philosophical reflection and scientific substance:

I had not noticed, until forced to by Kalman’s sociability, how I was engaging in a fundamentally social activity by walking out in public.

Still, we all have a sense of the “appropriate” personal space around us — a kind of zone of privacy that we wear, even on the social sidewalk. Indeed, we have many coencentric circles of personal spaces, plural. The Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger, elaborating from studies of animal behavior, proposed that the personal zones around us fall into a few categories. Those with whom we do not mind “inescapable involvement” — as our loved ones — can broach the closest zone and get nearer than eighteen inches to us. At that proximity, we can smell them, feel the heat of their bodies, their breath, hear the small sounds they mutter or emit. We can whisper together. Most social interactions take place in a comfortable zone about one and a half to four feet away — closer in some cultures (Latin American) than others (North American). Friends can waltz through; acquaintances can hover on the edge. We have a social distance up to twelve feet from our bodies for more formal transactions, or for those we don’t know well. Beyond that is a kind of public distance in which we use our “outdoor” voice. All of these zones are artificial, varying with differing relationships, based on context and the physical setting — but we have a bodily sense of the reality of these spaces. Violate them, and we may feel stressed and anxious.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes'

Eventually, Horowitz realizes that Kalman has a wholly different way not only of looking, but also of seeing — she challenges the normative expectations of where one is allowed to go in the city and experiences space not “as defined by an edge, but as an infinitely explorable openness” — and so she wonders what it is about the artist’s brain that enables that limitless perception of possibility. Though she is careful to insure against any phrenology-like pseudoscience of the “creative brain,” Horowitz does point to a curious study that suggests brains like Kalman’s might, in fact, be wired differently:

One research team, though, reported a correspondence between the brains of those who seem to be especially creative thinkers. Certain people, they found, have fewer of one kind of dopamine receptor in the thalamus of the brain. These people also performed well on tests of “divergent thinking,” in which people are asked to concoct more and more elaborate uses for ordinary objects, for instance. The reduction in receptors might actually increase information flow to various parts of the brain, essentially allowing them to think up new and interesting solutions. “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” the researchers wrote.

(For more on this research by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, see this.)

A typographic storefront from James and Karla Murray's 'Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York.' Click image for details.

From typography nerd Paul Shaw, who brought us the almost true story of New York’s subway Helvetica, we learn that our minds are constantly coerced into reading the “dull, tedious words” that bombard us from storefronts, billboards, and computer screens nearly every waking moment — but besides the linguistic burden, embedded in each letter we ingest is also a design one, for typography can quietly convey an unwritten message, set a mood, create an ineffable sense of something being either terribly wrong or terribly wonderful. A letter, Horowitz reminds us as she discovers the humanistic quality of words while touring New York’s type-smothered streets with Shaw, can be “jaunty” or “uncomfortable” amidst awkward kerning, an ampersand can be “pregnant” and an S “complacent.” She encapsulates:

Three hours of walking with Shaw later, I felt relieved, for the moment, of my compulsion to read what was readable, to parse text when I saw it. Surprisingly, this relief came not from avoiding text, but from seeking it out — only to zoom in on the details held within. It was a vision that let me miss the forest and see the trees. Rather than words, I saw the components of words. Some small part of my brain (the linguistic part) rested; the shape-identifying part hummed with activity.

[…]

The thing you are doing now affects the thing you see next.

From geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History we learn that our entire world consists of only two types of things: minerals and the biomass of plants and animals. A city suddenly becomes not a sterile “man-made” object but a thriving ecosystem of living and once-living landscapes, “an ersatz natural landscape writ small … on every single block,” a place suddenly brimming with reminders of its own impermanence:

Viewed with this lens, the city feels less artificial. The cold stone is natural, almost living: it absorbs water, warms under the sun, and sloughs its skin in rain. Like us, stone is affected by time, its outer layer softened and its veins made more prominent. And viewed as a natural landscape, the city feels less permanent: even the strongest-looking behemoth of an apartment tower is gradually deteriorating under the persistent, patient forces of wind, water, and time.

