What We Miss About Music – A Human Connection

Music, as much as it is an auditory experience; requires a face – a personality.

In this Spotify age, we are spoon-fed with playlists of reasonable music and only so rarely do we hear something of character, that we go back to the main player to identify the song and singer. Even then, these identified songs will eventually be forgotten, as other new hits come along.

So, how does a singer get and retain our attention? Firstly, as mentioned, the song must have character. It must be pleasing (of course) and slightly different according to our various tastes. For me, indie songs are a dime a dozen and the only ones that stand out are those with great vocals and awesome lyrics. Of course, everything about the song has to be genuine, and not sound pretentious, if you know what I mean.

Secondly, the singer must put his/her face, or rather the personality to the music. That is the only way to make a lasting connection. The reason why some people loved Nirvana and still do, is because of the personality of Kurt Cobain – someone so sad and intense, but doomed by heroin. The reason why people will always remember Prince and Freddie Mercury is because of their larger-than-life persona on stage.

Being able to observe a singer – the way he/she performs, and what he/she says – gives one a deeper understanding of the music created, and enables one to form a connection with the singer, albeit through a screen. When one looks at another’s facial expression, so much is told without words, and that is when music becomes human and human-connected.

When I observed a video of Hozier at the Mahogany Session, I saw in his brief introduction, a humble musician. I was immediately drawn towards him and his great vocals carried me through the rest of the song. When I watched Jeff Buckley’s performance, I saw his intense passion for music, and how genuine he was; needless to say, another musician remembered.

Hence, in order for singers to retain an audience, they must put their personality to music. The greatest indulgence is an unplugged session – only vocals and simple instruments. Perhaps then, Spotify should consider generating more content: videos, short biographies and quotes, to create lasting connections between artist and audience.

Lovaas’ Punishment of Electric Shock

As gleaned from the book, NeuroTribes:

In the book, Science and Human Behaviour (1951), B. F. Skinner cautioned on the use of aversive. He explained that while aversive may seem to stop undesirable behaviour quickly, the behaviour often returns with a vengeance after the punishment stops, because one has not been taught more adaptive ways to behave. Also, punishment creates fear, guilt and shame, resulting in less learning overall. 

Skinner also advised against the use of aversive in research. He propounded, “In the long run, punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency.” 

O. I. Lovaas disregarded the advice when working with Beth, an autistic child. He punished her for a range of behaviour that included hand flapping, rocking, spinning and other forms of self-stimulation. Based on his own experiments, he concluded that stimming made autistic children less sensitive to sounds, which hindered learning. He also believed that extinguishing this “garbage behaviour” would reduce a major source of stigma for autistic people and their families. 

Eventually, researchers would discover that autistic people stim to reduce anxiety – and also simply because it feels good. In fact, harmless forms of self-stimulation may facilitate learning by freeing up executive-functioning resources in the brain that would otherwise be devoted to suppressing them. 

[This reinforces my previous post on the importance of skepticism towards authority.]

After Lovaas’ work with Beth, he conducted a series of experiments with a pair of five year old twin boys named Mike and Marty.

For one of his first rounds of experiments, his punishment was exceptionally loud sound. He aimed blasts of “well over 100” decibels at them – comparable to the roaring of a power saw at close range. His aim was to produce “pain or fear” so that they may learn to seek safety in adults. The results were disappointing as the twins did not respond to the punishment that could have caused physical damage to the eardrum

Hence, Lovaas turned to electric shock. He argued, “It is important to note, in view of the moral and ethical reasons which might preclude the use of electric shock, that their future was certain institutionalisation.”

He taped strips of metal foil to the floor and wired them to a modified Faraday coil. When the grad students tested the aversive barefooted, they remarked that it was “definitely painful and frightening”.

In a typical round of trials, a researcher would say “Come here,” beckoning to the boy with outstretched arms. If he didn’t approach within three seconds, he would get a shock. The same procedure was repeated over and over again, for hundreds of trials. In just a few sessions, the twins learned to jump into the researchers’ arms to avoid the painful shocks. Lovaas deemed these experiments a stunning success.

