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.