How a Conductor Prepares for an Orchestral Performance

Monday, May 23, 2011

Robert Spano

Have you ever wondered what it is that an orchestra conductor does? A few weeks ago on Thursday, April 7th, a group of faculty and graduate students had the distinct privilege of discussing this topic with Maestro Robert Spano at the final CMBC lunch of the semester. Maestro Spano has been the music director for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the past 10 years. He is also Emory University’s Distinguished Artist in Residence, an appointment sponsored by Emory’s Creativity & Arts Initiative.

In this highly engaging discussion, Spano provided a glimpse into the process conductors go through in preparation for an orchestral performance. It was great fun to learn about a topic I don’t typically come across as a psychology graduate student. Equally exciting though, was to take note of some overlap between music and the study of mind and brain.

Activating the Imaginative Ear

In preparing for an orchestral performance, Maestro Spano describes the first step conductors go through as activating the imaginative ear. This means that when conductors first inspect the musical score, they are able to translate in their minds the musical notations from the score into the sounds they represent. Spano noted that this capacity, also referred to as “audiating”, is not an ability unique to conductors. Some musicians can do this and, to some extent, non-musicians can engage in this process as well. Think of how we read an email from a family member and we can hear the person’s voice as we read. What distinguishes what conductors do is that they don’t only imagine one “voice”, they imagine many, and all work in concert.
What makes the task of audiating an orchestral piece complicated is not only the number of instruments but also the non-uniformity of their notational systems. For example, you may have heard a musician say, “the clarinet is in b-flat”. What this means is that the clarinet is in a different transposition than other instruments, and what is written as a C on the score for other instruments will actually be a b-flat for the clarinet.

The process of audiating is so integral to conductor training that for many the activation of sound upon sight is virtually an automatic process. In fact, Spano described it as akin to the phenomenon of Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is the condition whereby some individuals report perceiving involuntary stimulation in one sensory dimension in response to stimulation from a different dimension. One of the more common examples of Synaesthesia is that some individuals report perceiving certain letters or numerals in particular colors (for example the letter “A” is perceived as inherently red). Spano revealed that some conductors actually report the same types of cross-sensory connections as those commonly reported by synaesthetes. For example, one conductor perceived sounds as being in particular colors. Another conductor, Spano said, associated sounds with specific scents.


The Musical Score Is Merely a Map

Although conductors possess the capacity to automatically hear the music when they read it, this doesn’t mean that a score elicits the same sound for all conductors. This fact reflects a second aspect of a conductor’s preparation, which is to engage in an act of interpreting the score. This decision process occurs at multiple levels. For example, conductors must decide, as Spano put it, “how loud is loud, how slow is slow, and how long is long”. All musicians engage in this decision making process but conductors must make these decisions for the group.

Maestro Spano drew a loose analogy between a musical score and the directions provided by his car’s GPS earlier that morning. The GPS provided the basic route to Emory’s campus, indicating which roads to take, where to turn, etc. But alas that morning the campus’ main entrance was undergoing major construction, requiring drivers to navigate around the construction and along detours to arrive at the destination. Similarly, the score is merely a map and conductors must interpret what the sounds mean.

The byproduct of these two processes, audiating and interpreting, is a mental template of the piece to which conductors can compare the music during the actual performance. Spano describes this as the difficult, if not impossible, task of objective listening. The idea is that the conductor can notice errors or inconsistencies that violate his or her expectations based on the constructed template.

The Many Gestures of a Conductor

One thing that many of us likely associate with conductors is their distinctive gesturing during orchestral performances. As it turns out, some of these gestures are conventional and part of a universal system that all conductors, and orchestral musicians, learn in their training. These gestures can be used as a guide to musicians, when they need it, about where they are in the piece. The gestures are also used to establish the beat of the orchestra and ensure all instruments are playing at the same tempo. This is important given that orchestras can be large enough that musicians on one side of the stage may not be able to hear those on the other.

Not all of a conductor’s gestures follow the same universal code though, and this is what leads to the general percept that different conductors behave very differently on stage. Maestro Spano pointed out that for the most part, the conductor’s goal is to produce gestures that are rather low key. From what I gathered, these are the gestures that tend to be the universal, grammatical motions. These movements are made subtle so that they can then be contrasted with the more emphatic gestures conductors employ when they are trying to elicit particular things from the musicians. These gestures tend to be conductor-specific. The high degree of contrast between the subtler gestures and the more emphatic ones is due to the fact that conductors are mostly in the peripheral view of the musicians. Musicians’ central attention tends to be directed at their sheet of music or their own instruments. Thus in order to be able to capture the attention of the musicians when they need to, conductors create this large contrast between the calm baseline gestures and the forceful statement-making gestures.

A Final Note

It was a real treat to hear Maestro Spano talk about conducting and the lunch was a testament to the diversity of topics the CMBC offers in this series. Although it was certainly the case that many of us were learning about an unfamiliar subject, there was also the sense that many of the issues discussed were related to topics regularly associated with the study of the mind and the brain. For example, one obvious connection was the discussion of how the experience of translating sight into sound for conductors, and perhaps professional musicians more generally, relates to the phenomenon of synaesthesia. The nature of synaesthethic experiences, and in particular why it happens, has long been of interest to scholars in fields such as neuroscience and cognitive psychology. To the extent that the cross-sensory connections experienced by conductors are a result of years of practice and training, might this provide insight into the origins of other synaesthetic experiences?

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The Bodily Aesthetics of Human Meaning-Making

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mark Johnson

Last Friday, the CMBC hosted a lunch discussion led by Dr. Mark Johnson of the University of Oregon. Following a presentation by Dr. Johnson entitled “The Bodily Aesthetics of Human Meaning-Making,” faculty and student attendees engaged in a lively open group dialogue on the nature of meaning at multiple levels of explanation – aesthetic, emotional, linguistic, and cultural.

In his pioneering work with George Lakoff, Johnson argued that meaning is of a fundamentally embodied nature, with conceptual structure derived from – and inextricably tied to – sensory-motor experience in the world. More recently, Johnson has delved more deeply into the bodily bases of meaning, drawing inspiration from the ideas of the philosopher John Dewey. In his presentation, Johnson highlighted the Deweyan maxim that meaning emerges from an organism’s ongoing interaction with its environment. On this view, Johnson argued, aesthetic dimensions of bodily experience (e.g., feelings, emotions, image schemas) are the very source of meaning. This view contrasts with the more impoverished notion of meaning in much of Western thought, namely that meaning is solely a property of language and thus strictly conceptual and propositional in nature.

Johnson went on to suggest that artistic works can offer a window into meaning beyond the abstract propositional content encoded in language. According to Johnson, encountering art is a qualitative experience (i.e., we focus on discrete features or categories, such as the redness of one’s lips or the muskiness of old wood), and it is these qualities that are the basic units, or building blocks, of meaning. Qualities are non-conceptual in that they may occur outside of consciousness and are felt directly by the body, rather than conceived at a more abstract level. Johnson used an example from music to illustrate the bodily qualities automatically elicited by art. Through dramatic changes in pitch, the first few notes of “Over the Rainbow” in turn lift us up, bring us down, and pull us back up once again, invariably giving rise to a sequence of emotions, or a feeling contour, within the body. Feeling contours, Johnson suggested, are the structures within embodied experience that constitute meaning, even though we often cannot put them into words.