Organisms inhabiting a single cubic foot of space from 'One Cubic Foot' by photographer David Liittschwager. Click image for details.

From field naturalist and insects advocate Charlie Eiseman, we learn that on every square inch of surface, entire microcosms oscillate between vibrant life and violent death. (“If a driveway holds an ecosystem,” Horowitz ponders, “what of a parking lot? Perchance a universe.”) Over the next few hours, the two proceed to discover traces of just about every kind of insect — from spider egg cases to discarded fly exoskeletons — lacing the most ordinary of city blocks. What emerges is a keen awareness that the negative space of the unseen is itself a source of rich information:

Surprisingly, those leaves that have no sign, no holes, no smattering of excrement, are themselves sign of something else. They indicate that the tree is probably not from around here.

Once again, Horowitz explores what enables Eisenman’s brain to function so differently from her own and pops the cognitive hood of his singular selective attention, tracing it to the work of notable early twentieth-century bird-watcher Luunk Tinbergen:

Tinbergen noticed that songbirds did not prey on just any insect that had recently hatched in the vicinity; instead, they tended to prefer one kind of bug — say, a particular species of beetle — at a time. As the numbers of young beetles rose through a season, the birds gorged on these beetlettes, ignoring any other available young insects nearby. Tinbergen suggested that, once the birds found a food they liked, they began to look just for that food, ignoring all others. He called this a search image: a mental image of a beetle—with its characteristic beetly shape, size, and colors—with which the bird scans her environment.

This search image, it turns out, is something all of us employ when we need to narrow our attention in a goal-oriented task, like spotting a friend across the crowded street or finding the brand of salsa we went looking for amidst the overwhelmingly well-stocked shelves at Whole Foods. But this search aid, Horowitz soon realizes, is only helpful or even possible if we know what to look for, and most of us won’t have the luxury of being escorted along our familiar walks by some of the world’s most fascinating brains. Horowitz shares this “melancholy thought” with Eiseman as they conclude their walk:

Eiseman reflected for a moment, and then quoted one of his tracking teachers, Susan Morse: “Half of tracking is knowing where to look, and the other half is looking.” If you understand even the most superficial elements of the life histories of different animals — such as what kinds of things they are attracted to — once you start looking, you are going to find them everywhere. … A small bit of knowledge goes a long way when thinking about “where to look.” … Once you have an eye for these things, even when you’re not looking for them, they just jump out at you. Everything is a sign of something.

Next, from Humane Society senior wildlife scientist John Hadidian we learn that the main distinction in the city’s life is that between day and night, and a remarkable amount of wildlife floods the seemingly humdrum city streets once the sun averts its gaze — pigeons, sparrows, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons. (And, lest we forget, the bountiful “wild cats” Gay Talese so poetically described.) High above, falcons, eagles, and hawks haunt the urban skies. Down below, rats — who spend most of their waking hours preening and who use their sensitive whiskers to navigate along walls and orient themselves — run their ceaseless races. (Of the latter, Hadidian says that “from a strictly natural history perspective, they’re one of the most poorly understood animals out there.”)

We also learn that “every animal you can think of is drawn to the persimmon tree” — a useful factlet should you ever find yourself lonely in your backyard. But most humbling of all is the sudden awareness that nearly every single crack, hole, and slit between buildings is part of a vast and elaborate transit system of urban wildlife passageways, with which comes the equally humbling reminder that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t the complacent kings of our own city we go about fancying ourselves to be:

This is what makes the urban animal so elusive. He is actually attempting to elude us, and our imaginations do not seem to account for animals (aside from pets) in cities. Even our sense of scale is distorted when considering urban wildlife corridors and passageways. Remembering, perhaps, a childhood inability to scale a fence or shimmy through a gate, we find it incredible that urban animals are not thwarted by the seemingly impenetrable stone walls and chain-linked barbed-wire fencing we present to them. But the descriptions of nearly all urban animals include an impressive dimension: the size hole the animal can squeeze into, through, or out of. Raccoons, even as adults, can fit in a four-inch space between grates, flattening themselves and taking advantage of their broad, short skulls. Squirrels fit through a hole the size of a quarter; mice, through dime-sized holes. Look around you on your next walk. See any holes at all? Gaps between stair and building? Between sidewalk and curb? An animal goes there (after you have passed).

