Monday, August 07, 2006

I heard an inspiring interview on NPR last week. The 'always great' Diane Rehm show had a guest host interviewing the author of a new book titled 'This Is Your Brain on Music' that addresses new studies into why music in its varied forms has been an ongoing obsession of the human race.

Why We Like Music
The discussion hit home for me on many levels. As sentient beings we seem to be focused on categorizing the world around us... making it 'make sense'. Certainly a good survival trait, I suppose. The author, Daniel Levitin, commented about the brain being 'on the lookout for surprises' (again, a useful survival trait) and that musically the brain reacts to surprises - those things which aren't quite what was expected - and they stand out. But when the 'pattern' is repeated enough our brains tend to lose interest (or maybe just pay less attention). One of his examples (there are many on the book's web site www.YourBrainOnMusic.com) was Frank Sinatra. His musical phrasing made it virtually impossible to sing smoothly along with him, but also contributed to his enduring popularity.

How/When Learning Occurs
I found this fascinating because I have also heard discussions that the best learning occurs when the brain makes a new connection - linking things that weren't previously linked (that Ah-ha kind of feeling). Again, a valuable survival trait for the species. We make a connection, notice correlations, etc. that either prove valuable and are remembered or get pushed out of our active knowledge base as unimportant. But part of the thrill of learning is the joy of making the connections themselves. And very quickly, the 'surprise' or the 'connection' gets boring if it just gets repeated. (I feel a comment about "standardized testing" coming on here.)

It would seem to me that once a particular 'connection' is established, the best thing is to reinforce it in the brain by applying it as widely as possible to related 'tasks' - making even more connections rather than drilling the first one to death. Gaming seems to do a better job of this than standard classroom approaches.

Relationship to Humor
A related discussion is how the brain reacts to new information delivered within a group context. Most humor seems also based on making a new connection - puns being a rudimentary form. A joke is just an expected chain of events that takes a particular turn we didn't see coming. The fact that we were 'expecting' a joke usually helps set it up, but the best jokes are those you didn't see coming even though you knew it was a joke.

In fact, laugh tracks were added to most TV shows because audience testing indicated that the at-home audiences were 'uncomfortable' when joke situations were presented with no audience clues. Laughter, apparently, is a social signal that we 'get the joke', we have 'made the connection' mentally that makes the situation funny/ironic/stupid. When we hear a 'joke' but no one else is chuckling or expressing opinion, we are afraid that we're the only ones who see the connection the way we do.

Survival Skills
My own brain made the connection between (a) this interview on research into why we react the way we do to music of varying types by listening for unexpected 'surprises', (b) how we seem to learn by individually making 'connections' and brain pathways that we either keep or discard, and (c) the ways we react to humor, sitcoms, jokes by looking for the unexpected (surprise?) connection in the joke or situation or looking for validation or substantiation of our own experiences.

We are indeed complex beings and we have surrounded ourselves with even more complex social structures, but it seems we have a pretty fascinating foundation just looking at the way our brains are wired for survival.

I recall playing with my few week (or few month) old daughter, just doing stupid stuff like making nonsense noises and funny faces. She seemed to be mimicking me. As I would do something like an exaggerated blink of my eyes, she would echo the same. When I made a certain "ga-ga" noise, she would echo it back. As I stuck out my tongue, she would follow by doing the same. It never occured to me until later that this behavior indicated she was displaying knowledge of her own body, face and head. And then I wondered... how could she copy sticking her tongue out when she was unable to see her own tongue?

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