Book Reviews - Autumn 2007

Words and Music


Two ways of thinking about what our brains can do

By Jennifer Michael Hecht

September 1, 2007


The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker, Viking, $29.95

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks, Norton, $26

Readers of serious but popular books about neuroscience can look forward this fall to new works by two favorite writers. The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker, completes his two trilogies, one on language and the other on human nature. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by neurologist Oliver Sacks, opens up new vistas on matters of the mind, this time in relation to music.

Pinker’s book is interesting, and the parts about the interactions of grammar and thought are intricately drawn and compelling. There is a lot more in here though—Pinker’s ideas about cursing and naming, and about how boys are better than girls at math. These things are not worked out with anything like the care he takes with grammar. His arrogance and adolescent humor are not just style; they fill so many pages that they become content, at times overwhelming the valuable parts of the book.

Yet, the sections about language acquisition are complex and powerful. Like his mentor, the groundbreaking linguist Noam Chomsky, Pinker looks at grammar as a way of understanding the nature of thought. He asks how children can learn a language as wildly chaotic and irregular as English. Do they memorize all the constructions? It seems like a big job. But a close look at irregular constructions shows that, amazingly, they can easily be divided into groups, such as verbs that describe the way something begins an action. Poured, for instance, is a verb that is descriptive of the way something comes out (it happens when something that does not move as a single piece is allowed to fall), not the way something touches down. Once you recognize these categories, many mysteries are solved. Pinker’s position is that “the number of rules needed is large but not onerous.” He maintains that the human mind has a few concepts that come preset but that it learns the rest and manages to do so because there is method to much of what looks like mad irregularity.

Pinker uses grammar to discuss time. Kant said that we bring space and time to our perception and our thought; space and time aren’t really out there in the world. The new linguistic insight is that humanity developed language when we already had a sense of space; only then did we come to our nuanced understanding of time. Thus the metaphor of space is built into our representation of time. We knew “I am going over there” before we knew “I am going to be old some day.” Our intuitive understanding of how space works is often wrong and is at the heart of how we speak about place and time. “The intuitive physics embedded in language . . . contaminates people’s physical reasoning,” he writes. Such ideas are exciting and useful for thinking about philosophy. Here’s another quick one: you can gain predictive knowledge about grammar if you recognize that in English knowing is treated as a variety of having.

If you don’t know anything about linguistics, you can read Pinker’s book for a crash course, though you may find the swarm of competing opinions hard to keep straight. If you do know the debate already, there is fun in following Pinker’s interpretations of the arguments, large and small, in his field. And I do mean arguments. On the quiet campus of arts and sciences, the faculty members of the linguistics department are among the most bellicose, and Pinker is no exception. After two relatively calm introductory chapters, Stuff’s third chapter begins with a detailed list of what he calls “the tactics, ploys, and dirty tricks that debaters use to bamboozle an audience,” and then he uses them on us for the rest of the book. For example, Pinker says that when faced with three prices, people will gravitate to the middle one, and that this works for arguments as well. Then he tells us about his academic feuds by offering a pair of extreme positions and locating himself in the so-defined sensible middle. He says he’s not “tricking” us because he didn’t invent his extremes, but just because there is someone on either side of you, doesn’t mean any one of you is correct. Another device he mentions in this list is “the calling of names.” He gives his opponents pet names that reduce them to stock types: killjoys, radicals, liberals, feminists, etc. If only he had told us about his hesitations and uncertainties. Instead, he pushes subjective conclusions on the reader as final answers. Indeed, the book is so manipulative that your spine might pop a bit while you read it. But like other such experiences, you can enjoy it if you can keep from giggling, for it is a lively and insightful treatment of material that might otherwise be ponderous and dull.