And so we return to the straitjackets of our perception, that disconnect between seeing and knowing what to look for, filtered through the uncompromising sieve of our attention — something most memorably demonstrated in the famous invisible gorilla experiment. Horowitz writes:

Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there.” Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units.

As intriguing as the city’s non-human dwellers are, its human ones brim with a deluge of data that something as seemingly simple as observing their bodies and movement can reveal. That’s precisely what Horowitz learns from her walk with Dr. Bennett Lorber, president-elect of the country’s oldest medical institution, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia:

Simply by being outside on the street, people are inadvertently revealing their life histories in their bodies, in their steps, in the hunch of their shoulders or set of their jaw.

Indeed, we learn that a man’s gait can reveal anything from his medical pathology to his occupation to, even, his religion. (Enter another curious factlet: the average step is divided into 62% stance, meaning contact with ground, and 38% swing, meaning no contact with ground.) We also realize that the extraordinary act of walking — a miracle of motion and alignment that propels us forward despite the awkward balance of our bodies’ bipedalism, a rarity in the animal kingdom — is an exquisite metaphor for the human spirit as “one becomes aware of how many different but successful ways there are to propel oneself around one’s day.” Still, there is such a thing as an ideal walker:

Their gaits had few asymmetries, were smooth and loose, and wasted no energy doing anything but going forward. From an evolutionary perspective, efficiency is the key. Our ancestors may have been easily outrun by any potential predator — we are not a particularly fast species — but we have endurance: those proto-humans who could keep running won their lives. And they could do that if their gait was efficient.

Horowitz once again considers the difference between her brain and the experts’:

While I had a vague sense of Hmm, something’s amiss . . . , they could diagnose. It is not only the diagnosis that I valued; it is the way that knowledge orients their looking — an ability to “see what they see,” as it were.

But partway through her experiment, Horowitz is befallen by a medical curveball of her own — a herniated disk in her back paralyzes her foot and renders her barely able to walk, which presents an obvious challenge to her walking exploration of city blocks. She writes:

The street changed for me during those months, as it certainly changes for anyone who is temporarily or permanently injured, or suffers the ultimate injury of simply aging.

Still, she perseveres and brings even greater awareness to the next portion of her urban anatomy — the sensory landscape of the city. She meets Arlene Gordon, a remarkable woman who has traveled the world and shares enchanting stories of the souvenirs filling her apartment. And this is where the gift of Horowitz’s narrative comes most viscerally alive: as she talks to Gordon and notes the subtle details of her dimly lit apartment and her too-blue eyes, you the reader (or at least I, the reader), already primed for this art of observation, realize before Horowitz reveals it that Gordon is completely blind — and oh how sweetly gratifying this earned micro-mastery is, and oh what plump promise it holds for the possibility of similarly broadening our everyday awareness as we follow Horowitz’s experiment.

As the two stroll together, their walk becomes a powerful revelation:

After a handful of city walks I realized that what many of them were missing was any experience other than a visual experience. This was not terribly surprising. After all, humans are visual creatures. Our eyes have prime positioning on our faces. We have trichromatic vision, which is sufficient to paint a Technicolor, million-colored landscape of the world. Our brains’ visual areas, with hundreds of millions of neurons designed to make sense of what we see, takes up a full fifth of each of our cortices. The resplendent scene our eyes carry to us is entrancing. As a result, we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual. What we wear, where we live, where we visit, even whom we love is based in large part on appearance — visual appearance.

