The View from a Small Island: Post II – Bias and Musicality

Post B – Bias and musicality

To summarize: at this point, with only rudimentary knowledge of memory functions, I make a hypothetical leap based upon new technological (CNiFER) research.  The brain stores its memories into a network of thought.   Fearful experiences emit norepinephrine and pleasurable ones, dopamine. We like an event or we don’t  – we build and file away a spectrum of fearful or of pleasurable experiences – in a biologically formed mechanism or function. And how does this function operate?  Experiences, as found in the studies with mice, are captured into a network of memories that are either painful or pleasurable.  Echoing and resonating (excited) neurons carry forward their experience into future encounters simultaneously exciting surrounding neurons.  Neurons retain their excitability and with newer experiences, additional memories are formed advancing the way forward.  Researchers call this a roadmap – neural paths in the brain, a network of memories that eventually form our view of the world (Silva 2017). Over time the brain reacts to future and similar events as though they were the original ones and embeds those in the mechanism or function I call biological bias, or as defined by Konrad Lorenz, ”biological behavior” (Tinbergen 1963) – bias composed of or structured by fearful or pleasurable memories.  (Fig. 1)

The magical milieu of music

“There is no question in his mind [Edward O. Wilson] but that conveying the essence of truth and beauty pertains to the arts.”   (Charles Gillispie 1998)

I liken the bias mechanism of the brain to a musical theme or pattern found in a fugue, a compositional style J.S. Bach made famous in which a single voice lays down an original melodic line and rhythmic patterns. Remember from your childhood, ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’? As the original voice completes the theme and moves on, a subsequent voice enters using the original theme, then a third voice enters and a fourth until all involved enter the fugue invoking or remembering the original theme. In Bach’s fugues, each voice continues with a different development of the original – the theme is sometimes sung in reverse or upside down – building in complexity and excitement.  Like excited neurons and retained memories, melodic themes and rhythmic patterns build upon all the compositional voices until we have a completely developed polyphonic fugue, or (as in my argument) a biological receptacle which stores root memories of base fear or base pleasure – a mental polyphonic fugue.  This function has its own unique characteristics and structures, and with it we carry the ability “to bias” (negative or positive) forward as part of our biological memory.

Konrad Lorenz, a twentieth-century Austrian, discovered a process we today call imprinting.  While later researchers have uncovered additional information about the process, his theoretical work in the field of ethology is perhaps the closest sibling to my conjecture (Tinbergen 1963).

Lorenz, according to Banaji and Greenwald (2016) discovered a built-in mechanism – a phenomenon of filial imprinting – predisposing a newborn baby to bond and identify with the mother. Banaji and Greenwald name the process “stamping in,” so long as it occurs during a critical period – in this case shortly after birth. Perhaps the bias mechanism forms earlier in the womb, where the infant would feel pleasure as parents today often sing, talk, read to – even dance – with the baby still in the womb. If the mother is in stress or if the birth is difficult and perhaps frightening, a surge of norepinephrine would imprint the fear memory into the mechanism.

Banaji and Greenwald write:

“When we want to understand anything, be it the seemingly magical abilities of music or math or things more pernicious such as the growth of a cancer, we must try to get to the moment of its beginning. The origins of things, such as the moment when a single cell changes, can teach us much about their nature, and this is a primary reason scientists look at developmentally rudimentary forms of life to grasp the nature of their fully formed state. The infants and children of a species become quite interesting for this purpose, because in them we might see the unvarnished and immature form of the behavior, and this may give insight into why an organism grows the way it does, and turns into the thing we know and recognize in its more mature forms.”

To be or to bias

Edward O. Wilson saw culture and biology as more complicated than other scientists:“Human evolution is a unique dual-tract system compounded of genetic change and cultural change” (1996).

Now that we know the rudimentary mechanism of the brain and a simple construction of memory, I can move forward with Wilson’s assertion that the mind or memory absorbs the present culture and that with each generation, culture is created and learned anew – freshly changed by innovation and technologies.

From Miston, Claidière and Mercier (2015), we learn that successful rules and practices of a culture are consistent: 1) because a practice is efficient and easily communicated, 2) because a practice is defended by members of authority and prestige, and finally 3) because humans have a cognitive mechanism that sees the practice as attractive and supporting ”myside” (“my position”).

The more successful rules and attitudes of culture– those strictly enforced – spread across the population and, Wilson writes, are encoded into the biological process (1996). Those memories and behaviors now affect change in coming generations. Episodic or sensory rules – those of pain or pleasure – I compare to the learned behavior of the mice in the laboratories. Later as humans begin to manipulate and communicate through language and semantic rules, words and symbols will additionally communicate and reinforce almost minute responses.

“Although genetic evolution is slow, it can occur rapidly enough to differ in rate from cultural evolution by only one or two orders of magnitude. Under only moderate selection pressures, one gene can be mostly substituted for another throughout an entire population in as few as ten generations, a period of only 200 or 300 years in the case of human beings. A single gene can profoundly alter behavior, especially when it affects the threshold of response or level of excitability.” (Wilson 1996)

Because a practice is defended by those in power, cultural beliefs are reinforced through repetition, primacy, emotional impact, self-deception and surprise. All are finely tuned to eventual outcomes (survival behavior). Confirmed now by cognitive scientists, our physiological makeup demands we process information that supports our beliefs – rational thinking be damned. “It will be critically important to recognize that people hold onto their beliefs for profound emotional reasons that are reinforced by predictable activity in specific brain circuits and networks” (Gorman, Jack and Gorman, Sarah, 2014). We will revisit this in our discussion of racism: fear, loss of structural power and ‘Myside’ emotions.

