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.

Our Limited Abilities

It is common for us to tell ourselves, “I can’t do math.”, “I can’t write poetry.”, “I can’t etc…” and it is only so because we are limited by our environment.

I refer to environment strictly from the viewpoint of an average middle-class citizen of a first world country, as it is not the purpose of this post to consider those limited by poor circumstance.

For most average middle-class citizens, our lives flow in general monotony: work – home – work – home. We live in a structured economy and society that enables us to have regular incomes, regular spending and regular lives. This is why we have become quite regular too. We are predictable, functional and exceedingly normal. Our environment has shaped us so.

Hence we shudder to consider acquiring new skills or knowledge that demand commitment or a leap of faith. How many of us will start learning piano in our 40s or even in our 20s? We have work to do and money to churn. How many of us take up a new sport in our 30s? We have enough exercise running after our kids.

To take this inertia further, I propose that we have an inability to create new skills and knowledge.

Consider this: You are locked in a cell, and have absolutely nothing to entertain yourself with. Day after day, you edge on the madness of boredom. In order to occupy your mind, would you turn over what you have learnt and create something, anything?

Such was the experience of Brian Keenan, an Irish teacher who was unfortunately kidnapped in Lebanon. Together with journalist, John McCarthy, they devised elaborate hand signals to communicate with two Americans in an opposite cell. How many of us consider it possible to devise a method of communication? (and without Google’s help)

In our safe and comfortable lives, we deny ourselves the possibility of learning, creating, of becoming so much more than we can. Yet, what is there to complain of, when we are not imprisoned; or are we?

Be Morbid

A sense of morbidity is healthy; for the ponderance of death informs life.

Most of us live in relative monotony and take comfort in the lack of change. This sense of continuity causes us to take for granted – life. We deny the possibility of sudden death as that would be too impossible to happen to us, right? Yet we all learn from the news, that young men die in marathons and good folks pass away in accidents. It is definitely possible for us to die without reason.

Hence, blessed are those who know when they may die; and the rest of us should maintain some fear of dying. We should ask ourselves, “If I were to die tomorrow, would I be satisfied with life?”, “If I were to die after we part, have I told you that I love you?”, “If I were to die tonight, have I left a mark?”

Pleasure of Knowledge

“We have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure and exists in us by pleasure alone…the knowledge both of the poet and the man of science is pleasure…poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man.” – Lyrical Ballads by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

It is valuable to born again this pleasure – of accumulation and making sense of knowledge. This self-motivated endeavour enriches one’s soul as well as mind, and makes one a more wholesome being. Also, to derive by instinct an understanding of the world; to uncover truths between lines of poetry; is mysterious and exciting. It gives one the opportunity to be an explorer in this set world, and to discover for himself his own philosophy. 

Question More

“The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where one question grew before.” – Thorstein Veblen, 1908

The pleasure of learning is in finding more doubts; and to learn that these questions can lead to more questions; to infinite learning opportunities. It is with the expansion of questions that we can expand our minds. 

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?