But the world around us is not entirely or even mostly defined by its light-reflective qualities. What of the odors of the molecules making up every object, and those loosened odors wafting in the space around us? Or the perturbations of air that we can hear as sound — and the frequencies higher or lower than we can hear? I imagined that someone who has lost her sense of sight could lead me, however superficially, into the invisible block that I miss with my wide open eyes.

And lead she does: Gordon navigates swiftly along the sidewalk, masterfully using her cane — a sort of sensory extension of herself and the “peripersonal space,” that bubble of space defined by our bodies and their immediate surroundings — and Horowitz marvels at our brains’ magnificent plasticity, the same adaptability behind the “limbic revision” of love.

Our brains are changed by experience — in a way directly related to the details of that experience. If we have enough experience doing an action, viewing a scene, or smelling an odor to become an “expert” in a field, then our brains are functionally — and visibly — different from nonexperts.

And yet:

The brain is plastic, and can creatively adapt to a new situation, but it changes right back when it no longer needs to be creative.

From the walk with Gordon, we learn about the physics of wind, which moves according to the Bernoulli principle and the Venturi effect, creating a whole new layer of aerial flux over the city’s landscape:

Winds over the rivers flanking Manhattan Island speed down side streets on land. … Tall buildings create other wind effects: winds that hit high on a building rush down its face, sometimes creating enough pressure to make passage in and out of the doorway difficult. Sheer glass towers can pull air not just down, but also up from below (the Bernoulli principle) — as well as lift any skirts being worn in the vicinity.

But most poignant of all are Gordon’s parting words, emblematic of the book’s broader underpinning message:

In front of her building she turned to shake my hand. “Nice to see you,” she said. And then, as if noticing my smile in response, she added: “There’s someone in my building who asked me, ‘How come you use that word, “see?” How can you say “I see it”?’ Well, I do see it. I said, ‘see’ has many definitions.”

Next, from sound designer and vocal engineer Scott Lehrer we learn that the urban soundscape is often a violent cacophony on which Dickens and Babbage were right to wage war, and our ability to tune it out is among the most fascinating manifestations of our selective attention — though our ears are always open, we only attend to a fraction of what is audible, and even to that we append our intellectual interpretations:

Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently.

(In fact, Horowitz herself employs, perhaps unwittingly, this emotional soundscape in a previous chapter: limping awkwardly and painfully with her paralyzed leg to meet Gordon, she encounters a door that “sighs” open for her.)

But with Lehrer she sets out to “to listen to the sounds in and of themselves, to hear beyond their names.” She learns that the tires of a car sound different when it rains and that sounds can reverberate with various levels of “wetness” in different spaces, depending on the size of the space, the objects filling it, and the distance of the sound source from the walls. She learns how the fact that even temperature alters sound perception explains why birds sing at dusk and dawn. She then ponders the man-made distinction between “sound” and “noise” as she considers legendary avant-garde composer John Cage’s legacy:

What makes that “noise” and not just neutral “sound” is another question. The avant-garde composer John Cage famously declared that “music is sounds,” and thus appropriated ordinary sounds to be his music. In one of his compositions, the orchestra is silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds; whatever sounds come in through the window of the concert hall or emerge from the increasingly restless and puzzled audience constitute his music. Still, if Cage was right, it need not follow that all sounds are music(al). Any sound we do not like we call noise, thereby introducing a subjective assessment to the din. That subjectivity is always there in talking about noise.

