Posts tagged neuroscience
Words About Sounds: Books About Music

This summer, I got more particularly into music. Although I’ve always loved music (doesn’t everyone?), I feel like it’s one of those domains that’s difficult to attach to your identity if you don’t actively pursue it. This summer, I just read a bunch about it.

I’ve always gravitated towards anything sensory. Obviously, I love art in all forms. (I’m just in constant awe of talented, passionate people, and love to share about them when I can.)

It started because I loved reading about how pleasure works in the brain — in various domains — and how states of flow can tap into that. Flow via music can be achieved in so many different ways: playing it, dancing to it, listening to it. I’m dying to read this book on flow, curious about the science behind it, especially since it’s popped up in so many of my summer reads. A Natural History of the Senses is also the first book on my list for when I have room in my budget again (yikes.)

It feels so lucky that we can enhance our experiences just by knowing more about them. Like, even just reading all these musical books has infinitely expanded my capacity to appreciate listening to a song, and I adore everything about finding time for music in my day. Out of everything I did in my summer, learning more about how music works was one of the most valuable.

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As I’ve thought about escapism, that’s taken various forms. I’ve always loved finding my escape through reading, but I’ve also become more attuned to the transcendent experience of just sitting in your car late at night, listening to a song. How you go to another place in your head. (Did you know that we derive so much of our daily pleasure from daydreams?) That’s partly why music can be so integral to the power of our experiences. For one, songs can capture memories so easily — hence, some being banned from my summer playlists —and for another, they’re just engineered in ways that stimulate our minds in just the right ways.

The books that became part of that unintentional musical series will no doubt appear on the blog in various forms over the coming weeks and months, because they contributed so much to how I think about music now.

Both in what I was doing all summer (dancing) and my latest reading kick (psychology of art/aesthetics), that topic fit perfectly.

I’ve always been around music, because I’ve always played instruments. In college, particularly, practicing guitar or piano was a good way to enter a state of flow. It’s also proven that progress makes human beings consistently happier than anything else, so chipping away at a new song is one of my favorite ways to fumble. Even if I am butchering a rendition of a beloved song, it just feels good.

I spent a lot of my summer driving from city to city. One playlist, a ten-hour drive, still not tired. But for me, especially after some of the musical criticism I read this summer, the same song could unfurl in a dozen different ways and I took a lot of joy from picking it apart for ages. I can occupy myself for awhile.

Part of the reason I got even more interested in how music worked was that I was constantly around it. If you want to know which songs are going to blow up, go to a dance studio. Choreographers are often attuned to big breaks before the rest of the general public. Additionally, a lot of the dancers spanned multiple spheres, singing and acting as side gigs.

Getting back into dance again — especially as deeply as I went this summer, the dance world consuming most of my time and travel — made me realize how much of it I’d misinterpreted growing up. I was used to cranking out routines for recital, perfecting it so everyone followed the same timing. Tricks. Synchronicity. Performing further away from the audience.

Now, the landscape is so different: performing for the camera, infusing the moves with your own flair, choreography as “more of a suggestion.” There’s more musicality and style. Much more focus on Instagram. While I have plenty more to talk about on that front — and you can stalk my favorite dancers and choreographers here — I realized ultimately that my favorite dancers were all fantastic listeners. They punctuated well; they anticipated beats masterfully. I’d never seen dance as so much of a language.

I was inundated in classes where we talked about texture and pockets and riffs, where you could see the application of those concepts so immediately. (That immediate gratification, paired with the slow-and-steady improvement of more long term skills, was an addictive combination. My parents had to drag me away from the Millennium location in Nashville.)

Having had those experiences, and getting a much fuller and richer experience of what dancing could do with a song, I’ve been more intrigued than ever by how we interpret music. How it affects our culture. How our bodies absorb it. Below are some of my favorite reads on the subject — individual reviews to come soon.