At the end of his presentation, Johnson elaborated on the problems that an aesthetic view of meaning poses for cognitive science. In particular, while cognitive scientists have made great progress toward understanding meaning at the linguistic or propositional level, we may not be equipped with the resources or theoretical vocabulary to explain more aesthetic aspects of meaning. As a consequence, to the extent that aesthetic qualities are the units that undergird human conceptual structure, we may be quite far from explaining even the very basic mechanisms by which humans make sense of the world. As humans are not primarily “proposition crunchers” (in Johnson’s words), it is essential that we develop tools to examine experience in its pure, unintellectualized form.

Johnson’s presentation sparked a fascinating discussion. Below I summarize some of the topics brought up by attendees and offer my own thoughts on the issues at stake, from the perspective of a graduate student in cognitive psychology:

How to Characterize Aesthetic Experience

The challenge of developing a theoretical vocabulary to explain nonlinguistic, aesthetic qualities of meaning implies, somewhat paradoxically, that such qualities must eventually be packaged in language. On Johnson’s view, however, characterizing the ongoing flow of experience in linguistic terms will inevitably be inadequate because there are certain dimensions of experience that language cannot capture. Johnson offered the example of logicians who report that they know they have arrived at the end of a proof when they feel a sense of resolution or fulfillment. If even logical propositions have an aesthetic component, meaning may never be fully specified through symbols. It seems, then, that the challenge for cognitive scientists is to devise clever nonlinguistic measures capable of providing a fuller characterization of aesthetic experience. For example, patterns of neural activity in response to different types of art might provide some insight into the nature of the sensory-motor representations associated with particular aesthetic “qualities.” An exciting outcome of this work would be the potential to study concepts apart from language. As recent research in cognitive science has suggested differences in the range of meanings captured by linguistic and nonlinguistic representations, characterizing the representations associated with aesthetic qualities might bring us closer to understanding what “concepts” actually are. As one audience member suggested, the construction of such representations may be a matter of “aesthetic education”; that is, training the mind to recognize patterns in sensory input. I would think, though, that much of the so-called training would occur implicitly as we go about our lives and naturally develop expectancies about how the world is organized.

Abstraction and Language

During the presentation, it struck me that Johnson’s characterization of aesthetic qualities highlighted their categorical nature. If the basic units of meaning are categories (e.g., red, as opposed to a particular red thing), it would imply that we experience the world as abstractions over exemplars, rather than the exemplars themselves. If so, does that mean some fine-grained components of sensory input will inevitably escape us? Is there an advantage to experiencing the world at a relatively coarse level, rather than having access to all the fine detail that the world offers? Experiencing the world categorically also suggests how aesthetic qualities may ultimately be related to language. Words are markers of categories, so the full range of aesthetic qualities taken in by the senses may represent a sort of semantic possibility space for what can be encoded as a word. That is, the set of meanings that can be lexicalized in language may be constrained by the range of categories that the sensory-motor system is capable of accessing. Of course, any given language will only lexicalize a portion of these categories, with the rest possibly consisting of a set of meanings that are conceivable even though they are nameless. Perhaps Johnson’s approach could offer new insights on cross-linguistic differences in word meaning by specifying the cultural factors that determine which aesthetic qualities become lexicalized across languages. One audience member suggested that aesthetic experience might be defined collectively rather than at the level of the individual. An examination of cross-linguistic differences might inform what Johnson called the “character of a culture”; aspects of aesthetic experience that are codified in the lexicon are likely to be those that are highly valued by a culture.

Comparative Aesthetics?

Although Dewey drew a distinction between human and non-human animals in his writings, Johnson suggested that there is a large degree of continuity across species in aesthetic experience. It is likely, for example, that non-human animals also experience feelings and emotions as qualitative units. Johnson posited that the ability to engage in symbolic abstraction may be what separates humans from other animals. It may come as no surprise, then, that symbols have been reified in Western philosophy as constituting the fundamental units of meaning, perhaps obscuring more basic bodily aspects of experience. Johnson’s earlier work with Lakoff suggests, however, that even abstract symbolic operations are grounded in bodily experience, so where does concrete experience end and symbolic abstraction begin? If there is no clear line between the two, it becomes more difficult to specify exactly what makes human cognition unique. Indeed, if research inspired by Johnson’s ideas were to take a comparative approach, it might reveal a substantial degree of continuity across species in cognition more generally.

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What Does the Brain Have to Do with Sex and Gender?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Deboleena Roy and Kim Wallen

This past Tuesday, the CMBC hosted a lunch discussion titled “What does the brain have to do with sex and gender?” The discussion was led by Dr. Deboleena Roy (Women’s studies and Neuroscience) and Dr. Kim Wallen (Psychology).

The topic of sex and gender differences is of great interest to many. From my own experience as a student in the psychology department, the question of whether sex or gender differences exists in particular behaviors or traits is probably one of the most commonly asked questions both in the classroom and at research presentations. It was thus no surprise to me that Tuesday’s lunch meeting was filled to its capacity with student and faculty attendees.

Both Dr. Roy and Dr. Wallen gave brief opening remarks leading up to an open group dialogue. Unfortunately, this blog space isn’t large enough for me to report all the interesting information I learned from the lunch. So, I’ll try and highlight just some of the issues our discussion leaders raised as well as give some snippets of the directions the group discussion took.

Language and Metaphor in Science: A Feminist Scientist’s Perspective

In her opening comments, Dr. Roy provided a brief overview of some of the feminist engagements in research on gender and sex differences specifically, and in scientific research more broadly. She discussed, among other things, how feminist scholars over the years have pushed for a critical analysis on the types of language and metaphors scientists use in understanding particular biological phenomena. An example she gave was how early neuroendocrinologists would portray the workings of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Gonadal (HPG) axis. Early on, Dr. Roy described, many scientists explained the axis hierarchically, implying that the hypothalamus regulates the activity of the pituitary and gonad glands. A different metaphor, however, also seemed to fit the data. Namely, the axis could be thought of as a set of feedback loops between the hypothalamus, pituitary and gonad glands. In fact, some of Dr. Roy’s own research revealed that estrogen receptors exist on Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone (GnRH) neurons within the hypothalamus, suggesting that there may indeed be a feedback regulatory system from the ovaries to the hypothalamus. Dr. Roy further discussed how the metaphors scientists use not only affect the types of interpretations at which we arrive, but also the types of follow-up experiments and future directions scientists choose to make, as well as how the results are disseminated by the media.

A Recent Finding of Sex Differences in the Brain

Dr. Wallen began his opening comments with a summary of a recent finding from his lab. The goal was for the lunch attendees to work together to figure out what these findings might mean for the topic of sex and gender differences in the brain. The basic finding was that men and women subjects show differential patterns of brain activation, specifically amygdala activation, in response to viewing erotic compared to non-erotic images. Specifically, men showed greater amygdala activation to erotic images (compared to non-erotic images) than did women. Further, it doesn’t appear that this pattern can be explained simply by the fact that men found the pictures more arousing (ratings of the images revealed that men and women found the images equally arousing).