But when the subject is not grammar, the book has problems. Pinker’s chapter on curses is idiosyncratic and a little strange. Because he rejects politically correct censorship, he seeks out cursing as a free-speech political gesture, which comes off as childish and mean-spirited. He knows that the words he throws around are not just magically taboo but also perfectly good indications of hostility and aggression; he seems unaware that these attributes might apply to him. The sheer frequency with which he uses the n-word, c-word, and f-word becomes a kind of statement, given the mores and meanings that generally guide civil discourse today. Whatever else is behind the taboo on the n-word, for instance, part of it is a collective decision that the word represents something unbelie­vably bad. It is a sign of respect for that unfathomable indignity that we make this tiny gesture of not allowing ourselves that word. This requirement is easily stretched when scholars discuss the word itself, but in a book that allows such a conversational tone, replete with (ancient) pop culture and slang, as well as arguments supporting innate difference, his use of the word is in poor taste.

Overall the book is muddied up with prejudice. Pinker’s work in the past has been criticized for its insulting psychobiological non­­sense. That tendency is not central here, but even the best chapters of Stuff are sprinkled with absurd statements. For example, Pinker explains that when we talk about how far one town is from another, we compress each town to a single point or blob, and that is reflected in our language. He continues:

Many researchers have documented that the distributions of talents and temperaments for men and women are not identical. In tests of mental rotation of 3-D objects, for instance, the average score for men is higher; in tests of verbal fluency, the average score for women is higher. Averages are only averages, of course. . . . When people hear about this research, they tend to mangle it into the claim that every last man is better than every last woman (or vice versa).

Later in the book he repeats the assertion that the roar of people who have corrected him on this point were themselves slow students: “People are apt to think of an entity holistically, making them confuse statistical difference between groups, with absolute superiority of one over the other.” But it isn’t true. People reject this claim because it doesn’t match our observations. In daily life, neither gender nor race gives us any information about who in the room is best at math or writing. When the upper echelon of a field is skewed toward white men, it is not an effect of large numbers as Pinker claims but rather one of prejudice. By Pinker’s logic the faculty members of the linguistics department and the psychology department should be noticeably female. But, at Harvard, for example, they too are largely white and male. This is just one wry objection. There are many wonderful books explaining how prejudice gets into science and how wrong it is. Start with Sandra Harding’s edited volume The “Racial” Economy of Science, which has fine essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Nancy Leys Stepan, and other historians of science. Here I will simply suggest that without our history and social hierarchies, things would look very different in our prisons and our math departments. Justifying the elite through biology is a bad thing to do.

It is remarkable that cold grammar could be the site for so many academic rivalries and political feuds; and that Stuff is so full of feelings, while feelings barely appear as part of its theory of mind.

Musicophilia is a Chopin mazurka recital of a book, a bunch of pattern pieces, fast, inventive, and weirdly beautiful—repetitive attacks on a boundless idea. In the past, Sacks has written about particular diseases or disorders. Music is not a disorder, but a feature of the mind, an aspect of hearing, and the internal pulse that responds to an external beat. Musicophilia asks questions that are not so much about the symptoms or their causes as about their consequences for us. What does it mean that a blow to the head can make a person hear loud, finely detailed music that is not there? Perhaps we don’t know what we think we know about the world.

As he presents extraordinary musical symptoms, Sacks also thinks deeply about our ordinary relationship to music: the way most people hear it in their heads—as something between a daydream and a hallucination; the way it can stir up mental associations, can cause us tiny emotional fits or keen aesthetic discomfort. Some of the disorders we learn about are extreme versions of these common features of music. There are people who have epileptic seizures when they hear specific music (often from childhood); people who suffer from dementia and show no signs of emotion or intelligence except while singing; people who take a blow to the head and suddenly lose all pleasure in music; and people who, along with the arrival of other neurological changes, abruptly become obsessed with it. Some profoundly damaged people grow back all sorts of capacities. As Sacks puts it with well-placed reverence, “This is the power of cerebral plasticity.”

Citing the work of colleagues, Sacks has a keen eye for insights that reverse classic formulations. We learn of the Polish neurophysiologist Jerzy Konorski, who thought to ask not why hallucinations occur but why they don’t happen to everyone. Perceptual and cognitive psychologist Diana Deutsch asserts that “the real question concerning absolute pitch is not why some people possess it, but rather why it is not universal.” Likewise, Allan Snyder and D. J. Mitchell inverted the standard question on savants and asked instead why we don’t all have savant powers. Thus Musicophilia points us toward the future: we are discovering that the mind operates by dampening what it doesn’t need as well as by increasing what it does need. Sometimes brain injury can make a new ability appear immediately, which certainly suggests that the trait was already there.

