Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Pleasure of Music

There is a new field of scientific endeavor called "neuroaesthetics" that studies the neural processes that underly our appreciation and production of artworks and the New York Times has an article on a dispute within the field: Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure.
A battle over pleasure has broken out. On Twitter and in the pages of scientific journals, psychologists, neurologists and neuroscientists are forging alliances over the question of whether pleasure we get from art is somehow different from the pleasure we get from candy, sex or drugs.
The debate was ignited by an opinion piece titled “Pleasure Junkies All Around!” published last year in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, Julia F. Christensen, a neuroscientist at the The Warburg Institute at the University of London who studies people’s responses to dance choreography, argued that many of us have been turned into “mindless pleasure junkies, handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot” provided by social media, pornography and sugar.
She offered up an unconventional solution: art, which she says engages us in ways these other pleasures do not and can “help overwrite the detrimental effects of dysfunctional urges and craving.”
The paper struck a nerve with some of her fellow art and pleasure researchers, who published a rebuttal last month in the same journal. The idea that the way that art engages the brain is somehow special has been around for far too long and it is time to kill it off once and for all, they insist.
I appreciate the efforts scientists put into trying to answer questions like this, but I often feel they are hamstrung by the very limitations of the scientific method. Prof. Christensen seems to have a more encompassing view:
Dr. Christensen, who studied dance before she became a neuroscientist, said she is not disputing that a single reward system processes all pleasures. But that does not eliminate the possibility that the arts also activate additional neural systems “related to memory processes, sense of self and reasoning that add something more to this pleasure.”
This “high-level pleasure” requires more scientific investigation. But given that we spend our lives chasing pleasures, she argues, why not try to better understand one of the few that “do not induce states of craving without fulfillment,” or cause health problems and instead make “you think and experience things differently.”
Well, sure. The first thing that occurs to me is why this myopic focus on pleasure, which seems to be limited to physical pleasure: sex, sugar and dopamine response? In the case of music, the range of responses would surely include, yes, physical pleasure in the way we respond to rhythm, mental pleasure in the delights of harmony and counterpoint, emotional responses to music of great depth of sadness, psychological responses to music that confuses or perplexes us and on and on. There are so many ways we respond to music that I can't even think of words for most of them!

Dr. Nadal, one researcher, says:
“humans appear to use only one pleasure system to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is.” He calls this discovery “one of the most important insights to emerge from the last 15 years of neuroscience,” and believes it shows that while enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may feel different, in our brains they are processed the same way.
The phrases "to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is" and "in our brains they are processed the same way" are to me, somewhat opaque. I don't know exactly what he means by these phrases, that appear to be perfectly simple, but likely are not.

Just speaking for my own aesthetic assessments, I find a lot of music unpleasant because it is excessively sweet or melodic with smooth, luxurious harmonies. Enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may be "processed in our brains" in the same way, whatever that means, but they are not similar experiences. For one thing, eating Cheez-Its may begin as a hunger response, but it can easily become an addictive cycle. Looking at a sculpture is neither of those things, but is instead an exploration of a configuration of space. The "pleasure" involved is perhaps akin to the pleasure of discovering a new landscape. A great deal of the most intense and profound musical experiences are only very loosely pleasurable at all. The music may involve extreme dissonances or the extreme contrast between dissonance and consonance and it may achieve its aesthetic goal by means of pleasure and pain. Music can be both soothing and brutally punishing, sometimes in the same piece.

Perhaps most telling of all is the misuse of the word "assess." Assessment, whether of an aesthetic object or a corporate balance sheet, is not an activity of the "pleasure system" at all. It is an intellectual activity using logic and reason even though the objects assessed may be experiences.

Here are three different pieces of music. Please explain to me how they are processed through the same pleasure system.

Monks singing Gregorian chant:

The English Beat performing "Mirror in the Bathroom":

Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima:

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