Science of sounds

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

In his latest book, Harnessed, cognitive scientist Mark Changizi, reveals how and why language, speech and music exist, and why they are apparently uniquely human attributes that separate us, as a species, from the rest of life on Earth. A fact that also gives us special responsibility for the Earth, you might say. According to Changizi, the “lower” parts of the brain, the bits that recognise the sounds of nature, the scuffs, cracks and bangs, were hijacked by the “upper” parts of our brain and give us speech as we evolved from our ape-like hominid ancestors.

The words we utter are, after all, nothing more than formalised versions of the sounds of nature. Likewise, written language taps into the lower level recognition systems of vision that allow us to interpret the lines, shapes, curves, and junctions of the natural world around us. Presumably, other animals, particularly mammals and most specifically the apes, have these exact same lower level systems and layers of interpretation above them in their brains, it’s just that humans evolved a sophisticated culture that added memes to our lives – memes like speech and writing.

Music is the third area that Changizi discusses. It is perhaps the most mysterious. Although everyone has heard of dancing bears and dogs howling when they heard Amy Winehouse sing, humans really do seem to be unique in their emotional response to music of all kinds whether a Debussy piano piece, a prog rock classic, such as Rush’s Natural Science or the jangling bells of some funeral music. So, if speech taps into the whizzes and bangs of the natural world around us and language tips into the visual cues of lines and curves, into what is music tapping? What low level input and higher level interpretation by the brain is music analogous too in the natural world? In retrospect it seems obvious, particularly, the fact that music resonates on so many different emotional levels, but particularly joy and sadness. Music is the formalised sounds of human behaviour. The sounds of movement. The percussive sounds of human movement, footsteps, swinging arms, the twists and turns of friends and enemies, the way the Doppler effect modulates the sounds of those around us.

Personally, I’d also add that the gasps, squeals, yelps, shouting, chest beating, laughter, sobbing, crying, screaming might be more the primitive melody and rhythm, although Changizi tells me it is primarily movement on which his theory rests. As an aside, could the melody of human vocalisations before we were singers explain why the more emotional you are the greater your musical ability. Does the same apply to other art forms, do they tap deeper, lower level parts of our brain and formalise them at the higher conscious level?

These are the deepest of human secrets; Changizi has laid bare the mystery, and removed the mysticism. Is that not infinitely more wondrous than a million spiritualistic, zodiacal, voodoo explanations of human language and music?

I think the concept could be taken further, however. My wife reminded me this morning how fractious our teenage son became a few days into our summer break without access to the internet, and specifically Facebook. Other teenagers (and some adults) seem to be as clingy to their Xbox fix and even many adults seem to need the artificial lives of their soap operas and movies. Could it be that these virtual forms of social interaction, the displaced gossip, friendships and activities to be wrought while playing an Xbox game, sharing chit-chat on Facebook, or dipping into the artificial lives of Dot Cotton or JR Ewing, are tapping lower levels of our brains and reaping the emotional rewards once they are formalised by the higher levels of the brain.

The natural behaviours would presumably be the real-life grooming, chattering, hunting, gathering of our ancestors. The technology simply displaces these to the abstract and taps into our brains’ lower levels formalising them at the higher level to make them compelling and engaging. I suspect Changizi might have more to say about my suggestion of a fourth area for natural analogy to add to the speech, writing and music of his theory.

Might it also be that this theory explains our compulsion to speak, to write, to make and listen to music, to play games and to follow the exploits of soap opera characters? Does it tap into our primitive brains at such a low level that we cannot escape these formalised primordial urges. I asked Changizi about this and it turns out that my extension of his theory to other areas of behaviour and interpretation was already in the pipeline. “I suspect culture/technology is “nature-harnessing” us in hosts of ways beyond these three cores,” he told me, beyond speech, writing and music, in other words. He was, however, intrigued by my suggestion of gossip-harnessing. “Great idea. I’d say that covers all the home/garden/clean-house/makeover shows which people watch as much for the chit-chat as the practical tips.” He adds that, “The use of colours in design and fashion probably is nature-harnessed, I’d guess, resting on its foundation from skin colour emotion modulations.”

I would even bring the theory full circle and suggest that mysticism, superstition and religion might also tap into the natural world via the deepest inputs and lowest level interpretations and they then (incorrectly) formalise and interpret them at the higher cultural level to give us the pseudoscience and antiscience we see around us. But, if speech is the formalised sounds of nature, writing its shapes, and music the higher representation of the sounds and beats of human behaviour, and TV, Facebook and Xbox tap into social interactions and activities, what is it in the natural world on to which mysticism hooks our brains? Is there some natural phenomena that the lower level parts of our brain formalise and interpret at the higher level? I think there is. It is the very nub of the human condition our existential angst, the moment we have cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am…

If that is the case, then human culture through science has usefully corrected this false formalisation so that the mysticism of existence is removed and replaced by mystery. Mysteries that science can explain.

David Bradley
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10 thoughts on “Science of sounds”

  1. Thanks for your comment Kit. I’m annoyed with myself that I wrote this article with a double edge as it has totally distracted readers from the fascinating and testable theory of music’s origin put forward by Changizi and led some to focus on my non-mystical allusions.

