Turning the Pages of an Illuminated Medieval Manuscript: An ASMR Museum Experience

Page turn­ing is to ASMR as the elec­tric bass is to rock.

The Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um’s pop­u­lar Autonomous Sen­so­ry Merid­i­an Response video series (find it here) has seen episodes devot­ed to icon­ic Sec­ond Wave fem­i­nist mag­a­zines and a cou­ple of late 20th-cen­tu­ry pop up artist’s books, but the parch­ment pages of this medieval antiphonary — or choir­book — make for some tru­ly leg­endary sounds.

Audio design­er and per­for­mance-mak­er Julie Rose Bow­er deserves a por­tion of the cred­it for height­en­ing the aur­al expe­ri­ence for her use of the ambison­ics for­mat.

Kudos too to Nation­al Art Library Spe­cial Col­lec­tions cura­tor Cather­ine Yvard…if she ever wants a break from medieval man­u­script illu­mi­na­tion and Goth­ic ivory sculp­ture, she could spe­cial­ize in extreme­ly sooth­ing voiceover nar­ra­tion.

It’s rare to find such plea­sur­ably tingly ASMR sen­sa­tions paired with allu­sions to the some­what bar­barous process of mak­ing parch­ment from ani­mal skins, but that’s what illu­mi­na­tor Francesco dai Lib­ri, and his son Giro­lamo were work­ing with in 1492 Verona.

Our ears may not be able to detect much dif­fer­ence between the skin sides and flesh sides of these remark­ably well pre­served pages, but Bow­er does due dili­gence, as Yvard slow­ly drags her fin­gers across them.

No need to fear that Yvard’s bare hands could cause harm to this 530-year-old object.

Experts at the British Library have decreed that the mod­ern prac­tice of don­ning white gloves to han­dle antique man­u­scripts decreas­es man­u­al dex­ter­i­ty, while height­en­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of trans­ferred dirt or dis­lodged pig­ments.

The stur­dy parch­ment of this par­tic­u­lar antiphonary has seen far worse than the care­ful hands of a pro­fes­sion­al cura­tor.

Pages 7, 8, 9 have been singed along the bot­tom mar­gins, and else­where, the goth­ic hand let­ter­ing has been scraped away, pre­sum­ably with a knife, in prepa­ra­tion for a litur­gi­cal update that nev­er got entered.

If your brain is cry­ing out for more after spend­ing 15 and a half inti­mate min­utes with these medieval pages, we leave you with the snap crack­le and pop of oth­er items in the V&A’s col­lec­tion:

Treat your ears to Vic­to­ria and Albert’s full ASMR at the Muse­um playlist here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

5 Ways to Build an Alzheimer’s-Resistant Brain: Neuroscientist Lisa Genova Explains

Though not eas­i­ly dealt with in main­stream enter­tain­ment, Alzheimer’s dis­ease has inspired pop­u­lar works of fic­tion. Take the 2007 nov­el Still Alice by Lisa Gen­o­va, lat­er adapt­ed into a fea­ture film star­ring Julianne More. As a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, Gen­o­va brought an under­stand­ing of the sub­ject by no means com­mon among nov­el­ists in gen­er­al. Since her debut she has pub­lished four more nov­els, all of them built around char­ac­ters suf­fer­ing from neu­ro­log­i­cal impair­ments of one kind or anoth­er. But her lat­est book, last year’s Remem­ber: The Sci­ence of Mem­o­ry and the Art of For­get­ting, is a work of non­fic­tion, and in the video above she dis­cuss­es a few of its points about how to build an “Alzheimer’s-resis­tant brain.”

After briefly explain­ing the bio­log­i­cal process­es behind Alzheimer’s (and assur­ing her old­er view­ers that their day-to-day for­get­ful­ness is prob­a­bly noth­ing to wor­ry about), Gen­o­va offers five ways to ward off their effects. The first is sleep­ing, which gives glial cells, “the jan­i­tors of your brain,” time to clear away the amy­loid plaque that sets the dis­ease in motion if left to accu­mu­late.

Keep­ing a Mediter­ranean diet — full of “green leafy veg­eta­bles, the bright­ly col­ored fruits and berries, fat­ty fish­es, nuts, beans, olive oils” — has sim­i­lar­ly salu­tary effects. So does engag­ing in reg­u­lar exer­cise, which also comes with the ben­e­fit of reduc­ing chron­ic stress, a con­di­tion that inhibits the for­ma­tion of neu­rons involved in mak­ing new mem­o­ries.

