The late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks had a big hit back in 2007 with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, addressing as it did from Sacks’ unquenchably brain- and music-curious perspective a connection almost all of us feel instinctively. We know we love music, and we know that love must have something to do with how our brains work, but for most of human history we haven’t had many credible explanations for what’s going on. But science has discovered more about the relationship between music and the brain, and we’ve posted about some of those fascinating discoveries as they come out. (Have a look at all the related posts below.)
But now, a study from MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research has revealed exactly which parts of our brains respond specifically to music. They’ve put out a brief video of this research, which you can watch above, explaining their process, which involved putting subjects into an MRI and playing them various sounds, then studying how their brains responded differently to music than to, say, the spoken word or a flushing toilet. Not looking to test any hypothesis in particular, the research team found “striking selectivity” in which regions of the brain lit up, in their specially designed analytical model, in response to music.
“Why do we have music?” asks the McGovern Institute’s Dr. Nancy Kanwisher in a New York Times article on the research by Natalie Angier. “Why do we enjoy it so much and want to dance when we hear it? How early in development can we see this sensitivity to music, and is it tunable with experience? These are the really cool first-order questions we can begin to address.” The piece also quotes Josef Rauschecker, director of the Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition at Georgetown University, citing “theories that music is older than speech or language,” and that “some even argue that speech evolved from music,” which “works as a group cohesive. Music-making with other people in your tribe is a very ancient, human thing to do.” Which all, of course, goes to support the bold hypothesis put forth by the late Tower Records: No Music, No Life.
Once upon a time, in the middle of World War II, there was a right way to do it. And a wrong way to do it. Are there rules in 2016? And what would they look like? That’s your homework assignment for this Valentine’s Day weekend.
We hear it so often it’s almost a cliché, one I’m sure I’ve repeated without giving it much thought: You can’t measure love in a laboratory. But we probably can, in fact. Or at least neuroscientists can. Last year, one joint Chinese and American team of neuroscientists did just that, defining the feeling we call love as “a motivational state associated with a desire to enter or maintain a close relationship with a specific other person.” This doesn’t cover the love of pets, food, or sunsets, but it gets at what we celebrate with candy and red tchotchkes every year around this time, as well as the love we have for friends or family.
Using fMRI scans of three groups of 100 men and women, the researchers found that an “in-love group had more increased activity across several brain regions involved in reward, motivation, emotion, and social functioning,” reports Medical Daily. The longer people had been “in love,” the greater the brain activity in these regions. Whether the brain states cause the emotion, or the emotion causes the brain states, or they are one in the same, I can’t say, but the fact remains: love can be quantifiably measured.
Meanwhile, Brent Hoff separately decided to exploit this fact for what he calls a “Love Competition.” With the help of Stanford’s Center for Cognitive Neurobiological Imaging (CNI), Hoff enlisted seven contestants of varying ages—from 10 to 75—and genders to enter an fMRI machine and “love someone as hard as they can” for five minutes. Whoever generates the most activity in regions “producing the neurochemical experience of love” wins. Gives you the warm fuzzies, right?
While “the idea that love can be measured may seem deeply unromantic,” writes Aeon magazine, “the results were anything but.” The contestants were not restricted to romantic love. Ten-year-old Milo gives his love to a new baby cousin, because “she’s very cute.” Dr. Bob Dougherty of CNI predicts early on that an “older guy” like himself might win because experience would better help him control the emotion. But at the beginning, it’s anyone’s game. Watch the competition above and find out who wins.
Given that this is billed as the “1st Annual Love Competition,” might we expect another this year?
“We’re The Cramps, and we’re from New York City, and we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people.”
So begins one of the oddest but also the punkest of punk rock concerts in history, as The Cramps play for a crowd at a state mental hospital in Napa, California.
The date was June 13, 1978, a time when Napa was more known for the hospital than for its burgeoning wine industry.
Lead vocalist Lux Interior made this introduction after the first number, “Mystery Plane.” The band played on a patio, several steps above the courtyard at the institution, while the band’s friends hung out with the 100 or so patients in attendance.