Dr. Wallen’s team didn’t look only at men and women, but also a third group of subjects, women with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (from here on, CAIS women). According to Dr. Wallen, these women have a Y chromosome but lack typical androgen receptors. As a result, phenotypically these individuals are like women, except for the fact that they have a Y chromosome. Of interest for this study was the pattern of amygdala activation in CAIS women. As it turns out, Dr. Wallen and his students found that their amygdala activation was comparable to the women. That is, men also showed greater amygdala activation in response to the stimuli compared to CAIS women. Further, women and CAIS women did not show a differential heightened pattern of amygdala activation to the sexual images.

The ensuing discussion about what these findings mean was fascinating. One topic discussed was that in order to know what these findings mean for sex differences in the brain, we first must figure out how to best characterize CAIS women in relation to the other two groups. From a strict chromosomal standpoint, CAIS women can be thought of as genetically male. But what does it mean to be genetically male? As Dr. Wallen points out, if you consider the fact that genetic traits are only expressed in the context of an environment, and that CAIS women lack androgen receptors (which would provide the typical hormonal environment in which male traits develop), then CAIS women wouldn’t count as genetically male.

Sex vs. Gender Differences

Dr. Roy suggests that the difficulty in characterizing the CAIS women highlights the struggle we have in trying to answer a question that seems simple: what makes a male a male. She suggests that this difficulty is due to a deep bias we have in perceiving the world as strictly consisting of men and women. That is, that we have intuitions that biologically we all start out with male and female bodies. These bodies then go through a process of socialization that turns those male and female bodies into men and women.

The separation between the biological and the socio-cultural underpinnings of the differences between the sexes maps onto what are traditionally considered “sex differences” (ones due to biological factors) and “gender differences” (one due to socio-cultural factors). Dr. Roy pointed out that there is a changing trend in the object of study in feminist science scholarship. Whereas early feminist scholars focused primarily on understanding gender differences, more recent feminist scientists have begun to focus on questions related to sex differences themselves, including whether the construct of sex itself might not be as rigid as once believed.

Structural vs. Functional Differences

Dr. Roy brought up yet another issue related to the findings, which is the distinction between structural and functional sex differences. That is, although the study revealed “structural” differences across participants in the patterns of Amygdala activation, all participants reported similar arousal ratings to the erotic images. Dr. Roy suggested that when the neuro-imaging and behavioral results are considered together, they might reflect a more general fact that multiple structures may lead to the same functional outcome. Dr. Wallen agreed, suggesting that the processing of sexual imagery might go through the amygdala in men and through a different circuit in women.

A number of follow-up analyses might be informative in this respect. For example, are there correlations between ratings of arousal and heightened amygdala activation? Further, are these correlations different across the different populations? I found this issue of “multiple roads leading to the same end point” interesting as it raises the possibility that there may be important differences even within both the male and female populations.

Other possible explanations of the findings were also discussed, highlighting the difficulty of figuring out what exactly the brain has to do with sex and gender differences. For example at one point, Dr. Wallen pointed out that we don’t know if the men and women in the study are even “seeing” the same thing within the images. To further complicate the matter, Dr. Wallen also reminded us that the study only looked at a single region of the brain, a particular class of images, and using a specific experimental design. Whether the types of explanations that are currently on the table will remain viable once more data come in remains to be seen.

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Mind and Brain from the Perspectives of Buddhism and Western Science

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Larry Barsalou and John Dunne

It’s a pleasure to provide the first CMBC lunch blog entry of this academic school year. On Wednesday September 22nd, 23 faculty and students from a number of departments here at Emory had the pleasure of hearing, and also participating in, an illuminating discussion led by Larry Barsalou (Dept. of Psychology) and John Dunne (Dept. of Religion) on the topic of “Mind and Brain from the Perspectives of Buddhism and Western Science”. In this blog, I will try to highlight some of the key points that I took away from their presentations, to mention some of the discussion points the attendees raised, as well as discuss some of my own impressions in the hopes of continuing discussion on the topic.

A Common Goal of Understanding the Mind

Larry began his presentation by highlighting a few commonalities between Buddhist and Western scholars (particularly those in the cognitive sciences). Scholars from both traditions share a goal of constructing a theory of how the mind works. Further there is an underlying assumption in both perspectives that an understanding of the mind may yield practical implications. Perhaps a more surprising similarity is that both view the mind as a system of information processing. That is, the mind is viewed as a complex causal mechanism that involves interplay between perceptual information, attention, action, conceptual knowledge, as well as emotional processes.

This shared interest and common view provide the foundation for much of the recent and ongoing discussions between scholars from the two traditions. However as was illustrated in Larry and John’s opening comments, it appears that it is the differences between the two perspectives that provide promising avenues for furthering our understanding of the mind and brain, both theoretically and methodologically.

Theoretical Implications: Understanding Emotions and Self

One case in which the theoretical traditions of the two perspectives differ is on the topic of emotion. Larry described that traditionally in cognitive science research, emotion has been viewed as somewhat separate from other cognitive (e.g., perception, attention, memory) processes. Buddhist scholars do not make this same assumption and instead hold that the study of emotion and cognition cannot be separated. An interesting fact Larry mentioned was that in many traditional Buddhist languages, the word “emotion” does not even exist.

A second difference with regard to the case of emotions, is that Buddhist and Western scholars may classify emotions differently. For example whereas in psychology the emotion of pride is considered to be positive, in Buddhism it is considered to be negative.

The differences in views might lead to new and more refined accounts of emotional processes. One could imagine that applying Buddhist theories to emotions might provide new insights into the interpretation of extant data as well as offer novel predictions for future research (e.g., what the behavioral and neural profiles underlying pride might be).

Both Larry and John also discussed a second case in which Buddhist and Cognitive Science traditions diverge: the notion of self. Larry suggested that within traditional psychological research, the self is viewed as a critical mechanism of mind that should operate in an optimal fashion. I find this view to be exemplified in the many developmental and comparative studies where the acquisition of certain behaviors indicative of a self-concept (e.g., self-recognition) is seen as an important developmental milestone (in individuals) and as an important evolutionary achievement (in a species).

John notes that rather than viewing the self as something that is real and positive, Buddhists view the self as an illusion that is the source of many problems. John elaborates that the illusion manifests itself in two ways. First, we have the illusion that we are the same person as we were in the past and as we will be in the future. This sense of self (referred to as “self as object” or the “autobiographical self”) affects the conceptual schemas with which we interpret our experience. Second, we are also prone to the illusion of the permanence of self with which we subjectively experience the world. This sense of self (referred to as “self as subject”) operates at the level of actual perceptual experience. In both cases (self as object and self as subject), it is this mistaken sense of permanence that distorts experience and leads to dysfunctional features of behavior. The goal of many Buddhist contemplative traditions is to liberate one from these false notions of permanence.