In a subsequent round of trials, instead of the electrified floor, he employed a remote-controlled device (used in canine obedience tests) affixed to the boys’ buttocks. A researcher would ask either twin to  “hug me” or “kiss me” and apply shock if the boy didn’t do so in three seconds. Lovaas noted that their behaviour “changed markedly toward increased affection.”

Next, Lovaas subjected the twins to strict behaviourist diet: no food at all, seven days a week, but the token scraps earned by performing a complex social task while pressing a bar to avoid shock. Water deprivation was also stringently enforced. 

In order to legitimise his unorthodox techniques, he invited members of the press down to the lab to watch him in action. Before his demonstration, he showed them footage of children who had attempted to chew through their own limbs or bite off their nails with their teeth. His message was clear: This is what autism looks like if it is left untreated. 

Even journalists who might normally be troubled by the use of electric shock, were persuaded by his solemn pronouncements that “No one punishes who isn’t prepared to devote a major part of his life to that child. Nobody punishes a child who doesn’t also love that child.” One reporter was so impressed that he dubbed Lovaas a visionary – a “poet with a cattle prod”. 

Life magazine brought Lovaas to international fame with a profile that ran under the headline “Screams, Slaps, and Love.” It praised his work as “a surprising, shocking treatment that helps far-gone mental cripples” and the article shaped public perceptions of autism for decades to come.

It is clear to our conscience that the above punishments amount to abuse. It is appalling that many doctors, researchers, students, journalists and parents deemed these methods as acceptable. Hence, it is important to gain more information across sources and regard loud voices – of authority, of media – with circumspect. Also, one needs to form one’s own moral and ethical judgment by reading more.

Furthermore, the use of electric shock tools is not just a question of “Is this ethical when used on a child deemed mentally handicapped?”; it is also a question of “Is this ethical at all?” The response of the child mimicked that of an animal: I would do anything to avoid pain. What makes it unacceptable in the former and acceptable in the latter? 

What is Love?

The beauty of religion is the placing on pedestal, human ideals. With reference to Christianity, in Corinthians, the bible expounds on love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 

Certainly, most of us will fail at least one of the above ethos and that is why God’s love is so coveted; it is absolute and perfect. It is what humans cannot achieve and by this notion, God retains supremacy over our most innate need: love.

Compare the biblical definition of love to the song, “Love”, by late John Lennon:

Love is real, real is love
Love is feeling, feeling love
Love is wanting to be loved

Love is touch, touch is love
Love is reaching, reaching love
Love is asking to be loved

Love is you
You and me
Love is knowing
We can be

Love is free, free is love
Love is living, living love
Love is needing to be loved

This description of love is real as it is human. It is simple, yet it describes our common experience fully. For me, this is enough for human love.

For me, love is an active consideration for another. It is putting yourself in his shoes and understanding how he wants to be loved. As the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, “understanding is love’s other name”; so one cannot give love without understanding the recipient’s wants and needs. Furthermore, one’s wants and needs change with time, over stages in life. Love is not a feeling suspended in clouds; it is supported in the form of a relationship. It is important to continually work on strengthening the structure of the relationship, so that love may be sustained; and in the process, friendship between two may flourish. 

Beware of Progression into Non-humanism

This world is a growing pool of humans: labels and numbers. The increasing use of technology allows data analysts to put us like points on the map, record our behaviour and for what purpose? The predominant answer is profit.

It was and is still true to say that ‘money makes the world go round’. Data analysts use our charted behaviour to find our trend of spending, and sell this data to corporations that can afford it. These corporations then work in stealth to influence and coax our spending. Of course, governments use big data, to monitor and supervise our behaviour, and rules change without us really understanding why.

One must question if anomalies pop up on these charts. If yes, then are these the ones who are left out, marginalised and vulnerable in our society? Then do we do anything with this data, to help them? If anomalies do not show, then are we excluding people from our view, our consideration and our humanity?

In the book, Awakenings, late Dr Oliver Sacks propounds the folly of medicine to reduce complex human experience to data, and warns of our reduction of humanism:

“The whole of this book is concerned with these questions – ‘How are you?’. ‘How are things?’ – as they apply to certain patients in an extraordinary situation. There are many legitimate answers to this question: ‘Fine!’, ‘So-so’, ‘Terrible!’, ‘Bearing up’, ‘Not myself’, etc.; evocative gestures; or simply showing how one is […] All of these are intuitively understood, and picture for one the state of the patient. But it is not legitimate to answer this metaphysical question with a list of ‘data’ or measurements regarding one’s vital signs, blood chemistry, urinalysis, etc. A thousand such data don’t begin to answer the essential question; they are irrelevant and, additionally, very crude in comparison with the delicacy of one’s sense and intuitions.

