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William Benzon is an old prof of mine who has a book out on music and cognition. Here's an abstract (found on this page):

Why does the brain create music? What is it about certain abstract patterns of sound that makes us want to dance? How can songs have deep emotional power despite lyrics that are simple and trite?

We tend to think of the arts as luxuries rather than necessities, and as inventions of society rather than evolution. Yet the origin of musical ability was a turning point in the evolution of modern humans. Every culture, without exception, has some form of music. Is this really a luxury or does it answer some basic biological need? If so, what? In Beethoven's Anvil, William Benzon takes up the fascinating and unexplored link between music and the brain. Among early humans, he says, there was no distinction between music, dance, ritual and religion--they were all part of the same activity, and this activity used every part of the conscious brain.

Language, movement, vision, emotion, hearing, touch and social interaction were all involved. In fact, Benzon argues, music is necessary precisely because it engages so many different parts of the brain. It literally keeps the brain in tune with itself and with the brains of others. The ultimate form of musical experience is that feeling of oneness with a larger entity that we identify as transcendent religious experience. We feel this way because that's precisely what the brain is doing: becoming one with a larger unit, the human tribe.

submitted by on 2003-01-30T20:35 | Comment | Permalink

Durn good article on Joel Mokyr's latest, The Gifts of Athena. A rash of innovations like those that made the Industrial Revolution possible is not in itself a remarkable thing, and is no guarantee of future prosperity. What changed was the way knowledge was shared and how bridges were built between those who practiced "useful" and scientific knowledge. This is why the Industrial Revolution was sustained past 1820. As well, the generalizing and theorizing of knowledge made it possible to economize by avoiding dead ends and to apply "foresight" instead of blind trial and error:

Connecting practical invention to broader "epistemic knowledge" also avoids blind alleys. "When no one knows why things work," Professor Mokyr writes, "potential inventors do not know what will not work and will waste valuable resources in fruitless searches for things that cannot be made, such as perpetual-motion machines or gold from base metals."
submitted by on 2002-12-09T04:47 | Comment | Permalink

Lynn Gamwell's Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual makes the following claim:

'I propose that two catalysts contributed to the precipitation of abstract art: the scientific worldview that developed after the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and the secular concepts of the spiritual that developed thereafter.'

No direct causation here, just catalysts contributing to precipitation. Still, it'll be interesting to see how she goes about supporting her thesis. Look for it in November 2003.

submitted by on 2002-10-24T19:08 | Comment | Permalink

Rupert Christiansen reviews Frederic Spotts's Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics. This book will be out in North America early 2003, I believe:

'Stalin terrorised people, Hitler seduced them. Or so suggests Frederic Spotts in this masterly and disturbing study of the uses that the Nazi state made of myth, symbol, ritual, spectacle, image and the tradition of Western high art.

'Hitler in these pages is presented as neither politician nor warmonger. Debate and diplomacy irritate and bore him; bloodshed and racism are ultimately only the means to a necessary destruction from which a purified Aryan soul would emerge. Spotts reminds us that Hitler's totalitarian revolution was not primarily social in thrust either: he left administration, industry, agriculture and the army much as he found them. What engaged him more profoundly was the challenge of recasting German culture according to his own tastes and fantasies.'

submitted by on 2002-10-21T01:03 | Comment | Permalink

Haven't read it so I can't recommend it. Interest piqued by the the Newscan item pasted below. Although what she says is somewhat glib, it does get applied to mythology in her book:

'Author Shirley Park Lowery calls on her knowledge of human myth-making to write about man's search for cosmic order.

'"Whenever a person walks in on the middle of a film or a conversation, or starts a new friendship, opens a book, takes a new job, or moves to a new city, his first need is to orient himself. We all must know, in a general way, what to expect so that we can plan and respond intelligently and feel comfortable. And although all animals work with their senses and brains to orient themselves, human being do something unique. We live less simply and directly in the world than do other animals. We make a version of a world, an interpretation of it, and then we live in that. The degree of comfort and success that we achieve in our lives depends on how well that interpretation suits our circumstances.

'"Another way to state this idea is that genetically built into people is a special organizing mode of perception. The philosopher Susanne Langer calls this mode transformational: we are co- creators of our own perceptions. In the very act of physically perceiving, we interpret; we transform the raw data gathered by our senses into complex symbolic meanings. We literally cannot function and survive without seeing in our world evidence of order and purpose. We take nothing at face value; we systematize, explain, weave a large network of connected meanings.

'"While nonhuman animals toil for their lives, play, or lie in the sun -- do whatever is suitable for the moment -- only people fret and practice and struggle to achieve distant or abstract goals. We are the only animals who live partly removed from our immediate physical circumstances. This extravagance is the source of our language, art, science, music, religions, philosophies: those things we value most. Aside from such direct physical causes of death as hunger, exposure, old age, or disease, the one circumstance we truly cannot survive is living in a raw, uninterpreted place -- in chaos. Each of us either finds a meaning in some traditional religion or philosophy or patches together one of his own, or else he panics, loses the will to live, and, in one way or another perishes."'

submitted by on 2002-09-26T02:19 | Comment | Permalink

about this category

reading pile

This is the "to read" pile. The works listed here have come to my attention but since I haven't read them, I don't want to slot them into one of the other official categories. Anything here looks like it might be interesting. If it turns out not be it will be deleted. If it is, it will be promoted to one of the other categories.