In other ways, too, these tales demonstrate the mind’s capacity for change. Sacks tells us that some studies estimate that about 50 percent of children born blind or blinded in infancy have absolute pitch. The mind can even form a language center on the right side of the brain, as in the case of terrible epilepsy in a boy who had to have his left hemisphere removed and then was able to relearn language with what remained. Many of the people considered in Musicophilia are of advanced age and losing faculties or are severely damaged. But even for them, enriching the environment, even just by adding a little music, can often initiate real change, including bouts of clarity or happiness or both.

Readers who hope for amazing cures will sometimes get them: a symptom reminds Sacks of some other illness, and the corresponding treatment yields relief. Yet what is most awe-inspiring is Sacks’s observational empathy. The balance of speaking and listening goes deep. In a discussion of degeneration of the cochlea, Sacks explains how recent studies have shown that there are a huge number of cochlear hair cells that, among other functions, get messages from the brain. “Thus one has to see the brain and ear as forming a single functional system, a two-way system, with the ability not only to modify the representation of sound in the cortex but to modulate the output of the cochlea itself.” The ear and the brain tune each other! As we should recognize from listening to the chatter in a loud restaurant, on some level we decide what to hear. In this particular tale, Sacks first gives us high hope for a patient’s improvement after some initial success. After a year, he reports sadly that the therapy has not prevented further degeneration. A glance outside the spell of Musicophilia’s optimism reminds us of the wards of lost beings waiting to die. But what remains of life behind those masks of dementia, and what might we do for them? After all, if the mind can learn language without a left hemisphere, surely we do not know its capacities, and surely the situation people are in has a tremendous effect on what they are able to do.

Sacks’s work is luminous, original, and indispensable. His ability to get at a concrete conversation about the nature of reality is sublime. Consider the following insight. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “if you do know that ‘Here is one hand,’ we will grant you all the rest.” He got the hand idea from philosopher G. E. Moore, who said he was more certain of the proposition “Here is one hand” than he was of any philosophical doubt in the world. Sacks tells us in Musicophilia that he corresponded with a woman who had studied piano with Ludwig’s famous pianist brother, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm in World War I. Sacks’s correspondent told him that Paul used to ask her to wait while he played a piece of music in the air in order to figure out the best fingering: on one side his fingers were trilling the air, on the other his stump was twitching. Sacks says he knows Ludwig Wittgenstein was answering G. E. Moore, but “one must wonder, too, whether the strange matter of his brother’s hand—a phantom, indeed, but real, effectual, and certain—did not also play a part in inciting Wittgenstein’s thinking.” The mind seems capable of generating a lot of what we experience. How much is a healthy mind filling in observational blanks in daily life?

Some readers might find Sacks overly convinced that music stands alone in the way it repeats in our minds. Many people who watch film and television relive those experiences visually and aurally in daydreams, especially if they see a show or movie again and again. Prior to the last 150 years, one did not have occasion to see the exact same image repeatedly, but now we do. Sacks says he doesn’t spontaneously see mental images of his room and furniture, but don’t we “see” our bedroom in our mind’s eye before we awaken? If this minor claim about music can be generalized to the visual, and there are parallel effects, what would that suggest we think about next? Do sane people have visual hallucinations? Should music therapy be accompanied by image therapy—with a slide show of objects, faces, and places from other eras?

Musicophilia, like The Stuff of Thought, is a book about the mind that hardly mentions mom and dad. It might be of use to add insights of family dynamics to these discussions. How much of the specifics of what goes wrong in the mind is motivated by desire? After all, Sacks tells us that even savants train hard to be savants, for pleasure, obsession, or praise, and without a motivation, the ability does not fully develop. Desire and other classically psychological matters might help to explain more. I think people sometimes listen to music so as not to hear what is going on in the mind. If that happens in the healthy mind, it might have a counterpart in the pathological mind.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

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