[…] Folly enters when we try to ‘reduce’ metaphysical terms and matters to mechanical ones: worlds to systems, particulars to categories, impressions to analyses, and realities to abstractions. This is the madness of the last three centuries, the madness which so many of us – as individuals – go through, and by which all of us are tempted. It is this Newtonian-Lockean-Cartesian view […] which reduces men to machines, automata, puppets, dolls, blank tablets, formulae, ciphers, systems and reflexes. It is this, in particular, which has rendered so much of our recent and current medical literature unfruitful, unreadable, inhuman and unreal.

There is nothing alive which is not individual: our health is ours; our diseases are ours; our reactions are ours – no less than our minds or our faces. Out health, diseases and reactions cannot be understood in vitro, in themselves; they can only be understood with reference to us, as expressions of our nature, our living, our being-here (da-sein) in the world.”

Hence with our increasing reliance on technology, we must not forget the importance of paying attention to human experience. We must view with circumspect, our progression towards non-humanism, towards exclusion of people in need. 

How to Survive 

As evolutionized animals, we ought to have innate abilities to navigate the world and survive in it. By nature, we should have astute senses of observation and a keen sense of suspicion. Hence, the birds fly home before a storm and the queen ant never allows another from its colony to procreate. 

Unfortunately, we’ve become so mobile-absorbed that we bump into others on the streets or stand in the way of racing cyclists. We’ve lost the habit and skill of observation, of our environment and others. Many social experiments prove our lack of ability by switching out elements without us realising. For example, a man conversing with us could change his bag covertly without us ever realising. This is also why most of us make great victims of theft.

We have too abandoned our suspicion, to trust in authority and society. Certainly, the men in blue must serve justice and the men in white must deliver us from our sins. How do we know the truth of their character or its consistency? 

Hence, this brings me to our current hussle with fake news. If we have keener senses of observation, we can sniff out biasness and fluff with little effort. If we are more skeptical, we will employ due dilligence to ascertain truth. If we return to polish our innate abilities, we can navigate and survive in a world that is becoming more primal, more dangerous. If we are just plain lazy, then we have no one else to blame for our belief in falsehoods.

The Importance of Humour

Living in a conservative, practical-minded and serious Asian family leaves little room for humour. My encounter with humour as a growing child was limited to “Just for Laughs” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Occasionally, my father who is possibly the only humorous one in my family, would crack a joke that only I would laugh to. 

Then one grows up and watches Anchorman, Borat, Tropic Thunder, etc. and even begin to like Amy Schumer. What I’m saying is, it is great to laugh and not take life too seriously. It is in fact, important for survival, especially for people who are going through hard times in life. 

In the moving mini documentary of people suffering from Usher Syndrome, Danny showed his incredible sense of humour. As he suffered from tunnel vision, his perception was limited to a small rectangular frame. He described it as looking through two cardboard toilet rolls.  Despite his condition, he made the following hilarious comments about the time when President Clinton requested to taste his cajun cooking:

“The secret service came in and checked me all out, and made sure that I didn’t put in too much spices or to burn it. Now I forgot to put the tabasco sauce in the basket and I didn’t know whether the president liked it spicy or not, so I made it mild. And finally in the distance, we saw three great big black limos, and up on the buildings there were all these sharp shooters and they were pointing their guns at us. They came to the airplane. When President Clinton got out, he shook my hand. President Clinton has got a really big head, and he’s a tall, tall guy and he told me he loved cajun food.”

In a conversation on using the sense of smell instead of sight, he brought up a funny example:

“There was this woman who was losing her vision and she had the keenest sense of smell. It was funny because there was this one time she gave a person a hug and she smelled him, and then she gave another person a hug… and through her sense of smell, she realised that these two persons were having a sexual relationship.”

If persons suffering from disabilities can be humorous, we ought not to take our lives too seriously and learn to laugh at ourselves.