Methodological Implications: Combining First-Person and Third-Person Approaches to the Mind

One topic that both John and Larry touched on was a research tool that has arisen from the collaborative efforts between the two traditions. This recently established methodology, which John called “neuro-phenomenology”, reflects a way to link the different research methods typically used by Buddhist and Cognitive Science scholars.

In Buddhist traditions, much of what is known about the mind comes from highly refined first-person introspection of states of mind. Though as John notes, describing these accounts strictly as first person may not be entirely accurate since the analysis of this data comes from years of developing, among Buddhists themselves, appropriate tools and categories to interpret the data. That being said, this data source can be contrasted with the types of third-person data central to theories of mind within Western Cognitive Science, which include recording behavioral, neural and physiological processes in research subjects while they perform carefully designed tasks.

Western and Buddhist scholars have begun to develop ways in which the first person accounts of phenomenal experience are inter-correlated with the third person data obtained from scientific instrumentation. One benefit of linking the two data sources is that it provides a way to examine how brain activity (as measured through third person data) differ in cases where attention is reported to be more or less stable (as reported through introspection). Examining these changes in brain activation across instances of viewing the same images or performing the same task may provide insights into the dynamics between mental processes that are obscured in traditional brain imaging research.

Impressions and Thoughts

Wednesday’s presentations were followed by a fascinating discussion between Larry, John and other lunch attendees. A number of questions raised addressed how other findings and theories within psychology relate to the Buddhist perspective. For instance one topic John discussed at the end of his comments was that the goal of certain contemplative practices is to become capable viewing one’s own thoughts as thoughts as opposed to viewing them as what they represent. Bob McCauley (CMBC) raised the point that in a sense this idea is related to the finding of field vs. observer memory, the notion that remembering personal experiences can take the mode of remembering as if experiencing the event and the mode of remembering as if observing the event. Philippe Rochat (Dept. of Psychology) brought up his own research on the development of self-awareness in childhood and how differing levels of self-awareness that is evident at different stages in development might be related to the different notions in Buddhism of self as object vs. self as subject.

I’ll end this entry with a question that came to mind both during the lunch and while writing the blog. I don’t doubt that the method of neuro-phenomenology discussed above has the potential to yield important findings on mental processes. I am curious, however, how this method could be extended to studying populations other than human adults (e.g., pre-linguistic infants or non-human animals). If our methods of studying the mental capacities of adult humans become increasingly distant from those used to study the capacities of infants or non-human animals, won’t our accounts of how those mental capacities develop and evolve suffer?

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How Humans Understand Space

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stella Lourenco and Leslie Taylor

On October 29th, Stella Lourenco (Psychology) and Leslie Taylor (Theater Studies) led a fascinating discussion on the topic of how humans understand space. The speakers covered a broad array of material, ranging from the contemporary cognitive scientific study of spatial cognition to the history and nuance of stage design. Stella and Leslie effectively conveyed the deep complexity of the question at hand, emphasizing that we understand space in multifarious ways based on our various aims and activities. Indeed, both speakers underscored that adequately addressing this issue requires thinking in term of “frames of reference”—a multifaceted notion, in its own right.

The Cognitive Scientific Study of Spatial Cognition

In her portion of the presentation, Stella introduced the cognitive scientific study of spatial understanding, highlighting some central themes and current research. One area of controversy concerns the modularity of spatial understanding. As defined by Jerry Fodor, cognitive modules are hardwired systems involving domain-specific processes that are informationally encapsulated (i.e., cognitively impenetrable by information from outside domains). Fodor speculated that we possess at least several different modules, each dedicated to unique sensory tasks (e.g., visual perception). Stella presented research indicating that at least one aspect of spatial understanding—our capacity to reorient in space—may qualify as a modularized process. In one set of studies, an infant is placed in a rectangular room that has an identical hiding place in each of its four corners. The infant first observes an attractive object being placed in one corner, and the infant is then spun around. Researchers found that in trying to relocate the hidden object disoriented infants tend to rely on geometric data (i.e., the shape of the surrounding space), consistently looking in one of two geometrically identical places, the corner where the object was placed or the diagonal corner. This remained the case even when these geometrically identical corners were given different color markings; which might indicate that our tendency to reorient in space based on geometric information is cognitively impenetrable, a hallmark of modularized systems.

Stella outlined another recurring theme in the cognitive scientific study of spatial cognition: the important idea that human beings utilize “different frames of reference” or perspectives in conceptualizing space, which likely involve unique cognitive processes. For instance, a common distinction drawn in the literature contrasts an egocentric versus allocentric understanding of space. The former involves thinking about and experiencing space in relation to self, in terms of ‘front/back,’ ‘left/right,’ etc.; whereas the latter stance is oriented more towards the general environment, e.g., ‘north/south,’ measures of latitude/longitude, etc. As Stella noted, contemporary researchers typically hypothesize that these distinctive modes of spatial understanding are cognitively dissociable and follow unique developmental trajectories.

Highlighting a further level of complexity, Stella delineated differences in spatial cognition at both the group and individual level. For instance, at the group level, there is evidence of gender differences in direction-giving and route planning, as men appear to rely relatively more on geometric (e.g., distance and cardinal direction) versus non-geometric (e.g., landmarks) cues. At the individual level, research suggests that the way we egocentrically represent space—specifically, our intuitive sense of “near” versus “far”– varies as a function of body size. As Stella noted, researchers in a variety of psychological fields have picked up on the idea that each of us has a sense of “near” space, referred to variously in the literature as the “body buffer zone,” “personal space,” “grasping space”, “peripersonal space,” etc. Researchers can study the size or range of this zone by graphing the results of a simple line bisection task, in which subjects are asked to identify the center of a line using a laser pointer from a variety of distances. In general, we tend to show a left-bias at near space, which shifts to a right-bias as we move out to far space. However, the distances at which these standard biases emerge vary from individual to individual, as some people appear to have a much larger sense of near space than others. Interestingly, it turns out that these are typically individuals with larger body sizes. Hence, it appears that this facet of egocentric spatial cognition varies individually on the basis of body size. Stella also described further research indicating that other individual factors, such as physical exertion or social-emotional disturbances, can alter the perceived size of near space.

Theatrical Frames of Reference

Leslie’s presentation emphasized a different sense of spatial “frames of reference.” As a stage designer, Leslie focused on the historical development of theatrical stages, tracing a movement from the open-space, outdoor productions of Ancient Greece to the more contained, indoor staging characteristic of contemporary theater. Leslie underscored that, throughout, a primary goal of theatrical design has been to find effective means of framing the action on stage for the audience: based on an enduring idea that theatrical performance should unfold against a backdrop. Much like a picture, a play needs a frame. The Greeks began by incorporating constructed designs on stage, such as wooden houses. During periods when theatrical stages were unavailable, designers utilized unique framing devices. Leslie memorably described, for instance, “Medieval slide-shows” in which productions were presented by a sequence of wagons and carriages. She further outlined the famous Shakespearian “O” theater style, and the gradual shift towards the illustrious indoor theaters of the Elizabethan Period. As Leslie noted, this movement from outdoor to indoor staging marked the birth of modern stage design, as new staging techniques, playing with perspective, lightning and illusion, were developed to enhance the action within a more intimate and tightly-controlled space. In recounting this historical development, Leslie animated a unique kind of spatial understanding, helping the audience to view space from the perspective of a stage designer: a distinctive approach focusing on the dynamic interplay between theatrical space and performance. Indeed, one of the points she made that really hit home was that while stages are created to accommodate performances, the converse is true as well. The kind of plays that are written in a given period are also inspired and constrained by the staging techniques of the time.

