Strange Overtones: A chat with Mark Changizi
A couple of weeks ago I received book in the mail. Harnessed is the second book from neuroscientist and author Mark Changizi, and his goal was to lay out his ideas on the origins of human language and music. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll realize that this subject lies a stones throw outside of my comfort zone, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
Luckily for me, Changizi writes in a conversational and engaging tone, and though I found the language section a little difficult to digest, the latter chapters that focus on the origins of music really got me thinking. In a nutshell, Changizi puts forward a significant chunk of unpublished data to argue his “nature harnessing” hypothesis. In terms of language, we have harnessed our ability to interpret our environment to communicate, and in terms of music, we have used the sounds that human beings make to evoke emotional responses.
But rather than try and paraphrase the in depth analaysis Changizi goes into in his book, I figured it would be better to get the man on the phone and ask him all the questions that I was left with after reading Harnessed. I chatted with him earlier today, as he sat in Central Park, and here’s what he had to say.
KP: Your book goes into a lot of detail about the “how’s” of language and music; how our ears and brains interpret sounds, and subsequently how these senses were harnessed. But do you have any insights on the “whys”? The benefits of language seem obvious (communication), but when it comes to music, the reasons why we do it seem murky.
MC: Yeah that’s a great question….by which I mean I can only speculate as to the answer! I don’t have a theory of what exactly the cultural selection pressures are that drive us to have speech and writing and music in the first place. I go into this in a lot in chapter four of my earlier book, The Vision Revolution (and to some extent at the beginning of this book) where I look at speech as opposed to other kinds of gestural languages that we might have developed. But it becomes less obvious when we think about music. It’s certainly something along the lines of how we use blurred lines, for example, when we show a cartoon person running. Effectively we exaggerate these optical blur lines when the cartoon is running faster, or make them smaller when the person is slowing down. And this makes it more fun to watch the cartoons. Or in another example, a smiley yellow cartoon face is more enjoyable to look at than a normal human face. By exaggerating the cues we normally get it’s like caressing the early part of your brain and getting it all jazzed up. And there’s something in us that feels good when we see these exaggerations, these hyper-stimuli. For an exaggerated smiley face its very obvious that it’s an exaggerated smiley face that is conveying joy, but for music the humans gestures and emotions that it contains are evocative, but packaged in a far more complex code. But once you figure out the basics that “no, this is what humans sounds like” then you can say music is exaggerating the sounds we make and making them more evocative.
KP: So if we have harnessed a natural ability to interpret the rhythms and pitches of our lives, how is it that some people are tone deaf, or lack any sense of rhythm? By your argument one might expect these traits to have been selected against.
Tone deafness in particular is a deficiency in your ability to match your own vocalizations to the pitches you hear out in the world. Even though I think speech was an invention, primate vocalizations go back a loooong long time, something like 80 million. When we (or other apes) vocalize it’s crucial for us to vocalize correctly, to use the correct intonation, and often we’re often matching one anothers vocalization. For example if you go “uuuahhhah” or some kind of primate vocalization, I then want to match or modulate from that – a little bit up or a little bit down – so we need to be able to hear those intonations and potentially be able to match those vocalizations so that we can modulate relatively. My expectation is that being able to match a tone is due to the long vocalization history of primates and has nothing to do with the sounds of people moving. In terms of rhythm, uh…is it true that some people don’t have rhythm?? Like are they rhythm-blind so to speak?
KP: I don’t know if they’re necessarily rhythm-blind, but I’ve definitely met people who cannot follow rhythm, or they cannot repeat a rhythm if you clap it to them…
MC: Ok, ok, so …If we look at gestures and facial expressions, humans and other primates will match one another without even realizing, so the ability to match behaviors like pitches and rhythms might be a much more ancient thing that we’ve done as a social species as a kind of matching vocalizations. Therefore these behaviors are not necessarily to do with the evolutionary development of an auditory sense for pitch or rhythm. The key here is that we have harnessed certain evolutionarily advantageous properties, so there is no selection pressure, per se, on pitch or rhythm audition.
KP: A couple of times in the book you hint at sex playing at least a small part in our appreciation and understanding of music. Do you think that the more musical a person is the more sexually empathetic they are (or vice versa)?