But Horowitz finds a certain reassurance in the relativity of noise as she realizes that sound resonates with what we bring to it and our experience of the city’s soundscape can change dramatically with exposure. (Cue in E. B. White, who embraced the hustle-and-bustle of New York’ with such memorable poeticism.) But one of her most chilling realizations has to do with the biology of our ear — itself a magnificent machine — and violent ways in which the city assaults it daily:

Decibels are the subjective experience of the intensity of a sound. Zero decibels marks the threshold for hearing a sound—and in a modern city, there is never a moment of zero decibel silence. We mostly reside in the 60–80 decibel range, which includes sounds from normal conversation across the dinner table, vacuum cleaners, and traffic noise. Once a sound gets to 85 decibels, it begins to damage the mechanism of our ears irreparably. The reason lies in the mechanism itself.

Cilia, tiny hair cells that stand upright in the cochlea, sway and jiggle when the vibration of air—the rush of air that is sound — wends its way into the inner ear. So stimulated, the cilia trigger nerves to fire, translating that vibration into electrical signals that give us the experience of hearing something. If those vibrations are strong enough, the hair cells bend deeply under their force. Air pressure can mow, crush, or sever the hairs until they are splayed, fused, floppy, or fractured — an earful of well-trodden grass. Bent and damaged enough because of exposure to loud sounds for prolonged periods, the hair cells do not grow back; the ears lose their neural downiness. The world becomes progressively quieter for the person attached to those ears, until there are no sounds, no music, no noise.

Cities are crowded with sources of sound regularly approaching this threshold of hearing loss. … Enormous numbers of man-made sounds occur in those same frequencies. We often find high pure tones the most irritating: the screech of a subway turning a tight corner or braking, at 3,000 or 4,000 hertz, or the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, between 2,000 and 4,000 hertz. These sounds clobber us because of the shape of the human ear, which allows high frequencies to find their way efficiently to the cochlea. The very design of the ear amplifies these vibrations for waiting hair cells. But it is not just our ears that find the sound distressing; it is our brains. If we know that we are hearing what we have already deemed an “annoying sound,” our bodies react to it as though it is: we have a sympathetic nervous system response, usually reserved for final exams, suddenly appearing lions, and the sight of our beloved. We sweat, and then we notice that we are sweating, and we sweat some more.

From Christoph Niemann's 'Abstract City' (click image for details): 'To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units. PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area. COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet). DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didn't take off his shoes first.'

And still, her walk with Lehrer yields a celebration rather than a lament of the city’s sounds — an invitation to know and love the city in yet another dimension:

What I heard had morphed from noxious urban noise into being the characteristic, flavorful clatter of my city. I enjoyed the roar of traffic and the buzz of flies; I looked at pigeons hoping they would coo; I stared down passersby, silently egging them on to hum or cough. I counted squeals and squeaks and squawks and measured them against whines and whistles. Each sound felt invited, a pleasure.

Horowitz’s final walking companion is — fittingly, given the original inspiration for the project — her new dog, the playfully curious Finnegan. (That a cognitive scientist would name her dog with a nod to James Joyce is only further evidence of Horowitz’s remarkably well-rounded mind.) And if you thought the human ear was a marvel, just wait for the dog’s nose:

The inside of the nose is a labyrinth of tunnels lined with specialized olfactory receptors waiting for an odorant molecule — a smell — to land on them. In the back of the nose is an “olfactory recess” separated from the main respiratory pathway by a bony plate, allowing smelling to be distinct from breathing, and letting odors loiter for a long time to be considered. Though we tend to think that only some things are smelly — a spring bloom, a trash can, a new car, a bus’s exhaust — just about everything has a scent. Anything with molecules that can be “volatile,” that can evaporate into the air and travel toward a receptor in someone’s nose, smells.

The dog nose has hundreds of millions of receptors in that nose; they even have a second kind of nose above the hard palate of their mouth, called a vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ. Molecules such as hormones that do not stir the receptors of the nose to fire may find a rousing welcome here. All animals house hormones, which are involved in bodily and brain activities, and those hormones we emit, called pheromones, are detected by the vomeronasal organ. This is how a dog could detect another dog’s stress or sexual readiness in a spray of her urine left on the ground.