During the question and answer period of the lunch, Leslie revealed other interesting secrets of the trade. For instance, she noted that one general rule of stage design is to avoid symmetrical arrangements. She also discussed the different way that space is framed on film as compared to the stage. In general, space feels more constrained on film, as viewers witness the action from a particular perspective, based on the kind of shot (e.g., a close-up) that is utilized. In contrast, theatrical space is a more open medium, allowing for greater variation based on one’s position in the audience. Indeed, as film became more popular, playwrights and stage designers began to experimentally manipulate the space between actor and audience. As an example, Leslie described “environmental” plays—where actors move freely throughout the audience—which were part of the “experimental theater” movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Finally, Leslie offered a brief glimpse into the mind of an actor, describing how the space on stage is viewed differently from this perspective. According to Leslie, rather than losing themselves in the surroundings, actors are usually keenly aware of the fact that they are on a set with props—adopting a more allocentric perspective than one might suspect.

Perspective-based Understanding

The interdisciplinary discussion led by Stella and Leslie covered a remarkable range of topics from a variety of perspectives. Stella focused on the cognitive scientific approach to understanding spatial cognition. As she noted, one guiding idea in this research program is the notion that we naturally utilize different frames of reference in our experience of space. For instance, there is the distinction between an egocentric versus an allocentric orientation. Of course, the theoretical stance of the cognitive scientist is yet another frame of reference that we can adopt in thinking about space. So, too, is the perspective assumed by stage designers, for whom spatial understanding takes on a unique significance, as Leslie artfully described. Here, the idea of a “frame of reference” takes on a double meaning: there is the general sense of perspective-based understanding referred to above, and the more specialized meaning from the world of theatrical production that Leslie characterized. Indeed, stage designers—who conscientiously work to frame the action on stage—might appreciate better than anyone the more general idea that our understanding of space varies based on perspective. The take-home lesson for me is that the complexity of human spatial cognition and experience demands a pluralistic style of analysis that works by incorporating insights from a variety of angles.

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The Origins of Human Sociality

Monday, October 19, 2009

Philippe Rochat and Bradd Shore

On Thursday, October 8th, Philippe Rochat (Psychology) and Bradd Shore(Anthropology) kicked off this year’s CMBC Lunch Discussion series, offering an engaging presentation concerning the psychological and cultural origins of human prosocial behavior. This presentation encapsulated the central questions and findings that arose from a CMBC sponsored graduate seminar that Philippe and Bradd co-taught in the spring ’09. The goal of this seminar was to reconsider some traditional questions in ethics and social theory from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Are human beings naturally selfish or altruistic? What are the cognitive developmental roots of prosocial behavior and a sense of fairness? How does culture impact the expression of these tendencies? Over the course of their presentation, Philippe and Bradd made a compelling case that conventional, ‘either-or’ approaches to the first question obscure the inherent ambiguity of our social-ethical existence: selfishness and altruism are inextricably connected, not diametrically opposed. We have natural proclivities in both directions, and it is not possible to offer an adequate explanation of one side without reference to the other.

Childhood Development of Sharing and Fairness

In his portion of the presentation, Philippe traced the development of sharing behaviors in children. The first video he showed depicted a 3 year old who was instructed by an experimenter to share candy with a puppet. As soon as the experimenter departed, the child voraciously devoured all the candy, later insisting that she shared. Philippe contrasted this case with a similar scenario involving a five year old that was presented with seven pieces of candy. The child systematically split the candy equally, one-by-one between himself and a puppet until stopping at the seventh and final piece. In an effort to be fair, the child left the final piece in the bowl rather than taking it for himself. The contrast between these two cases was striking, and Philippe noted that these results have been replicated cross-culturally. Based on this set of studies, it seems that selfishness may be ontogenetically prior to altruistic concern, at least in the context of sharing. However, Philippe argued that the relationship is more complex. For instance, he highlighted another study in which infants aged six to ten months showed a preference for puppets exhibiting sharing behaviors; which may be indicative of the development of altruistic sensitivity, as Philippe seemed to suggest, or merely an ego-centric appreciation for the usefulness of generous people. As the general theme of his presentation, Philippe emphasized that, although selfishness may be more manifest at younger ages, prosocial tendencies are present as well. Hence, we are neither “born selfish” nor “born altruistic.” Rather, both kinds of behaviors appear to be naturally developing.

Ritual Gift Exchange and the Empirical Social Contract

Picking up where Philippe left off, Bradd began his final portion of the lunch presentation raising this question: given the inherent tensions between the “social self” and self-interest, how can we explain the extension of altruistic behavior beyond in-group boundaries? He noted that a proclivity for xenophobic mistreatment of “the other” seems to be an unfortunate side-effect of our natural tendency towards in-group egalitarianism. What, then, accounts for the wider social cohesion within a given culture? Theorists working in the Social Contract Theory tradition, such as Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke, propose that this is achieved when self-interested individuals within a society collectively agree to limit individual liberty based on the recognition that social harmony will better promote individual welfare in the long term. How can this theory be grounded empirically? Bradd’s general thesis is that broader forms of altruism are an emergent property of ritual exchange. The Social Contract is not an event but rather a process unfolding through ritualized practices of gift-giving, e.g., marital exchange. Bradd underscored that the expression of altruistic practices will vary from culture to culture depending on the prevailing ideology. Atomistic versus collectivist cultures reflect unique modes of reconciling the inherent tensions between self and other.

What Constitutes “Altruistic Behavior?”

At the conclusion of Bradd and Philippe’s presentation, a member of the audience made an important observation that “altruism” in the context of this discussion referred to a much broader range of behaviors than the common usage would suggest. In everyday parlance, “altruism” typically refers to cases in which individuals sacrifice themselves for the sake of others without any self-regard. A prototypical example would be the soldier during battle that jumps on a grenade to save his/her compatriots. In contrast, as I understood them, Bradd and Philippe endorsed a more evolutionary-biological definition of altruism, requiring only that individuals sacrifice short-term gains in contexts of social exchange, broadly construed. As I have learned from my readings in this area, evolutionary theorists typically distinguish between biological and psychological altruism. The psychological level refers to the conscious motives that drive our behaviors. Psychologically, agents may perform prosocial acts for a variety of reasons. Psychological altruism encompasses cases where agents act primarily with the interest of others in mind. In contrast, I can perform a prosocial act for my own long-term benefit (e.g., I will share my candy with you now in the hopes that you will return this favor in the future). Importantly, as Robert Trivers’ famously underscored with his theory of reciprocal altruism, an act can be psychologically altruistic and biologically selfish (i.e., promote an individual’s genetic fitness, whether the individual knows this or not) at the same time. This may be what the presenters had in mind when they provocatively questioned whether humans are capable of “purely altruistic” acts.