    1. You’re welcome. Re-reading the article again, I’m unable to resonate with its main thesis – in other words that culture is some by-product of brain function and that music in particular is the formalised sounds of human behaviour. Music is far deeper to us than that, I believe; it is related for example, to mathematics, to our sense of beauty, to memory, to many things. I can see that it has a highly emotional charge too, but then there is music for the body (dance), and then there is music for the head (prog rock, Bach’s Inventions) and then again music that appeals to all three faculties. Not to mention the great religious works of music inspiring awe in those who believe, though these can also be appreciated by the non-religious. Some music is written simply for its own sake, with none of the “resonances” mentioned in the article. Or so I believe.

      1. Kit From what I gather from Changizi’s writing and conversations I have had with him about this, it’s simply much deeper, that it is the resonances in our brain that allow us to interpret human movement that then allows us to “understand” sounds that are not human movement that are represented by music. In a similar way to our being able to feel all kinds of things when looking at an abstract painting it is that our brains inherently “know” something about looking at stuff…likewise with hearing.

  2. I wonder what sense it is when you can feel someone’s eyes on you, and the hairs on the nape of your neck stand up. At any rate, to assume all mystical experiences have been explained is to assume that all mystical experiences have been found.

      1. I’m always bothered by (some) scientists’ obsession with “show me evidence”. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. What kind of evidence do you mean – physical? Is that the only kind of evidence that matters? The universe is 100% physical matter and should only ever be expressed in those terms?

        Ok, if evidence is that important – then please show me the evidence that ‘memes’ (referenced in the article) actually exist? Just a single shred of evidence, just one scintilla.

        Also, the final paragraph – mysticism, superstition, and religion are entirely different things and to equate them together is either ignorance or wilfulness.

        Apart from that, interesting article.

        1. Thanks for your thoughts, very glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, I concede that with current technology it is difficult to produce physical evidence for the existence of memes, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility at some distant point in the future. Just this month, Stanford or was it Berkeley used fMRI to map blood flow in the brain to the moving images that volunteers were watching. Now, that’s obviously light years away from mind reading, but who knows what might emerge in the future?

          As to whether there is a distinction between mysticism, superstition, and religion…I’m darned if I can see one. They all have their origin in our ignorance and fear of the nature of reality as far as I can see.

          1. Two things there.

            One. We all know that Richard Dawkins invented the meme concept to account for culture in the same way as the gene accounts for natural selection. Basically he wanted a way to account for religion in particular, and the meme was his response. But what is it? It’s just ideas! If human beings became extinct – guess what? – there would be no more memes. They have no more independent existence than genes have independent motivation.

            The difference between mysticism, superstition, and religion? That’s a huge subject, I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s begin with the easiest – superstition. Yes, I think we can agree it’s fear, but fear of reality? Could be, but certainly it’s a primitive, atavistic mental habit we need to evolve out of.
            Religion? Hm. There are far too many of these throughout history to be able to easily dismiss it as a concept. For one thing, there is such variety. From shamanism (nature), through Buddhism and Taoism (non-theist), to Abrahamic monotheism – they’re all so different! You cannot dismiss Buddhism or Taoism as “superstition” as they are the very opposite of that, dealing with reality as they do. There is however, one thing which all religions have in common, and that’s the Golden Rule, i.e. “Do as you would be done by” or “Don’t do as you wouldn’t be done by”. They have been the source of our best moral frameworks, though you could say that humanitarianism fulfils that role equally now.
            Mysticism? You’ve made a big mistake here. I suggest you really don’t know anything about it, and you’ve either taken its meaning from hard atheists (who also don’t know what it is, and don’t care to learn) or else you accept the misconception that it is “keeping things a mystery that simply aren’t”. Actually, although mysticism exists in all cultures and religions, it is an experiential phenomenon. It’s been described by people of no religion, who of course describe it in non-religious terms. Those who describe in religious terms are just backfilling – mentally – from the experience to what the experience means.
            You really need to talk to some Buddhists. Then you might hear that mystical experience – far from being fear of reality – are in fact glimpses OF reality. No-one normally experiences reality, as it’s filtered through perception and human senses, layers of ego and memory and association, and heaven knows what else. But just once in a while reality breaks through for a few. It’s truly shocking in the sense that they never ever forget the experience, but at the same time, they don’t feel threatened or alien, because there is nothing threatening or alien about reality. It just “is”.

            That’s just dipping your toe in the water – but I hope I’ve done something to differentiate between those three things?

  3. Apropos “…there is no example of anything mystical that does not have a 100% scientific explanation based on observation, evidence and facts…”

    Definition: Mystical
    1. Of or having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.
    2. Of, relating to, or stemming from direct communion with ultimate reality or God: a mystical religion.
    3. Enigmatic; obscure: mystical theories about the securities market.
    4. Of or relating to mystic rites or practices.
    5. Unintelligible; cryptic.


    How do consciousness and awareness connect with the physical universe?

    How does the woman on the top deck of the no. 19 bus as it passes sense your presence as you turn to look at each other?