Dogs are called macrosomatic, or keen-scented, while humans are called microsomatic, or feeble-scented.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton based on a proposed (and, sadly, rejected) cover for a Print magazine issue themed Communication.

How humbling it is and how hard to maintain the typical human god-complex when the layman language describing our natural givens contains the word “feeble.” In fact, our feebleness is not due to software but to hardware — it’s not that we don’t know how to use our noses like a dog does, it’s that we lack the dog’s extravagant number of cells to detect and decode smells, which they’re able to do at the unimaginably low concentration of one or two parts per trillion. (As Horowitz puts it, “One part mustard, one trillion parts hot dog: dogs can detect the mustard.”) Even more remarkably, a dog’s nose is wired to detect the half-life of smells, with each noseful of the “same” smell delivering different information — a sort of stereo olfaction that gives them astounding precision in tracing where the smell has come from and where its carrier has gone next. Horowitz reflects:

To see a scene is not to stare fixedly at one point; it is to open our eyes to everything in front of us, looking to and fro. Similarly, to smell a scene, Finn approached it from the side, from above, sniffing the air to see if the artist who concocted this particular odor splotch was anywhere nearby. A dog can smell something different in each noseful — and there is something different there to smell. This taught me something about smells: they are not at fixed points, nor are they static and unchanging. They are a haze, a cloud, spreading out from their source. Viewed as odors, the street is a mishmash of overlapping object identities, each crowding into the next’s odorous scene.

After her olfactory adventure with Finn, Horowitz takes one final walk by herself as she attempts to implement all her new learnings in experiencing her city block with new layers of awareness. And she does:

A simple walk had become unrecognizably richer. … Part of seeing what is on an ordinary block is seeing that everything visible has a history. It arrived at the spot where you found it at some time, was crafted or whittled or forged at some time, filled a certain role or existed for a particular function. It was touched by someone (or no one), and touches someone (or no one) now. It is evidence.

The other part of seeing what is on the block is appreciating how limited our own view is. We are limited by our sensory abilities, by our species membership, by our narrow attention — at least the last of which can be overcome.

But the greatest learning is that our ability to see is a factor of two complementary forces — attention and intention — as the choices we make in what we attend to shape our entire experience of reality. And expertise is nothing but the carefully orchestrated osmotic balance of the two:

What allowed me to see the bits that I would have otherwise missed was not the expertise of my walkers, per se; it was their simple interest in attending. I selected these walkers for their ability to boost my own selective attention. An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.

Indeed, one of Horowitz’s most piercing insights arrives during her walk with Paul Shaw:

One trouble with being human — with the human condition — is that, as with many conditions, you cannot turn it off. Even as we develop from relatively immobile, helpless infants into mobile, autonomous adults, we are more and more constrained by the ways we learn to see the world.

But the greatest promise of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — which, it can’t be stressed enough, is a rare and necessary soul-expander for any city-dweller — appears as a poetic aside Horowitz drops during her walk with the geologist:

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.

She notes that he “can never walk down a block and not see its geology.” And that’s precisely the point: The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen — a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.

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04 FEBRUARY, 2013

Neurologist Oliver Sacks on Memory, Plagiarism, and the Necessary Forgettings of Creativity

By:

“Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” researcher Rosalind Cartwright reminded us in her fascinating treatise on the science of dreams. “The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true,” Jonah Lehrer wrote shortly before being engulfed a maelstrom of escalating accusations of autoplagiarism and outright fabulation. Yet while we already know that memory is not a recording device, the exact extent of its fallibility eludes — often, quite conveniently — most of us.

In his recent New York Review of Books essay, legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks tackles precisely that, exposing the remarkable mechanisms by which we fabricate our memories, involuntarily blurring the line between the experienced and the assimilated:

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened — or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten.