Ethical Implications?

Philippe and Bradd’s presentation raises several interesting issues. They both argued that the traditional opposition between selfishness and altruism misrepresents the conflicted nature of our social existence. We have natural proclivities in both directions, and so it would be wrong to claim that “we are born” only one way or the other, selfish or altruistic. Nonetheless, at times, it seemed that both presenters were endorsing a view that selfishness is perhaps a more dominant pole or somehow primary, which may be a consequence of adopting a more evolutionary view of selfishness and altruism. For instance, Bradd underscored that the extension of altruistic concern beyond in-group boundaries is not a “natural process,” while Philippe raised concerns about our basic conceptions of altruism. Interestingly, Frans de Waal (Psychology & Yerkes), who I am working with on my dissertation that focuses on the naturalistic foundations of moral cognition, has offered a “floating pyramid model” of prosocial behavior to explain how selfishness may take precedence over altruistic tendencies, despite the fact that both are part of our evolved nature. According to this theory, we are hardwired such that our range of altruistic concern is constrained by our level of material comfort. In general, altruistic concern for out-group members is only possible–but certainly not guaranteed–when our basic survival needs are met. When resources are scarce, kin and close relations naturally take precedence. As this pressure is alleviated, a wider range of altruistic behavior can rise to the surface. Clearly, emphasizing that selfishness and altruism are both natural to human beings leaves ample room for further investigation. It seems that one of the chief challenges in this area is determining a useful definition of naturalness versus unnaturalness. Finally, although Bradd and Philippe did not directly address this issue, another important question raised by their presentation concerns the normative implications of this kind of descriptive study. In addressing the origins of selfishness and altruism, the presenters appeared to be explaining the naturalistic foundations of morality at the same time. The standard line in moral philosophy is that this kind of scientific theorizing has little bearing on the normative issue of how we ought to act–since “what is natural is not necessarily right.” However, I wonder if the following thesis holds as well: is it also the case that what is morally right must, in some sense, be natural? Can we even imagine an unnatural moral system?

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Language in Context

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lynne Nygaard and Debra Spitulnik

Lynne Nygaard (Psychology) and Debra Spitulnik (Anthropology) spoke in the last lunch of the spring 2009 semester about language in context. Debra contextualized the meeting by identifying the various disciplines in the room. There were representatives from psychology, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychiatry, and philosophy. To exhibit the power of context, Lynne and Debra communicated for a short while as two giggling girlfriends in a sand box. This broke the ice and demonstrated how genres and styles are determined within a discursive context.

What does the question of context stand against? Lynne contextualized the question within the history of the field, which traditionally held the model of a speaker-listener dyad. In this model, the speaker has an intention that translates into a physical signal. This signal is multilayered and structured and the listener unpacks the structured physical signal to understand it. It sounds good but alas, such an ideal dyad is nowhere to be found. For ecological validity we need to embed this dyad within a context; in fact within several contexts. Both Lynne, who studies phonetics and the biology of speech, and Debra, who studies society and culture, include context in their studies of language, and not as an epiphenomenon that can be left out of linguistic research. Not surprisingly, each has her own context.

Nested contexts: Lynne proposed a stratified and nested structure of contexts: phonetic, lexical, syntactic, sentential, discursive, situational, social, and cultural. She discussed phonetic research that has shown that already in the basic level, the way in which we produce a vowel depends on its consonant neighbors. Debra, who resides at the other end of this context-ladder, is interested in the social and the cultural. But they both agreed with the 20th century Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whom they cited:“There are no ‘neutral’ words and forms—words and forms that can belong to ‘no-one’; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world. All words have a ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre…a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.”

I wondered too. This word, which many of us were unfamiliar with, encapsulates the complexity of the various levels of contexts — how they (to use Debra’s language) “bleed” into each other — and how, in addition, they are all contextualized within time. How while we are speaking in the “time Now” (as Lynne described the present) we are carrying a discourse with the past and the future.

Cognitive conundrums: For Lynne the challenge is to understand how a biological system – yes, that’s us — can encompass such complexity. She listed some specific hard questions: How this biological system can encompass simultaneously the linguistic and the communicative? How do the representations of language and its emergence in social, communicative contexts relate to each other? And maybe above all, how can we study it? The reductionist approach, which makes the research more manageable, has its own pitfalls. The contextualized investigation might be too complex to be productive.

Linguistic anthropology: Debra’s is a humanistic inquiry. She is less interested in the mind/body framing of language than in its social and cultural contexts. Her questions are how do we map what gets activated in every specific situation and discourse? How do we account, for example, for the common use among young people of the expression “the fierce urgency of now”? In the Fall, they used it to connect up to the Obama campaign, and it had important echoes for them as the younger generation, but most used it without any knowledge that Obama’s use of the phrase was a reactivation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s coinage (he used it in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream speech’).

Debra emphasized the two competencies included in the use of language, the linguistic and the social. The linguistic guides one in speaking correctly; the social guides in speaking appropriately. One has to be competent in both not only for speaking but also for understanding. An anecdote from Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer’s The Anthropology of Language made the point: Dr. Stirland, a biologist from England, visited Kansas State University, and had planned to continue to Toronto. She was overheard mentioning her plans by a Native American young man, who approached her in the parking lot and commented on how nice Toronto was, and that his family lived not too far, in Upstate New York, and that he missed them. It took a while before it dawned on Ottenheimer that the Native American young man was not narrating a family story but rather indirectly, as is customary and polite in his culture, was asking for a ride. “I miss my family” was correctly understood by Ottenheimer, who resolved the situation and told the young man that Dr. Stirland would fly to Toronto. He wished her a safe flight and left.

Roberto Franzosi (sociology) gave another socio-cultural example of how his “How are you?” in England forced him to return from 10 feet ahead to listen to the answer to his question. He had meant it merely as a greeting, as in America.

These examples, pointed out Debra, are only a first step in the inquiry. They show the need for both linguistic and cultural competencies, and that we do not speak in a vacuum. But how do we understand these competencies and their context-sensitive activations?

Accommodation: Lynne introduced the concept of accommodation. In her field of study, vocal accommodation for speaking style has been observed. Utterances take on the characteristics of the interlocutor. Such accommodation has been found to be more common among women, Lynne told us. Bob McCauley (CMBC) wondered whether this is universal and hypothesized that it might be cultural. He also pointed out that his was an empirical question and can be tested.

Laura Namy (psychology), Donald Tuten (linguistics), Bob, and Lynne discussed the gender difference in accommodation. And Lynne added in favor of its universality some results from animal studies. Don spoke about how automatic or voluntary the process of accommodation is, and how gender often cannot be separated from power. In developmental studies, there is increasing evidence that up to the age of 6-7, children appear to accommodate automatically, and that it is hard to inhibit this behavior. Adults though can adopt non-accommodating strategies. And Bob was curious again about the universality of the phenomenon.