“And somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that,” Lux continues in the video. “You seem to be all right to me.” Indeed, most everybody seems to be having a hell of a time, some dancing as if they’re at a sock hop, others just completely thrashing about.
This wasn’t the first band to have played at the institution, as the hospital’s Bart Swain, who invited The Cramps to Napa, often brought in musicians to expand the patients’ horizons. But on that night a video camera was also brought along to record the set. (Swain worried about preserving the anonymity of the residents.)
According to this article on the event, Napa State still stands but the chances of such a concert happening again are slim. The majority of its tenants are now both violent offenders and mentally unstable, too dangerous a venue for anybody to play, no matter how punk.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
From the very beginning of Europe’s incursions into the so-called New World, the ecology, the people, and the civilizations of the Americas became transmuted into legend and fantasy. Early explorers imagined the landscape they encountered as filled with marvels—creatures that arose from their own unconscious and from a literary history of exotic myths dating back to antiquity. And as the native people assumed the character of giants and monsters, savages and demons in travel accounts, their cities became repositories of unimaginable wealth, ripe for the taking.
Foremost among these legends was the city of El Dorado. Sought by the Spanish, Italians, and Portuguese throughout the 15th and 16th centuries and by Walter Raleigh in the 17th, “El Dorado,” says folklorist Jim Griffith, “shifted geographical locations until finally it simply meant a source of untold riches somewhere in the Americas.” A couple hundred years after Raleigh’s last ill-fated expedition, Edgar Allan Poe suggested the location of this city: “Over the Mountains of the Moon, down the Valley of the Shadow, ride, boldly ride… if you seek for El Dorado.”
These colonial encounters, and the feverish accounts they produced, “contained the seeds,” says Gabriel García Márquez in his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “of our present-day novels.” El Dorado, “our so avidly sought and illusory land,” remained on imaginary maps of explorers well past the age of exploration: “As late as the last century, a German mission appointed to study the construction of an interoceanic railroad… concluded that the project was feasible” only if the rails were made of gold.
As Márquez’s work has often recounted, especially his epic One Hundred Years of Solitude, other commodities sufficed when the gold didn’t materialize, and the struggle between conquerors, adventurers, mercenaries, dictators, and opportunists on the one hand, and people fiercely determined to survive on the other has made “Latin America… a boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend. We have not had a moment’s rest.”
Márquez’s speech, “The Solitude of Latin America,” weaves together the region’s founding history, its literature, and its bloody civil wars, military coups, and “the first Latin American ethnocide of our time” into an accumulating account of “immeasurable violence and pain,” the result of “age-old inequities and untold bitterness… oppression, plundering and abandonment.” To this catalogue, “we respond with life,” says Márquez, while “the most prosperous countries have succeeded in accumulating powers of destruction such as to annihilate, a hundred times over… the totality of all living beings that have ever drawn breath on this planet of misfortune.”
From the utopian dream of cities of gold and endless wealth, we arrive at a dystopian world bent on destroying itself. And yet,“faced with this awesome reality,” Márquez refuses to despair. He quotes from his literary hero William Faulkner’s Nobel speech—“I decline to accept the end of man”—then articulates another vision:
We, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.
Everybody knows Neil Gaiman, but they all know him best for different work: writing comic books like Sandman, novels like American Gods, television series like Neverwhere, movies like MirrorMask, an early biography of Duran Duran. What does all that — and everything else in the man’s prolific career — have in common? Stories. Every piece of work Gaiman does involves him telling a story of one kind or another, and so his profile in the culture has risen to great heights as, simply, a storyteller. That made him just the right man for the job when the Long Now Foundation, with its mission of thinking far back into the past and far forward into the future, needed someone to talk about how certain stories survive through both those time frames and beyond.
“Do stories grow?” Gaiman asks his years-in-the-making Long Now lecture, listenable on Soundcloud right below or viewable as a video here. “Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes.” He goes on to bring out examples from cave paintings, to secret retellings of Gone with the Wind in a Nazi concentration camp, to a warning to future generations not to dig into nuclear waste sites — designed for passage into the minds of posterity as a robustly crafted story.
