So you were born in an electrical storm Took a bite out the sun and Saw your future in a machine built for two.
Now your rays make me kind of go crazy, Shock and awe and amaze me, Just a ticker tape parade and me, But something was wrong Till you tap danced on the air, in the night.
Screaming at the top of your lungs, you said, "Come on, come on. Do what you want. What could go wrong? Oh come on come on come on, come on, Do what you want. Oh come on come on. What could go wrong? Do do do do what you want.”
An Iranian channel ran a story about how a certain kind of martial arts is enjoying increasing popularity among Iranian women. This means that a) Iranian women have rights, b) Iranian women can access the public sphere, c) Iranian women participate in organized, public sports, and d) an Iranian government news channel has no problem with any of this.
Faced with these facts, the Western media panicked: some news agencies resorted to the stereotype of Iranian women as veiled, militant fanatics; others opted for infantilizing portrayals of suffering women using martial arts as their only escape. Can you imagine any self-respecting Western reporter writing a story that explained, unprovoked, the popularity of karate among girls in suburban Los Angeles by citing America’s high rates of sexual assault? Additionally, few bothered to mention that recently it has been Western sports organizations that have prevented Iranian women from playing, for example in 2011 forcing the Iranian women’s soccer team to forfeit hope of reaching the Olympics because they wore sports hijabs on the field.
Narratives of weak or militant Iranian women are not just dishonest; they also fuel a political narrative whereby Islamism is equated with backwardness and the ability of women to reconcile Islamic ideals with feminist goals is entirely obfuscated. Both Western conservatives and many secular feminists often participate in this obfuscation, effectively trying to either hide Iranian women’s successes in order to demonize Iran or by ignoring the ideologies of liberation they have formulated in order to preserve the status of secular feminism as the only path to women’s liberation.
It’s time for another Episode Extra! (which is where you special blog readers get to check out really cool stuff to go along with my YouTube videos, like special features on a DVD, only way more special-er)
The response to my recent YouTube video about music and its evolutionary links to emotion was just awesome. The comments, questions and curiosity were really fantastic.
Did you somehow miss it? Check it out below, along with a video on the same subject from Mike at Idea Channel (a fellow PBS Digital Studios show):
Clearly you can see that Mike doesn’t exactly agree with me :)
I got a chance to chat with Dartmouth researcher Thalia Wheatley (whose research linking emotion to music and motion I featured in the vid) and her graduate student Beau Sievers over email. I wanted to know what they thought of my video (they liked it … whew) and get their response to Mike’s video. I’ve posted some highlights from our conversation below, but I’ve posted their comments in full on this public doc.
Thalia and Beau agree that music and sound don’t contain emotion on their own. It requires about three pounds of other stuff to get to the feels: “…nothing in vibrating air molecules contains emotion per se. For emotion to be perceived, it requires a brain to do the perceiving.”
But have we really just been trained to hear it that way? Is music inducing emotions because of its structure and character? Or are we culturally trained to react to it that way, based on what we are taught and what we associate with it? Mike showed some really interesting examples of music that seems completely upside-down in its relation to emotion, like Transylvanian songs played at both funerals and weddings, or that weird Georgian folk music (which is awesome). Thalia and Beau agree that cultural variability is definitely a real influence, but are confident that their work with Dartmouth students and Cambodian villagers show some pretty universal tendencies when it comes to linking emotion in movement to emotion in music. Beau reminds us that answers like these are rarely black and white:
"Pitting nature against nurture as if it were an all-or-nothing choice isn’t quite right. We’ve found clear evidence of universal patterns of emotional expression, but that doesn’t mean that all emotional expression has to follow those patterns. Other means of emotional expression might involve cultural training that modifies or even pushes against innate proclivities for complicated reasons."
Did you hear how that Georgian folk music in the Idea Channel video sounded so dissonant and, well, unhappy (by our definition, at least)? They note that because that music is so difficult to sing and learn that a tight-knit and happy community is formed around performing and practicing it. That’s a modern form of past possible evolutionary advantages that are linked to musical culture. The musical product may seem unhappy to us, but the community and culture behind the music is very emotional (and the Georgian style takes a considerable amount of effort in order to break to the mold).
Of course, we don’t respond to music the same way every time, and different music makes people feel different things. That should poke holes in the theory, right? This is where the difference between recognizing the emotion and actually inducing the emotion becomes so important. Picture yourself as an early human, around a fire watching a musical and dance retelling of a dangerous hunting expedition and its happy outcome. What’s important to your clan is that you can recognize the emotion and learn from that experience, not necessarily feel it at that moment. That’s why music is so good at communicating emotion, and likely why it grew from how we recognize emotion in people’s movements (cue the Carlton dance!) So why don’t things like explosions in movies terrify us every time?
Because our brain is very good at separating the recognition from the experience. Thalia said:
"It’s not that we don’t react to explosions but rather that the circuit of the brain that processes explosions as real events is being held in check by another system that evolved to regulate that response based on other kinds of knowledge (“it’s ok, this is just a movie”). This is not the same as saying there is no response or that these responses are all culturally learned."
She goes on to say that we can recognize the basic emotions that are tied to the music (as seen in their work), but that we can embellish, mute or override them using the power of our mind.
Their experiment was far from simple: It took nearly 250 possible parameters for motion and music and found links between them that spanned the globe. Next, they hope to explore how these play out in terms of our brain’s activity patterns. Beyond that, they hope to discover if these links between motion, music and emotion play out in the animal world. Early hints from other labs suggest that natural tempos (heart rate, walking cadence, vocalization patterns) may be intertwined with these emotional reactions.
Thalia and Beau are driven by a desire to understand the experience of being human. Why are we and you are ye and he is he (or however the song goes)? The single brain is a wonder unto itself, but those brains in a network, interacting as a community, that is where the magic of the human experience truly comes into the light. It seems subjective to some, but life is a pretty subjective experience, and I think we should be thankful for that.
(Again, if you’d like to read more, the full interview text is here, image adapted from Shutterstock)