MC: My bet would be that music is tapping into a whole variety of behaviors and noises that humans make, whether those be happy, sad, angry. I talk in the book about the influence of “gait” in walking as a strong influence in music. In terms of very specific emotions and behaviors I don’t have very much to say, yet, but eventually one might be able to say that this particular kind of song with this kind of rhythm is about a really attitude filled guy or gal around you who’s in the mood to fight. You know, sometimes you here the beginning rhythms of a song and you know kind of what it’s about but it’s hard to put your finger on. Working out exactly how jazz differs from pop differs from hip hop differs from classical and what kind of behavioral difference the gait has is beyond me right now… but one thing I’ve been thinking about and wanting to test is how certain gaits and types of music evoke sexuality. For example, what are the sounds that two lovers might make before engaging in the act, or is it the noises made during copulation that have been harnessed? The joke I make in the book is that we should listen to real scores of human and primate copulation and see if there are any clues as to what sounds might have been harnessed. For example, dance music that people play at clubs: Does it actually have the signatures of sounds that you might hear, so to speak, in the bedroom? One can ask that kind of thing thing, but it takes collection of all kinds of data that I didn’t have the time, ahem* or the balls to get! And it would obviously require a lot more theoretical work on how to characterize the metaphysics of what’s going on in the room; which aspects of tone and rhythm should we look at. I think it would make a great dissertation project for someone to look at this kind of thing.
KP: Yeah perhaps you could recruit a willing graduate student or two for the data collection?
MC: Hahaha I never said that….
KP: On the same kind of topic, do you think musical preferences might tell us something about different personality types? For instance, if someone is drawn to complicated rhythms are they more likely to be logical and introverted, or is someone who prefers a soulful melody more abstract ad dramatic?
MC: So this is something else we’ve thought about looking at. Lets take the microcosm of a high school as an example. You have all these little cliques of people who listen to all sorts of different types of music; grunge, goth, whatever; and they all dress differently. And though no one’s actually worked this out, they probably also walk differently and have different gaits. Some groups of kids end up walking in more “tough” ways, and some end up with more “effeminate” gaits (or at least the “tough” group would refer to them as “effeminate”). They all end up with subtle little differences in gait. Actually we see this all the time when we look at people from different countries. So could it be that the small differences in the way people walk influence the music they listen to or whether they are enjoying the music they are hearing. For examp,do Greeks walk in a slightly different way that we can characterize? If they do, then you can look at how it deviates from the human baseline gait. Then if their music deviates in the same way (it doesn’t have to deviate in quantitatively the same way, but qualitatively they deviate in the same direction) we can say that gait is probably a very basic influence in musical taste. These are great questions and ones that I would like to see answered down the line. But obviously the first questions for me were to find the basic sounds humans make, and to then ask if there was a basis for them in the music we make. This question formed the basis for Harnessed.
KP: You suggest that while language was a result of our brains harnessing our ability to hear nature’s sounds, music was a product of exclusively human activities. How is it that only we have managed to harness our hearing in this way? For example, why haven’t dogs, with their heightened sense of hearing, been able to develop a similar skill?
MC: We developed something new that the other apes didn’t have. Either we developed a language instinct or a music instinct, OR we developed a certain kind of learning capability that made us a hell of a lot smarter than chimpanzees. My argument is “no, there is no qualitative leap at all, we’re just quantitatively smarter”. What made the qualitative leap was cultural evolution. So the question really becomes “what are the conditions under which cultural evolution can really thrive?”. And very roughly it’s going to be something along the lines of “we were individually very smart we were able to sustain cultural evolution from one generation to another”. That requires very strong sociality, and a continuation of the memories of one generation to the next. It really boils down to three things: 1. greater intelligence, 2. greater sociality, and 3. population density. It was only when our population grew to 100s of 1000s of people in somewhat close proximity with lots of tribes butting up against one another that you had the spreading of cultural artifacts. Suddenly cultural evolution could blossom and start developing things like music that were incredibly smart designs for the mind.
KP: So what’s the next project for you?
MC: There’s a non-fiction book on the way: new theories of mine on emotions and what emotions mean, but prior to that, I’m writing my first fiction. I think we have really very little idea of what’s going on in our brains, and we have many 1000s of years to go before we do fully understand it. We really are a very different kind of species today compared to our Home sapiens ancestors, which is due to this cultural evolution that has shaped us in such a way to tap into this ancient natural selection “magic” that we have. If we keep going as we are, without any genetic change or artificial intelligence influence, my expectation is that, if we’re human version 2.0 now, human 3.0 in the future will be doing all these fantastic things, and it’ll be due to more nature harnessing. Harnessing in new ways, or harnessing ancient brain areas that haven’t yet exploited. So the book is about that. The title of the book will likely just be Human, and it really is simply a story about what humans are, what makes a human human, and what kind of future can we anticipate … and of course there’s sex and violence and all the kinds of things that a story has to have!
So having harnessed (wink) my ability to ask questions of the right people, I have brought you this interview! I hope you enjoyed reading about Dr. Changizi’s work. Harnessed is available now though BenBella books and all major retailers, so pick up a copy to learn more about “how language and music mimicked nature and transformed ape to man”.