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A Selection of Musical Books

Guitar Zero discussed that, as well as various ways to improve your musical habits. It gets a little repetitive, so it got harder to read as I got further along, but I adored the useful ways to get better at practicing. (I’m a sporadic player, and I really should be more consistent about working on my instruments!)

This Is Your Brain on Music was perhaps the most comprehensive, and occasionally exhaustive, overview. The musical jargon could be a lot at times, so I worked my way through it slowly. But I loved it. It’s the best for understanding how music affects the brain, and it’s written by a guy who literally can tell the difference between various types of tape that a recording studio uses just by the way the music sounds. It also pays attention to the different formats in which we listen — like how headphones have changed our music taste. Absolutely riveting.

The Song Machine was an engrossing look into how the music industry worked, and how we’re receptive to certain patterns and similarities. For anyone bemoaning how all modern music sounds the same, I’d encourage you to give it a shot!

Every Song Ever could be pedantic — massive words, obscure concepts, a little too much abstract criticism — but completely changed the way that I listen to music. The concepts I hold in my mind when I do. The book covers twenty different ways to listen and afterwards, I could genuinely listen to the same song dozens of times and find new aspects to appreciate.

Absolutely on Music was a gem. Haruki Marukami had some wise conversation with a renowned composer, and their discussions were well-balanced. It’s a read that pays tribute and respect to an important figure Seiji Ozawa, and they cover a range of topics related to music and creativity. It’s rooted in specific songs, referencing particular moments and choices.

I’m excited to fully review each of these in time, but love being able to share them as an overview for those interested in music, art, or why we love the things we love. I relished my time with these books.

Rationality, Kindness, and Emotion

Several of my favorite books are ones that allow me to distance myself from emotional experiences — to view immersive experiences through a very particular, logical lens that helps me to understand them. I think that’s especially helpful to couple with the empathetic and reflective properties of fiction — mirror neurons firing when you read about characters undergoing certain conflicts or joys. (Part of why I’m not reading fiction right now: I feel like I could use a little less of that!)

It’s always tempting to feel as though there’s some grand secret to living well that you just haven’t found yet, and exploring various options through books is a nice way to discover it. I love to read about the brain in a misguided attempt to understand it, and here are some of the gems I’ve found lately.


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Novel: How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett | Goodreads
Release Date: March 17, 2017
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: eBook
Source: Library

A new theory of how the brain constructs emotions that could revolutionize psychology, health care, law enforcement, and our understanding of the human mind.

Emotions feel automatic, like uncontrollable reactions to things we think and experience. Scientists have long supported this assumption by claiming that emotions are hardwired in the body or the brain. Today, however, the science of emotion is in the midst of a revolution on par with the discovery of relativity in physics and natural selection in biology—ans this paradigm shift has far-reaching implications for us all.

Leading the charge is psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, whose theory of emotion is driving a deeper understanding of the mind and brain, and shedding new light on what it means to be human. Her research overturns the widely held belief that emotions are housed in different parts of the brain and are universally expressed and recognized. Instead, she has shown that emotion is constructed in the moment, by core systems that interact across the whole brain, aided by a lifetime of learning. This new theory means that you play a much greater role in your emotional life than you ever thought. Its repercussions are already shaking the foundations not only of psychology but also of medicine, the legal system, child-rearing, meditation, and even airport security.

Why do emotions feel automatic? Does rational thought really control emotion? How does emotion affect disease? How can you make your children more emotionally intelligent? How Emotions Are Made answers these questions and many more, revealing the latest research and intriguing practical applications of the new science of emotion, mind, and brain.

How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain surprised me. I’d expected it to have a formula: this is how happiness works, this is how sadness works, etc,. Instead, it argued that emotions are subjective, specific, and arising from circumstances. Part of the reason we feel emotion is that we’re constantly predicting where our lives will go next. It sounds basic, but it’s not. How Emotions Are Made is more theoretical than breaking down the neuroscience of emotion, which isn’t exactly what the synopsis indicates, but an interesting perspective that’s well-written and gave me food for thought.