One phenomenon Sacks argues is particularly common — if not adaptive — in the creative mind is that of autoplagiarism:

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Citing a number of case studies where false memories of fictitious events were “implanted” in people’s minds, Sacks explores unconscious plagiarism, something Henry Miller poetically probed and Mark Twain eloquently, if unscientifically, addressed in his famous letter to Helen Keller. Sacks writes:

What is clear in all these cases — whether of imagined or real abuse in childhood, of genuine or experimentally implanted memories, of misled witnesses and brainwashed prisoners, of unconscious plagiarism, and of the false memories we probably all have based on misattribution or source confusion — is that, in the absence of outside confirmation, there is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested, between what the psychoanalyst Donald Spence calls ‘historical truth’ and ‘narrative truth.’

[…]

There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. . . . Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.

Sacks concludes:

We, as human beings, are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information.

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

In a rare act of defiant reliability, my own memory brought to mind a footnoted passage in Sacks’s mind-bendingly excellent recent book, Hallucinations, where he explores memory further:

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.

In a footnote, he adds:

For [researchers] in the early twentieth century, memories were imprints in the brain (as for Socrates they were analogous to impressions made in soft wax) — imprints that could be activated by the act of recollection. It was not until the crucial studies of Frederic Bartlett at Cambridge in the 1920s and 1930s that the classical view could be disputed. Whereas Ebbinghaus and other early investigators had studied rote memory — how many digits could be remembered, for instance — Bartlett presented his subjects with pictures or stories and accounts of what they had seen or heard were somewhat different (and sometimes quite transformed) on each re-remembering. These experiments convinced Bartlett to think in terms not of a static thing called ‘memory,’ but rather a dynamic process of ‘remembering.’ He wrote:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience. . . . It is thus hardly ever really exact.

Could it be, then, that the very fallibility of memory is essential to our combinatorial creativity and to the mechanics of the slot machine of ideation? To steal like an artist might be, after all, the default setting of the brain.

Oliver Sacks portrait by John Midgley via Wired

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21 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Music Books of 2012

By:

From the neuroscience of talent to the illustrated Beatles, by way of Zen Buddhism and how creativity works.

The latest addition to this year’s best-of reading lists — spanning art, design, philosophy and psychology, picturebooks, history, graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, and food — is a look at the most noteworthy music books of 2012.

HOW MUSIC WORKS

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this season: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (UK; public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to b, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — ‘something to get off my chest’ — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.

[…]

So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.

What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.

[…]

We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.”)

Originally featured in September.

David Byrne photograph via Wikimedia Commons

GUITAR ZERO

Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That’s exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (UK; public library) — a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new things), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:

Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.

Wilder Penfield's cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of 'cortical real estate' varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:

'You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical.'

Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:

[The 'zone of proximal development' is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

Originally featured in February.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

“Good music can act as a guide to good living,” John Cage famously said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (UK; public library), also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in ages — superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.

The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.

Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Xenia Kashevaroff

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:

I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.

By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:

Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’

Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage's confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first?

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.

Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:

Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?

When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.

So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.

To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?

Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:

Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.

What he found was a language of silence and immanence.

In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men's bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them -- one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts -- which would endure until their deaths.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.

One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:

From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.

Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.

Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:

‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’

(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)

Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.

Cage has become 'the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,' his friend Peter Yates remembered. 'Around him everyone laughs.'

Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:

In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.

There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.

[...]

The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?

Originally featured at length in July.

THE CARTER FAMILY

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky, also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012, tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.

BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.

THE BEATLES IN COMICS

The Beatles were only together for a decade, yet they remain the most massive and enduring phenomenon in music culture some four decades after their breakup. Shortly after the recent discovery of the Fab Four’s final photo shoot comes Beatles in Comic Strips (UK; public library), edited by journalist and music critic Enzo Gentile and also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012 — a grown-up Beatle geek’s counterpart to the lovely vintage children’s book We Love You Beatles, collecting more than 200 rare cartoon strips dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their first single, “Love Me Do.”