Therefore, if culture is more than a recently come-to-the-table player, scientists should reexamine culture’s impact upon our biological developmental theories.  Wilson (2014) argues that we should look to the “significance of biological processes [to understand] underlying human behavior.”

Bias takes on the shape or color of new cultural dispositions, beliefs and behaviors but the initial construction of the bias mechanism is in genetic memory. We learn instinctively to craft and shape genetically implanted bias in order to survive.  Paul King, a scholar at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at UC Berkley: “The brain’s overriding principle, given to it from millions of years of evolution is to retain whatever is likely to be useful later for long-term survival” (March 2017).

The way we do it

Searching for comparable research to support my speculation of a biological or genetic bias, I turn to a pleasurable function or skill – music – and the recent research at the University of Vienna with Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist. Rather than looking strictly at the evolution of musical skills, as this leads to unsubstantiated cultural assumptions, Fitch turns to the genetic trait we humans share regardless of culture – musicality.

As recent research using fMRI indicates, many researchers in the field think that singing and language have a common origin. Research points to a common neural circuitry for speech and singing (or music) (Offord 2017).

Working with choral students over 25 years, I came to the conclusion that “if you can speak, you can sing.”  In this statement, I do not refer to pitch problems – those relate to the ear.  Rather, I mean that one can functionally create a tone through the vocal apparatus – the apparatus which is needed to perform a spoken word or a sung one. Tone deafness or amusia indicates a limited facility to vocally match a played or sung tone – a malfunction or limitation of the ear not of the voice apparatus.  As I did not work with or observe students who are deaf or mute, my observations are limited to those with full vocal production capabilities – speaking.

My students ranged from age 15 through 25 and could create and match when hearing an initial tone sung by me. The most severe cases I worked with could match only two or three tones, usually a perfect fourth or perfect fifth above or below that initial tone.  The greatest difficulty came when the student needed to match close intervals – a whole step or half step above the initial tone. After six to eight weeks training, those with pitch difficulties were able to move far beyond the initial limited two-note pitch range. In other words their listening function improved and they could produce and match a greater number of tones while the quality of the tone usually stayed the same – usually a poorly produced tone (Falconer 2017).

While Noam Chomsky (Lieberman 1988) argues that the “voice box” is a recent human organ and has no biological history in the brain, neurobiologists today are focusing on the pathways of vocal learning in the brains of songbirds and comparing it to vocal learning in both birds and humans – a neural network within the vertebrate brain.  In an interview with Anna Azvolinsky, neuroscientist Erich Jarvis points out, “I began to realize that the vocal-learning circuits, including those for human speech that researchers considered cognitively advanced, are really basic motor-learning pathways. It was the first time that I started thinking that this dichotomy in the linguistics and neurobiology communities of a separation between speech and spoken language is false.” (2017)

Then what is musicality?

Perhaps musicality is an human response to a stimulus – a reaction to chordal structures, to rhythms, harmonies, and dynamics between instruments or voices. In an anecdotal effort, I asked ten acquaintances for their definition of musicality. Yes, I provided some structure thus limiting their thinking: sensing (body), feeling (emotion), pleasure, anxiety or fear and, finally, cognitive alignment—where mind joins body. The responses varied but most all respondents felt that musicality results from the discipline of practicing correct technique and following the composer’s instructions about key, rhythm, and dynamics.  Then adding the feeling emotion which comes from the musician’s interpretation of the musical piece.  “One’s instrument’s tone and condition also add something special”.

It is my experience that vocalizations or singing are a learned specialization of the “voice box” and may share in some respects a common neural pathway with speaking, although there are contradicting data which report extreme dissociation and anatomically distinct pathways in regions of the brain for speech and for music (Peretz 1994). However musical specialization – reading music, playing an instrument, conducting an orchestra or choral ensemble – is not an evolutionary adaption as I believe is musicality. (Honing, ten Cate, Peretz, Trehub 2015).

“We argue that we may know the evolution of music by investigating the fundamental cognitive mechanisms of musicality, for example, relative pitch, tonal encoding of pitch, and beat induction. In addition, we show that a nomological network of evidence (Schmitt & Pilcher, 2004) can be built around the hypothesis that musicality is a cognitive adaptation.(Honing and Ploeger 2012).

 While the groundwork for a biological mechanism (bias) has been discussed in Post I and II, I am keenly aware of the many problems caused by the day-to-day biases in our social world – the negative ism(s) and stereotypes that complicate a post-modern life and prevent a full utilization of the human potential. That bias is an evolutionary brain function does not make life easier or less byzantine for anyone.

Post III will open the door to cultural and structural issues— for example, racism–an epidemic that is harming and killing us in ways we can and cannot see. Is it built in biologically as some would claim? Or is it taught as Rogers and Hammerstein proclaimed in the hit film The King and I, ‘You have to be carefully taught’. (1956)

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught



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