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Novel: Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley | Goodreads
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Publisher: Knopf
Format: eBook
Source: Library

You are a mind reader, born with an extraordinary ability to understand what others think, feel, believe, want, and know. It’s a sixth sense you use every day, in every personal and professional relationship you have. At its best, this ability allows you to achieve the most important goal in almost any life: connecting, deeply and intimately and honestly, to other human beings. At its worst, it is a source of misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict, leading to damaged relationships and broken dreams.

How good are you at knowing the minds of others? How well can you guess what others think of you, know who really likes you, or tell when someone is lying? How well do you really understand the minds of those closest to you, from your spouse to your kids to your best friends? Do you really know what your coworkers, employees, competitors, or clients want?

In this illuminating exploration of one of the great mysteries of the human mind, University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley introduces us to what scientists have learned about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet—other people—and the surprising mistakes we so routinely make. Why are we sometimes blind to the minds of others, treating them like objects or animals? Why do we sometimes talk to our cars, or the stars, as if there is a mind that can hear us? Why do we so routinely believe that others think, feel, and want what we do when, in fact, they do not? And why do we believe we understand our spouses, family, and friends so much better than we actually do? Mindwise will not turn other people into open books, but it will give you the wisdom to revolutionize how you think about them—and yourself.

Like many of the other books I’ve read this summer, Mindwise focuses on cognitive biases. All the flawed ways in which we think we know what’s really going on, but are just playing into the circumstances and (incomplete) cues around us. Similarly to How Emotions Are Made, Mindwise doesn’t so much attempt to break down the science so much as presenting a perspective that we’re so, so wrong when we assume we know what others think. The bottom line? You can’t, but that doesn’t keep us from trying. Mindwise focused on the addictiveness of the idea of knowing others without hearing their backstories, thoughts, and spending a lot of time with them. It talked about the unbalanced standards we use to judge others without applying the same to ourselves. And it talks about fostering empathy through genuine equivalency. It was a little hard to get through — plain at times — but an excellent check for when we assume we know others without taking the time to actually listen to them. (The bottom line, especially considering the misunderstanding associated with living our lives online, is to just ask others and to listen to what they tell you.)


Novel: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor | Goodreads
Release Date: May 26, 2009
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Format: eBook
Source: Library

Kindness is the foundation of the world’s great religions and most-enduring philosophies. Why, then, does being kind feel so dangerous? If we crave kindness with such intensity, why is it a pleasure we often deny ourselves? And why—despite our longing—are we often suspicious when we are on the receiving end of it?

In this brilliant book, the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor examine the pleasures and perils of kindness. Modern people have been taught to perceive ourselves as fundamentally antagonistic to one another, our motives self-seeking. Drawing on intellectual history, literature, psychoanalysis, and contemporary social theory, this book explains how and why we have chosen loneliness over connection. On Kindness argues that a life lived in instinctive, sympathetic identification with others is the one we should allow ourselves to live.

Bursting with often shocking insight, this brief and essential book will return to its readers what Marcus Aurelius declared was mankind’s “greatest delight”: the intense satisfactions of generosity and compassion.

I love to read about empathy and kindness -- a reminder to always try and be a better person than I am. Plus, the rewards system behind kindness (a very Franny and Zooey-induced question of, is it actually selfless if it makes me feel good?) has always intrigued me. Any rational study of emotion does. I link to this speech on my listening page, but George Saunders’s “Congratulations, by the way” speech is one of my favorite reminders. I don’t think the world has gotten less kind — as some theorists speculate — but I do think it’s a constant choice. Reading this philosophical POV was a unique perspective I hadn’t considered: about kindness as a survival-oriented, unconscious, and evolutionary mechanism. While Phillips got Freudian REALLY quickly, On Kindness was a thorough, digestible read I’m grateful to have added to my list.