'Beatles Story No. 4' (1974)

Image: Marvel Comics Group

'Beatles Story No. 26' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Beatles Story No. 30' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Girls' Romances' (1965)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 1' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'The Invisibles No. 1' (1994)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 36' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

Originally featured in August.

SONG READER

In the 1930s, as recorded sound was beginning to replace live musicians who played sheet music in movie theaters to score films, the American Federation of Musicians formed an organization called the Music Defense League and proceeded to take out a series of newspaper ads admonishing against “making musical mince meat” and the “menace” of recorded sound. But in the eight decades since, besides the loss of sound quality with digitization and the demise of music notation as art, could we have lost something else, some part of the romance of music? That’s arguably what Beck has set out to capture, on the heels of reimagining Philip Glass’s lifetime of music, in Song Reader (UK; public library) — a remarkable sort-of-album containing 26 never-before-released or recorded songs that only exist as pieces of sheet music. The songs come with original full-color illustrations by celebrated contemporary artists, illustrators and designers like Jessica Hische and The Rumpus’s Ian Huebert, inspired by the aesthetic of the golden age of home-play.

Beck writes in the preface:

After releasing an album in the mid-1990s, I was sent a copy of the sheet-music version by a publisher who had commissioned piano transcriptions and guitar-chord charts of everything on the original recording. Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way. Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.

A few years later, I came across a story about a song called ‘Sweet Leilani,’ which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.

'Do We? We Do' illustrated by Sergio Membrillas

So when Beck met with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in 2004 to discuss a songbook project based on music notation, they quickly became obsessed with the broader world of old songs and began collecting vintage sheet music, artwork, ads, and other ephemera that went along with the art of sound. Beck writes:

I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.

'Why'

'Old Shanghai' illustrated by Kelsey Dake

In a meditation on the humanity of sheet music and why the project is more than a gimmick, Beck reflects my own concerns about the presentism bias of the digital age and observes poignantly:

I thought a lot about the risks of the inherent old-timeyness of a songbook. I know I have friends who will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick. There’s a way of miniaturizing and neutralizing the past, encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists. But although the present moment can exclude the past from relevance, it can’t erase its influence entirely. Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.

'We All Wear Cloaks' illustrated by Kyle Pellet

In the introduction, Jody Rosen calls the project “a trip back to pop’s primordial past” and offers a primer on the visual legacy of sheet music, tracing how — just like the evolution of natural history — the aesthetic of sheet music was shaped by the concurrent evolution of imaging technology:

Song sheets are strange, seductive art objects. In the first half of the nineteenth century, sheet music art was mostly text-based: titles splashed across covers in ornate fonts. After the Civil War, advances in lithography brought alluring black-and-white illustrations to sheet music. By the turn of the century, new photographic printing techniques and the development of offset presses made color illustration ubiquitous. Songs arrived on store shelves in a riot of colors and graphics — graceful art nouveau design motifs, proto-Deco typefaces, illustrations that ranged from cartoonish to classicist to sleekly moderne.

'Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard' illustrated by Josh Cochran

Beck concludes:

Fifty-four million homes singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life—or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.

Here are just a few of the wonderful performances based on the sheet music in Song Reader already out there, by both “professional” musicians like Steve Mason and Leila Moss, and “amateurs” (where’s the line anymore?):

Originally featured last week.

BONUS: WAYS OF LISTENING

Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music — not just its creation, but also its consumption — must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we “learn” music beyond merely understanding how it works? How do we “learn” to “listen” to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?

Though published exactly thirty years ago, Music: Ways of Listening by composer Elliott Schwartz was one of my favorite vintage discoveries this year. Schwartz outlines the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, arguing that they’ve been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.

  1. Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
  2. Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
  3. Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
  4. If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
  5. Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

    Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

    […]

  6. Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

    […]

  7. Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.


    There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on ‘what’s there.’ Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn’t exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been ‘trained’ by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the ‘work’ is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.

Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is to reading — a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.

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