Neurology and the Philosophy of Art

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I wrote last week about Iacoboni’s book Mirroring People, and I’m sure you realised at that point that the small point I picked out to discuss was not the only thing I’d found interesting. The central theme of how we become more like each other is at the heart of the questions I set out to address in my book on choral conducting, so if I’m writing about that less here, it’s because I’ve already spent 5 years focused on that question (and indeed, talking about mirror neurons as part of how I answered it).

But there were also all sorts of twists and turns and ramifications in it that I found resonating with questions that musicians fret over.

One of these is a certain anxiety about writing or talking about what we do. Charles Rosen, for instance, claimed that:

Almost everyone agrees that performing and listening to music are primary activities; writing about music is secondary, parasitical.

At its most extreme, this mistrust of verbalising musical experience can lead to a hardcore view that ‘you should never analyse anything’. But this in turn becomes problematic because it then becomes impossible to unpick and resolve technical and artistic problems that people encounter as they learn how to practise their art. We need concepts in order to have a mental handle on what we’re doing.

Iacoboni’s book didn’t set out to address this, but it gave some insight into the source of the dilemma. One set of experiments he reports (p. 217) shows how people’s mirror neurons (the bits of our brains that drive learning by imitation) respond more strongly to observing actions in which we are expert than those we don’t know how to do ourselves. This tells us something about connoisseurship (why people who have learned music are more likely to go to concerts, for instance), but it also shows how the more we are trained in something, the more effective learners we become at it. Analysis and technical concepts, in this view, emerge as ways to strengthen our capacity to understand and thus join in with what others are doing.

But just a few pages later he tells us about the phenomenon of ‘verbal overshadowing’, also known as ‘translational dissociation’ (p. 221). This is a phenomenon whereby the act verbalising a perception (whether visual or aural) diminishes the vividness of the memory of that perception. The verbal description partially replaces the perceptual memory, so when we recall the experience, it is the description rather than the experience that comes more clearly to mind.

Well, this shows exactly why we are right to mistrust verbal descriptions of nonverbal experiences. (Thinking about it, this is probably also why DH Lawrence inveighed against ‘sex in the head’.) The act of describing our sensory perceptions distances us from them.

But as we have seen, without ways to explain our experiences to ourselves, we have no means to analyse or make sense of them. We would then remain at the mercy of events rather than developing the power to control the materials of our art or indeed to craft our own destinies. The irreconcilable dilemmas that philosophies of art have grappled with for years turn out be based in the very neurology of how we learn and interact with those arts.

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