Apropos accommodation, Debra whose field-work was in Zambia, was impressed by how two people, with different yet close enough languages, often carry out dialogues in which each uses his or her own native language. The diversity of languages is culturally accepted and accommodated for. Quite in contrast to what one might see in the Balkans, where the language of the discourse expresses the power relation between the interlocutors.

That we have been left with many questions is a testament to the richness and the complexity of the topic. Studying language in isolation, as in Chomskian linguistics, enjoys mathematical elegance and can answer some linguistic questions. But at the end, how we approach difficult questions depends on context.

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Music and the Brain: Neuroscientific and Musical Perspectives

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Paul Lennard and Steve Everett

Paul Lennard (Neuroscience & Behavioral Biology) and Steve Everett (Music) opened the lunch meeting about music and the brain with four questions: (1) What is music? (2) Is music a language? (3) Does music have an adaptive value? And (4) What is culture’s impact on the meaning of music?

Lennard shared a graphical model of how the basilar membrane of the cochlea responds to Bach. Yet emphasized that there is still much that is unknown about how the brain processes sounds: for instance, the way the brain processes pitch. Pitch is our perceived highness or lowness of a sound. When different instruments play the A above middle C (with fundamental frequency of 440 Hz) each has a unique recognizable quality based on its fundamental and accompanying harmonics. In the case of the oboe, when playing the A above middle C, the instrument is actually producing the harmonics (880 Hz, 1320 Hz, etc), and only very little of the fundamental frequency. The brain fills in, reconstructs, this frequency.

Everett then asked What is music, and shared with us four minutes of Francis Dhomont’s Frankenstein Symphony. Dhomont cut apart and stitched back together music elements, much like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein did. Is this music? Often the elements manipulated are not played by musicians but are recordings of various sounds, assembled to create acousmatic music, for which any natural sound is kosher.

For Walt Reed (ILA) Frankenstein sounded like “industrial noise, not music.” Music needs to have form and intent. Bob McCauley (CMBC), and Robert DeHaan (Division of Educational Studies) joined the debate, “Must the agency be human?” Or “Maybe not being random is enough, regardless of the agency?”

Everett responded citing John Cage: The experience of sound does not depend on the intent of the composer but on the openness of the perceiver. Therefore music can be bird-chirps, the sounds of the city traffic, or the sounds of a water-fall, as well as the sounds of a string quartet. John Snarey (Candler School of Theology) agreed. Music, he said, was a construction of his own ears.

Todd Preuss (Yerkes) raised the question of whether birds perceive bird songs as music. And this deepened the question about the perceiver. Cory Inman (Psychology Department) suggested that music evokes emotions with valence for the perceiver, and that for him, like for Reed, Frankenstein sounded as emotional as a sound track.

Does it have to do with culture? Organization of sounds, said Everett, is culturally determined. Exposure to new sounds and new organizations can extend what is music to an individual. This was his own experience as a first-time listener to Javanese music. But his experience can be extended to other cultures, which he introduced in a series of rhetorical questions: “Is Tibetan multiphonic chanting evocative to any listener, or only to those who understand its symbolism?” “Is the timbre of the violin, so much loved in the West, more beautiful than the sound of the Japanese Noh instruments?” “Is beauty the ability to evoke the sublime? For the Japanese ear, the bamboo flute, shakuhachi, is intended to sound like ‘the wind blowing through grass.’”

Everett answered. There is an optimal ratio between the familiar and the novel. Too novel is not evocative. Too familiar is boring. Mozart put many surprises into a context of familiar music. The Austrian Johann Hummel did not and was greatly liked by his contemporaries, but today we hardly remember him. His contemporary Beethoven, with his many novelties, had to wait for later times to be fully appreciated. Reed, relying on Kant, suggested a different distinction. Beethoven pushed music and the concept of beauty towards the romantic and Hummel towards the classic.

We should replace “beauty” with “meaning,” suggested Lennard and took us back to one of the opening questions, Is music a language? Darwin considered music as a protolanguage preceding human language. Brain imaging studies show that the more a person is trained in music, the more lateralized the processing of music in his or her brain is, typically favoring, like for language, the left hemisphere. Closer studies of individual voxels (voxel is the 3-dimensional brain-image analogue of the 2-dimensional pixel on a computer-screen) show that the same voxels get activated in processing words and pitch; but the level of activation varies. Studies of people with aphasia – linguistic impairments – add to the convergence of music and language by showing that aphasiacs are also impaired in processing music.

Speech and music then are mixed together and processed by the same apparatus. How do we cognitively separate them? Laura Namy (Psychology Department) observed that while the apparatus is the same, different systems are involved – the aesthetic, the cultural, and the limbic. To the latter Lennard dissented, informing us that the amygdala of the limbic system is not strongly activated during listening to music. Lots of brain activation goes on but mainly in regions that are linked with culture like the temporal and the prefrontal lobes.

Namy maintained her skepticism and Lennard moved to her area of expertise. Children between 7-9 months start losing sensitivity to syllables that are not included in their native language. Similarly children between 7-11 months undergo a filtering process of rhythms. While West-European children develop preference to 1:2 over 3:2, the reverse is observed with Balkan children.

What if one never heard music, asked Inman. And Namy shared the story of a former student of hers, who after a cochlear implant, which was optimized for processing speech, lost her former ability to listen to music, suggesting that they are processed differently. Is there a critical age for the cochlea implant? for exposure to music? Is there an age beyond which the sound is not music anymore? DeHaan reflected, maybe critical age can be used to define music by understanding what gets lost beyond the critical age.

Does music have any adaptive value? returned Lennard to one of the opening questions and reminded us that in The Descent of Man, Darwin spoke of music as mysterious, but speculated that it played a role in sexual selection. Namy hypothesized on the role of music in social bonding, like between mother and infant. And Jim Rilling (Anthropology Department) added the example of social bonding through music prior to going to war. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was cited: Music playa a role in the rituals of grooming.

What about rhythm? Maybe the bimanual drumming of primates precedes music, proposed Lennard. Responding to a question by Richard Patterson (Philosophy Department), Everett pointed that to listen to music one needs temporal units, and he pointed to the automaticity of recognizing rhythmical units: At the moment one enters a techno club, one starts moving to the rhythm. This is an expression of the embodiment of music. While so far we limited our discussion to music and the brain, we should not neglect the heart, whose beating serves as a frame of reference. Cross-culturally, people agree on slow and fast. They all have hearts that beat in the same range.

We got closer to the end of the hour. Have we come closer to answering the first question, “What is music?” Kevin McCulloch (Candler School of Theology) suggested a new criterion: Songs tend to stick in his head. By contrast, the electronic music, to which we listened in the beginning of the hour, does not. Schumann, Everett reminded us, was haunted by music stuck in his head and attempted suicide to liberate himself from his musical ghosts.

Ghosts or muses? Music is named after the muses. And we have just peeked into our brains and hearts, aesthetics and culture, to explore how the muses work. Our inquiry did not scare them away, and we were allowed to ask new questions and create new music. It seems the muses will continue to inspire us as composers and listeners, but the questions, the answers, and the music will keep changing.

