Dr Mark Changizi is a theoretical neurobiologist, aiming to grasp the ultimate foundations underlying why we think, feel and see as we do. Why we have evolved to do the kinds of things we do or have the body structures that we have.
During his research into culture, he wondered: How is it that we came to write and have language and music?
We read incredibly well, most of us read more than we listen in this day and age. It seems to be quite instinctive but we know that we didn’t evolve like this as reading has only been apparent in relatively recent years. Initially only a very small group of people could actually read it. Our brains are the same so how is it that we can now read so well?
Culture has devised writing systems that are good for our brains. But what is the brain good at seeing and processing?
Our brains are good at seeing and naturally processing natural scenes, which are the 3D objects all over our environment. This environment has certain ways that the contours of shapes intersect with each other. If you look around you see a lot of L junctions (where two contours intersect at their corners) and T junctions (where one contour goes behind another contour). X junctions (where two contours cross) are rare as you need partial transparency. There are 32 of these different kinds of junctions. Some of these junctions happen in nature and some don’t. But you can write all of them.
The junctions that commonly happen in nature are the ones that we find more commonly across writing systems, as we are using visual brain processing. If they don’t happen in nature our brain is poorer at processing as it has had less reason to do so before.
The argument is that our writing systems are shaped to look like nature because that is what we are good at processing. This is how culture harnesses a brain that is illiterate and turns it into a literate brain – by changing writing into something that it is good at processing. We now have areas of our brain that neuroscientists call the visual word form areas, because they are so specialised at recognising words. It is a case of harnessing the brain and enabling it to do a new kind of task that it had not originally planned for.
The case for speech is similar as we don’t have speech areas in our brain that allow us to speak. But in the case of language it is not about seeing 3D objects in the world but recognising auditory events. All animals are good at recognising the kinds of sounds that occur in their environments and these sounds are built out of certain kinds of structures.
In Marks book “Harness” he works out what sounds occur in natural object events. Most objects are solid in our world and they can hit each other, slide and vibrate/rings. These are the three basic atoms of sounds in our environment, which align to the three basic atoms that we find in language.
- Hits sound like pulses like “pla”, “ta”, “ca”….
- Slides sound like fricatives “shhh”, “sss”
- Rings happen when objects vibrate and sound like vowels or sonorants “y” (said why).
Most words start with a hit or a slide, because rings happen afterwards. In language the basic part to a syllable is “pa” or “ba” or “sha”. The basic sound in language is not “abb” or “yudd” which sound like you are playing something backwards – backwards events. We don’t like the syllables that we make words out of to sound like backwards events. Our brains have not evolved in a world like that because of the way that natural events occur.
So this is the beginning of the story of how our spoken language harnesses our auditory recognition events system.
The story of music is slightly different. We don’t listen to language all day long but we are often happy to listen to music 24/7 – in the car, at work, in your headphones whilst working out. You can have it constantly with you – it can make you cry, it can make you move to it.
The kinds of stimuli that have that kind of effect on you are usually the sounds of other humans. Things that are most evocative to a creature are those from the same species. So in what way could music be the sounds of people?
Music could be the sounds of a person moving so what sounds do we actually make when we move?
We have footsteps which provide a beat, we have time-locked rhythmic things that occur with those footsteps depending upon what kind of gate you have such as the way that your arms are swinging or the kinds of sound that your body makes when you move. These are rhythmic aspects relative to the basic beat.
We have loudness modulations depending upon how close we are to another person. People are louder when they are closer and quieter when they are further away.
We also have pitch modulations – when a train goes directly towards you it is high pitched, when it moves away it is low pitch. These things happen in the natural environment as well. The meaning of pitch is often the direction of the movement relative to the you. Imagine a car coming up behind you and passing – it makes a sound like “neeeeowww”. If you heard ‘neeeeiii’ you would hear that it was veering towards you and you would move out of the way. We are so good at reading the pitches, we don’t even notice that we are doing it.
Music seems to have tempos at the same speed of human movement. Many regularities in the signature of walking human movement are found in the structure of music.
Our human behaviour recognition system, is utilised by music composers. Music feels good to the composers and listeners because music is a story about human movement and this is also why we like to dance to it. Choreographers want to put people moving to music rather than books falling off shelves or jelly wobbling. Music is really about a person moving, created at the level that our lower auditory system understands but are not consciously aware of.
There is something in music that taps into the fundamental nature of being human. Its a product of cultural revolution, where shaping this weird and designed music invention, wraps around our evolved minds and fits us perfectly.
Find Dr Mark Changizi’s books on Amazon – “Harnessed” on the origins of music and language, “Vision Revolution” is about colour and why your eyes face forwards, writing systems and why we see illusions.