Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rhythm and Mind Control

No need to get out your tinfoil hats, I'm going to be critiquing the notion that rhythm controls our minds, not supporting it. Readers of the blog know how much I love to rip into neuroscientists doing research on music, something I posted about here and here. Today's example is from Scientific American entitled, "The Power of Music: Mind Control Through Rhythmic Sound." Here is the first paragraph:
You walk into a bar and music is thumping. All heads are bobbing and feet tapping in synchrony. Somehow the rhythmic sound grabs control of the brains of everyone in the room forcing them to operate simultaneously and perform the same behaviors in synchrony. How is this possible? Is this unconscious mind control by rhythmic sound only driving our bodily motions, or could it be affecting deeper mental processes?
First of all, lots of people don't bob their heads to the beat all the time. Observe for yourself, the next time you are in a bar. Secondly, if it were me, I would probably be turning around and walking out the door, because I hate beats thumping at me. This is why I don't hang out in bars since they invented loudspeakers. Believe me, the medieval pub, with a lutenist quietly plucking in the corner, is more to my taste. So this assumption, that the beat grabs everyone's brain, forcing them to do anything, is very simply wrong. But that's what the research is going to 'prove', hence the opening paragraph. The author believes that:
Rhythmic sound “not only coordinates the behavior of people in a group, it also coordinates their thinking—the mental processes of individuals in the group become synchronized.”
 I don't want to quote the whole thing. For one thing, it is very badly written in turgid sciencese. But one thing easily seen is that this scientist, Annett Schirmer, is musically unsophisticated. She refers to the pattern of a four beat measure with the first three beats sounded and the fourth beat skipped as a "syncopation" which of course it is not. A syncopation, as I explain in some detail here , is the stressing of what would normally be a weak beat. Skipping a beat is just skipping a beat. In the music biz we call that a "rest". They tested subjects by flashing images at them, some of which were inverted. The subjects identified inverted images faster when they occurred on the missing beat, the rest. They come up with a convoluted explanation of this as follows:
Somehow, the brain’s decision making was accelerated by the external auditory rhythm and heightened at precise points in synchrony with the beat. Since the power of rhythm in boosting cognitive performance was evident on the missing beat when no sound was presented, the effect could not have had anything to do with the sound of the drumbeat acting as a stimulus. Mental processing must have fallen into a rhythm of heightened expectation and superior performance on the anticipated beat.
"Somehow"? Well, it is pretty simple really, the three beats were distracting. Thumping beats usually are. The rest was a moment of calm, so not distracting. The fact that the beats bracketed the rest tended to point to it. There is more, but I think you get the sense of the research. Quality stuff this is not. Schirmer's conclusions are:
“Rhythm facilitates our interpersonal interactions in term of not only how we move, but how we talk and think,” she concludes. “Rhythm facilitates people interacting by synchronizing brain waves and boosting performance of perception of what the other person is saying and doing at a particular point in time.” Rhythm, whether the lyrics to a song or the meter of a poem facilitates language processing, she concludes, and she is now undertaking new experiments to further test this idea. “When people move in synchrony they are more likely to perceive the world in synchrony, so that would facilitate their ability to interact.”
There is a simple grain of truth in this that opera composers have been making use of for centuries: you can differentiate two, three, even four or more different parts sung by different characters by giving them different rhythms and melodies. The amazing thing is that you can follow the different parts simultaneously because of the rhythmic organization. Just look at a Mozart opera for an example. Music can organize language through rhythm, "facilitating language processing". The rhythms of poetry similarly make memorization easier. Again, something known for, uh, millenia. What is horrifying in this approach is the assumption that people are vacant receptacles for thumping beats with no will of their own. A world of mere head-bangers.

Let's clear our heads with a little music. A march:


Joel Lo Observador said...

Hello Bryan!

Well… This post made me think a lot. But not about the subject, actually… I’ll explain later.

First, I would have loved to read the scientific article (if there was any), and no just that article in a popular science magazine, so I could make a better critic.

Remember that in this kind of articles you never know how much stupidity come from the scientist or the writer of the article (ha ha ha).

Before I clicked to the Scientific American link, I read all your post. And I told myself “No way! There’s no possible way that the research was like that”. And then I saw… Oh my God...The experiment with the images well… I don’t understand how they came up with that. The “bar” thing, I think it must be the writer’s invention. (I’m like you actually, I hate going to that places). But I think that there was something interesting, I mean, that stuff about the “brain waves” don’ you think?

Anyway, the conclusions… as you said: Nothing new


(If we have to criticize her) Nothing new because her conclusions are something researchers have been telling for a while. Not because musicians knew it since millennia. That’s my opinion.

I think that there’s a clash between the two worlds: music & science. And I think we must be careful with our biases. I don’t know if I told you already (or maybe you already could infer it) that I have scientific training (however, I don’t work in research) and of course, my passion is classical music. So… every time you talk about science, probably I’ll be here in the comments hehehe.

This clash… It happens both ways:

When she said that “syncopation” that doesn’t exist, you could say “she is musically unsophisticated”.

But trust me, if a researcher reads your “Well, it is pretty simple really, the three beats were distracting”. He’s going to say “He is scientifically unsophisticated”.

But I guess we can deal with that. Hehehe

But finally, one thing that really worries me:

The science information… maybe… we’re not reading the same things. I’m going to use a hypothetic past situation:

One day a scientist had to say: “That plant takes H2O and salts from the ground, takes CO2 from the air and with the energy of the sun, it creates its own biomass, so it can grow into a tree.”

An then the people said: “Duh… we have seen the trees growing from the ground since ever! What’s new?”

See my point?

I apologize for my long comment; I guess I was inspired.

Greetings Bryan! And I agree with Nathan: This music blog is the best!

Bryan Townsend said...

Joel, I very much appreciate you weighing in on my critique of science posts! Yes, I am coming from a different world and I take your point about my not being scientifically sophisticated. I've read a lot of science, but certainly have not practiced it!

Yes, it would be better to read the original and not the journalistic account--though I do expect Scientific American to be a bit higher standard. They were reporting, I believe, on a paper read at a conference so there may be no other source at present.

It is not so much that I am attacking the scientific approach as I am the message that is being disseminated in the media. I would like the ordinary reader to get a more complete picture.

I think that if someone is doing research into music, they should have some musical knowledge because that would help them to not make rudimentary mistakes. I think there was only one really technical musical term used in the article--syncopation--and it was used incorrectly!

But, ok, there may be something there about the brain waves. And I very much take your point about the tree. Science is going to look at music from a different point of view.