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Conceptual Blending Theory and Shakespeare’s Henry V

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Amy Cook

Amy Cook (Theater and Literature, Indiana University) spoke in today’s CMBC lunch. While typically we get an interdisciplinary flavor in these lunches by having two speakers from different disciplines, this time Amy was alone, speaking from an interdisciplinary space. She uses the blending theory of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner as scaffold for her understanding of the theatre. The main idea of blending theory is that we process language, and especially metaphors, by blending inputs from two or more cognitive spaces into a newly created cognitive space. The subtleties of the theory were sacrificed on the altar of interdisciplinarity; which later brought a question by Dierdra Reber of the Spanish and Portuguese department about the destiny of interdisciplinary studies. This was followed by reflection of Andrei Olifer of the biology department about the differences between science and the humanities.

While the theoretical aspects of blending theory were only touched upon to provide context, the examples generated a lively and rich discussion. Amy chose the number 0, which represents nothing and thus has no place. Yet it is used as a placeholder that can afford the expression of very large numbers, like a million with 6 zeros. That 0 has no place value and serves as a place holder, that 0 simultaneously expresses the smallest and the largest, we learn in the very beginning of Henry V .

The choir enters with: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention, / A kingdom for a stage, / princes to act.” And later points to the crooked figure and the million, “So great an object: can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?/ O, pardon! since a crooked figure may/ Attest in little place a million;”

Nothingness, like 0, can also hold blended meanings. Bradd Shore pointed toHamlet whose completion brings nothingness. Amy brought an example from King Lear’s conversation with his daughter Cordelia. At the first scene of the first act Lear speaks with all his daughters. Finally he speaks with the youngest:

Lear: Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sister? Speak.
: Nothing, my lord.
: Nothing?
: Nothing.
: Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Thanks to the missing foot that demands a pause for the sake of the rhythm, we discover that “nothing” can mean many things. In producing the play, the interpreter has to decide where to pause. And this affects the meaning. This was demonstrated by Amy as Lear, and a lady from the department of Theatre Studies whose name has escaped me (Help!) as Cordelia. They read the dialogue four times, and each time they inserted the pause prior to a different “nothing.” Try it. It makes a difference. And the reason is that in each arrangement we draw the “nothing” and the pause from different cognitive inputs and therefore blend them into a different new cognitive space, into a different meaning.

This dialog of King Lear and his daughter Cordelia at the beginning of the play tells us how the play will end. As though their exchange of “nothing”s serves as a place-holder for what later contains the core of the story. Similarly, the opening choir of Henry V tells us how things will end. Never before have I noticed this Chekhovian structure in Shakespeare’s plays.

The blending of two opposites kept coming. Such blending can be achieved in a theatrical performance in various ways. Ionesco’s “playing against the text,” with comical performance of a serious text, or solemn performance of a comic text is one way of blending two opposite cognitive spaces. Viola of the Twelfth Night, who is feminine yet speaks like a man to keep her disguise, is another such example of blending of opposites.

This has taken me back to some years ago when my husband David and I struggled to translate the poem “He Peeked and Died” by the 20th century H. N . Bialik from Hebrew into English. In his mystical journey towards the source, the protagonist “Struggled to limits no limits, the place at which opposites/ Blend at their root.” And when he finally arrived he sank on “The threshold of nothing.”

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Decisions, Responsibilities, and the Brain

Wednesday, November 28, 2008

Patricia Churchland

Responding to people’s request, CMBC decided to include Patricia Churchland’s talk of yesterday, “Decisions, Responsibilities, and the Brain,” in this blog. Do we have free will? Or to use Elliot Valenstein’s expression, should we blame it all on the brain? And how shall we, as a society, act accordingly?

Patricia Smith Churchland, a philosopher of mind in UC San Diego, a MacArthur fellow, and the one who coined “neurophilosophy,” is a “reductionist.” For her, as for so many who attended her talk, all human behavior can be reduced to neurobiology. But since “reductionism” carries unpleasant connotations, I prefer the word “monism,” which is in contrast with Descartes’ “dualism.” Putting word choice aside, the biological origin of human behavior frames the questions of how we make decisions, do we have free will, and what personal responsibility should society expect of us. To elaborate these questions, Churchland drew on various studies.

Are we responsible for our actions? Avner Caspi and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study of males with antisocial behavior. In 2002 they published their findings: Males with low levels of the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAOA) have a genetic susceptibility to childhood maltreatment. Simplistically put, one needs to have low MAOA and be abused to develop anti-social behavior. Since the anti-social adult is neither responsible for his genes nor for being abused, society is confronted with a moral dilemma: To electrocute or not to electrocute?

In 2003, JM Burns and RH Swerdlow published the case of a patient with pedophilia who raped his step-daughter. When a right orbitofronal tumor was resected, his behavior resumed to normal. Alas, only for a few months, after which the tumor started to grow again, and along with it, the pedophilic behavior. What to do? As long as the tumor is there, the step-daughter is in danger, and maybe some other girls too.

How do we make decisions? Churchland contrasted between the brain as a “causal machine” and the common belief that decisions follow a conscious sequence of “consider, intend, and act.” For example, A. Dijksterhui and his colleagues demonstrated that while decisions about simple issues can be better tackled by conscious thought, decisions about complex matters can be better approached with unconscious thought. The latter was demonstrated by giving the choice among four apartments to three groups: (i) those who had to decide spontaneously; (ii) those who decided after deliberation, and (iii) those who decided after distraction. The last group made the best choices. Supporting, as Churchland observed, the folk wisdom expressed in grandma’s advice, “Sleep on it, dear” when the decision is as complex as “Shall I marry him?”

The Brain, which played a role in most of the examples, closed the talk. With neuroimaging studies, Churchland presented how behavior can be mapped onto specific regions and circuits in the brain. She also paid attention to neurotransmitters and spoke of their prominent role in decision making. In conclusion, Churchland proposed a fuzzy-bordered multidimensional space, defined by neurotransmitters and other neurological parameters, as a region within which free will should be presumed, and responsibility should be expected.

In addition to her main theme, Churchland mentioned benefits gained from understanding the role of the brain in human psychology and behavior. On behalf of many women including herself, she spoke about the relief in linking certain moods and behaviors to neurotransmitters. She further spoke about the comfort in knowing that a certain condition is not to be blamed on the person’s character and can be corrected pharmacologically.

While I agree that many are helped pharmacologically, I have also seen how this young field can cause harm. Things get further complicated by the commercial aspect of the pharmaceutical industry. Some, like Elliot Valenstein and David Healy, wrote about it. And as our society struggles to define the sphere of free will and personal responsibilities, we should in parallel continue a cautious and skeptical discourse with the science of the brain, which while being highly promising is still embryonic and beset with many pitfalls.

All of you – neurologists, philosophers, psychologists, ethicists, and scholars of the humanities – whether you attended Patricia Churchland’s talk or not, please voice your thoughts and concerns.

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