Stories, writes the Long Now Foundation founder Stewart Brand, “outcompete other stories by hanging over time. They make it from medium to medium — from oral to written to film and beyond. They lose uninteresting elements but hold on to the most compelling bits or even add some.” He knows that, Gaiman knows that, and I think that all of us who have told stories sense its truth on an instinctive level: “The most popular version of the Cinderella story (which may have originated long ago in China) has kept the gloriously unlikely glass slipper introduced by a careless French telling.”
Another beloved British teller of tales, Douglas Adams, also had thoughts on the almost biological nature of literature. “We were talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Gaiman recalled elsewhere, “which was something which resembled an iPad, long before it appeared. And I said when something like that happens, it’s going to be the death of the book. Douglas said no. Books are sharks.” And what did he mean by that? “Sharks have been around for a very long time. There were sharks before there were dinosaurs, and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.” So not only do the best stories evolve to last the longest, so do the forms they take.
As a callow young art student in high school, I dearly wanted, and tried, to see the world with the same furious intensity as Vincent van Gogh, and to capture that kind of vision on paper and canvas. I later realized with chagrin as I stood in a line several blocks long for a wildly popular exhibit (Van Gogh’s Van Goghs at the National Gallery of Art) that I was but one of millions who wanted to see the world through Van Gogh’s eyes.
After waiting for what seemed like forever, not only could I barely get a glimpse of any of the paintings through the scrum of tourists and gawkers, but I felt—in my protective bubble of Van Gogh veneration—that these people couldn’t possibly get Van Gogh the way I got Van Gogh.
Well, everybody has their own version of Van Gogh, perhaps, but one I’ve outgrown is the mad, magical genius whose mental illness acted as a tragic but necessary condition for his transcendently passionate work. Maybe it’s age and some familiarity with life’s hardship, but I no longer romanticize Van Gogh’s suffering. And perhaps a more realistic view of what was likely debilitating bipolar disorder has given me an even greater appreciation for his accomplishments. During the brief 10-year period that Van Gogh pursued his art, he was as dedicated as it’s possible to be—producing nearly 900 canvases and over 1,100 works on paper, and altering the way we see the world, all while experiencing severely crippling bouts of depression, anxiety, and self doubt; having his neighbors ostracize and evict him from his home; and spending most of his final year in an institution.
Sadly, he felt himself a mediocrity at best, a failure at worst. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, “in 1890,” the final year of his life, “he modestly assessed his artistic legacy as of ‘very secondary’ importance.” (This despite the appreciation he’d begun to receive from several gallery showings.) The posthumous reception of his work—ubiquitously reproduced and admired by countless throngs in exhibit after exhibit—can do nothing now to lift his spirits, but surely vindicates his prodigious effort. Van Gogh’s fame has had the unfortunate side effect of crowding out many students of his art from gallery exhibitions. Yet this difficulty need not now prevent them from surveying and seeing up close his huge body of work in digital archives like that of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the largest Van Gogh collection in the world.
By entering the collection, you can see, for example, Self Portrait with Straw Hat, at the top, from 1887, or the strikingly similar portrait of his brother and staunch supporter Theo from the same year, just below it. Further down is the darkly humorous Head of a Skeleton With a Burning Cigarette from 1886, and just above, see an 1882 letter to Theo, with a beautiful sketch of a Pollard Willow, an image he committed to canvas that year. Just below, see an interesting example of the very beginnings of Van Gogh’s posthumous canonization—an 1891 cover sketch and short tribute article in the French satirical magazine Les hommes D’Aujourd’hui.
You can search or browse the collection, and download and view these images, and many hundreds more paintings, sketches, drawings, letters, and much more, in resolution high enough to zoom in to every individual brushstroke and ink pen flourish. [When you click on an image in the collection, look for the down arrow ↓ that lets you start a download.] Missing from the experience is the three-dimensionality of Van Gogh’s heavily textural painting, but nowhere else will you have this level of accessibility to so much of his work and life.
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Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.