December 31, 2006

The divas of neuroscience.

The NYT has a big article about Daniel Levitin, who studies the effect of music on the brain. Read the whole thing if you're interested in why people have such accurate memories of music that they can, for example, identify "Benny and the Jets" from just one note and how pop music is all about timbre. But I'm just going to highlight this part at the end:
Not all of Dr. Levitin’s idea have been easily accepted. He argues, for example, that music is an evolutionary adaptation: something that men developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. (Before you laugh, consider the sex lives of today’s male rock stars.) Music also helped social groups cohere. “Music has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago,” he said.

But Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard known for his defense of evolutionary psychology, has publicly disparaged this idea. Dr. Pinker has called music “auditory cheesecake,” something pleasant but not evolutionarily nutritious. If it is a sexual signal for reproduction, then why, Dr. Pinker asked, does “a 60-year-old woman enjoy listening to classical music when she’s alone at home?” Dr. Levitin wrote an entire chapter refuting Dr. Pinker’s arguments; when I asked Dr. Pinker about Dr. Levitin’s book he said he hadn’t read it.
Hey, let's study the evolutionary psychology of scientists who label fields that don't interest them as "cheesecake" and who won't even look at the books of less prominent scholars who write whole chapters engaging with their theories.

18 comments:

Dave said...

Two comments:

1) Is a chord a "note" or a collection of notes? Seems to me it's the latter but I'm no musician.

2) Invariably I recognize the notes/chords of songs but I can never recall their name. (Well, a few I can. But most I can't.)

Anonymous said...

I read the article and had the same thought-- since when is labeling something "cheesecake" a solid scientific refuting of a theory?

And the 60-year-old music lover? Does he mean to suggest that no evolutionary advantageous behavior ever persists into old(er) age?

Music seems so persistent, so ingrained, so inate a human behavior-- the notion that it could be a random evolutionary fluke seems insupportable.

Donald Douglas said...

Have a great New Year's Eve!

Burkean Reflections

Anonymous said...

Hey, let's study the evolutionary psychology of scientists who label fields that don't interest them as "cheesecake" and who won't even look at the books of a less prominent scholars who write whole chapters engaging with their theories.

Sounds good! Are you going to address Greenwald then, or still just toss ad hominems his way?

Ann Althouse said...

RC: So analyze it. Pinker's the alpha, you know. Levitin is trying to promote himself by taking on Pinker.

PatCA said...

Funny...I'm reading Bel Canto now, a novel about music and our relationship to it.

Anonymous said...

RC: So analyze it. Pinker's the alpha, you know. Levitin is trying to promote himself by taking on Pinker.

Roughly analogous to the perceived status of you and Glenn, right? You're the tenured con law prof, he's the upstart former litigator. He writes about the errors and utter vacuity of your op-eds and blog posts, and you summarily dismiss him (and insult him) without reading his posts by claiming his posts are too long.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Ann, you took my comment. I was going to say that Pinker hasn't read the book because he already has enough of his own music.

altoids1306 said...

I think the real answer is that neither of them know - their disiplines aren't scientifically rigorous enough to make a definitive statement one way or another.

Let me propose a diametrically opposed theory - since the larger, stronger males were out hunting/fighting/being manly, the smaller males sought out other niches by pursuing craftsmanship, music, and scholarship, thus making themselves useful, and earning for themselves a place at the table - a classic division of labor. Thus, music was not developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness, but as a way to compensate for the lack of reproductive fitness.

A cursory look at any high school band seems to bear out this analysis.

(Do I believe this? Maybe...it sounds as good as his "Music has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago" theory. The point is, sounds good is not enough, you need a measurable event to prove or disprove your theory.)

Anonymous said...

I think of Steven Pinker as being kind of analogous to Cass Sunstein in the legal academy. Both are very prolific and well respected and both comment on a very broad field as much in mainstream lit as in academic lit.

The article certainly makes Pinker seem flip and diva-esque (in a bad way), but I'd imagine Pinker is inundated with so many questions from so many different publications and in so many different areas that once in a while he gives an "I can't be bothered with that" kind of answer. I like Pinker's mainstream writing, but I'm surprised how often he is quoted in mainstream media. Sometimes it seems like he could make it into a top ten most-quoted list for the NY Times.

Steven said...

If arousal is a sexual signal to encourage reproduction, then why, Dr. Pinker asked, does a 60-year-old woman enjoy using her vibrator when she’s alone at home?

Oh, wait.

On the other hand, the appendix has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago.

Er. Yeah.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, I sent Dr. Pinker a copy of the manuscript for my book ("This Is Your Brain On Music") a year ago, before it was published. I sent a note explaining that I had tried to lay out his arguments in the last chapter of my book, and that I attempted to also present an alternative view. I invited him to read the chapter before the book went to press in case he felt that I had in any way mispresentd his arguments. He didn't read it. I asked him again when the book was in galleys, and he still didn't want to read it. I understand that he is busy, but I want you all to know that I didn't try to blindside him, I tried to be respectful. It wasn't an "alpha" issue, it was simply that I thought we might both be able to learn from each other through a constructive dialog. -- Daniel Levitin

Kev said...

Dave--the latter is correct; a chord is a collection of notes (usually three or more).

I found the part on page 3 of the article, where Levitin was talking about people with WIlliams syndrome, quite interesting. Several years ago, I had a drummer with Williams in my jazz combo at the college. He was 21 years old and finishing high school at our community college (for obvious reasons, you don't want a 21-year-old in high school, and especially not this one; his absolute lack of fear in social situations caused him to, in the language of the time, "mack" on every female student he encountered).

He was not the only drummer in the group, so there were obviously certain types of tunes that we would steer his way (he idolized Neil Peart of the rock band Rush, and he was also, without a doubt, the loudest drummer I've ever had in a group.). Even though he would sometimes add an extra eighth note to a measure, it got to where I would know exactly where he was going to do that, so I could get the group back on track accordingly.

At the end of every tune he played, he'd always raise his drumsticks in the air in a triumphant gesture, and then look at me all wide-eyed and innocently and ask, "Was that good?" That right there made it worth any extra effort that may have gone into teaching him.

Happy new year to all!

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Daniel. I don't think the article made it look as though you were trying to blindside him (and I wouldn't think it was bad to disagree with him in print without giving him a chance to respond anyway).

Pinko Punko said...

Maybe the chapter was too long?

Chum said...

'PatCA said...
Funny...I'm reading Bel Canto now, a novel about music and our relationship to it.'

Are you enjoying the book? It was one of my favorites of the year I read it.

Revenant said...

Pinker didn't label a "field that didn't interest him" as "cheesecake". He compared *music* to cheesecake. This is a metaphor, not an insult -- cheesecake, like music, is something that most people like a lot, but which serves no evolutionary or reproductive role.

As for why Pinker didn't bother reading the book, the most likely explanation is that it is a pop-sci book aimed at mass audiences, not a scientific paper. Why should Pinker waste time reading it when he's already read the actual research that inspired it?

Anonymous said...

I have always considered poetry and music as affective hacking. It gets to the emotions without involving the brain so much. Or perhaps the brain is engaged in a different, more efficeint manner as far as the emotional centers are concerned. Smell can do the same sort of thing with memory. You smell something and are flooded with memories, or you hear an old song and are transported to another place emotionally.

So people who understood how to do the neuro-hack were awarded status. The status was wanted by others who learned the hack as well. In that way, the hack grew.

Wait, that sounds more like a virus.

Trey