Gen­o­va names yoga, med­i­ta­tion, mind­ful­ness, and “being with peo­ple” as oth­er ele­ments of an Alzheimer’s-resis­tant life. But she saves for last the strat­e­gy per­haps most rel­e­vant to Open Cul­ture read­ers. “If you’ve lived a life where you’re cog­ni­tive­ly active, you’re reg­u­lar­ly learn­ing new things. You are build­ing what we call a ‘cog­ni­tive reserve.’ Every time you learn some­thing new, you’re build­ing new synaps­es.” All the neur­al con­nec­tions thus estab­lished will help you “dance around those road­blocks” put up by the ear­ly effects of Alzheimer’s or oth­er dele­te­ri­ous men­tal con­di­tions. This means that no mat­ter how young you are, you’ll ben­e­fit lat­er from form­ing the habit of learn­ing new things on a dai­ly basis. As for which new things you learn — 1,700 free cours­es worth of which we’ve gath­ered here — that’s entire­ly up to you.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

How Music Can Awak­en Patients with Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

For­mer Bal­le­ri­na with Demen­tia Grace­ful­ly Comes Alive to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

The French Vil­lage Designed to Pro­mote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to the Pio­neer­ing Exper­i­ment

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

Hear a Neuroscientist-Curated 712-Track Playlist of Music that Causes Frisson, or Musical Chills

Image by Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

This Spo­ti­fy playlist (play below) con­tains music by Prince and the Grate­ful Dead, Weez­er and Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day, Kanye West and Johannes Brahms, Hans Zim­mer and David Bowie, Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart and Radio­head. Per­haps you’d expect such a range from a 712-track playlist that runs near­ly 66 hours. Yet what you’ll hear if you lis­ten to it isn’t just the col­lec­tion of a mod­ern-day “eclec­tic” music-lover, but a neu­ro­sci­en­tist-curat­ed arrange­ment of pieces that all cause us to expe­ri­ence the same sen­sa­tion: fris­son.

As usu­al, it takes a French word to evoke a con­di­tion or expe­ri­ence that oth­er terms sim­ply don’t encom­pass. Quot­ing one def­i­n­i­tion that calls fris­son “a sud­den feel­ing or sen­sa­tion of excite­ment, emo­tion or thrill,” Big Think’s Sam Gilbert also cites a recent study sug­gest­ing that “one can expe­ri­ence fris­son when star­ing at a bril­liant sun­set or a beau­ti­ful paint­ing; when real­iz­ing a deep insight or truth; when read­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly res­o­nant line of poet­ry; or when watch­ing the cli­max of a film.”

Gilbert notes that fris­son has also been described as a “pilo­erec­tion” or “skin orgasm,” about which researchers have not­ed sim­i­lar “bio­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal com­po­nents to sex­u­al orgasm.” As for what trig­gers it, he points to an argu­ment made by musi­col­o­gist David Huron: “If we ini­tial­ly feel bad, and then we feel good, the good feel­ing tends to be stronger than if the good expe­ri­ence occurred with­out the pre­ced­ing bad feel­ing.” When music induces two suf­fi­cient­ly dif­fer­ent kinds of emo­tions, each is height­ened by the con­trast between them.

Con­trast plays a part in artis­tic pow­er across media: not just music but film, lit­er­a­ture, dra­ma, paint­ing, and much else besides. But to achieve max­i­mum effect, the artist must make use of it in a way that, as Gilbert finds argued in a Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­o­gy arti­cle, caus­es “vio­lat­ed expec­ta­tion.” A fris­son-rich song primes us to expect one thing and then deliv­ers anoth­er, ide­al­ly in a way that pro­duces a strong emo­tion­al con­trast. No mat­ter your degree of musi­cophil­ia, some of the 712 tracks on this playlist will be new to you, allow­ing you to expe­ri­ence their ver­sion of this phe­nom­e­non for the first time. Oth­ers will be deeply famil­iar — yet some­how, after all these years or even decades of lis­ten­ing, still able to bring the fris­son.

via Big Think

Relat­ed con­tent:

Music That Helps You Write: A Free Spo­ti­fy Playlist of Your Selec­tions

How Good Are Your Head­phones? This 150-Song Playlist, Fea­tur­ing Steely Dan, Pink Floyd & More, Will Test Them Out

Eve­lyn Glen­nie (a Musi­cian Who Hap­pens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Lis­ten to Music with Our Entire Bod­ies

Why Do Sad Peo­ple Like to Lis­ten to Sad Music? Psy­chol­o­gists Answer the Ques­tion in Two Stud­ies

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Is There Life After Death?: John Cleese and a Panel of Scientists Discuss That Eternal Question

“I am six­ty-five years old,” said John Cleese as he began one year’s con­vo­ca­tion address at my uni­ver­si­ty, “which is near­ly dead.” It got enough of a laugh that I’m not sur­prised to find, look­ing it up all these years lat­er, that he seem to have deployed the line many times since. “I’m now incred­i­bly old,” he said last year in a video urg­ing com­pli­ance with coro­n­avirus rules. “I’m near­ly dead. I am 81 years of age.” Nev­er­the­less, he remains decid­ed­ly non-dead (and indeed active on Twit­ter) today, though no doubt real­i­ty-based enough to accept that he’s no less mor­tal than his fel­low Pythons Gra­ham Chap­man and Ter­ry Jones, who’ve pre­ced­ed him into the after­life — if indeed there is an after­life.

That very ques­tion ani­mates the 80-minute con­ver­sa­tion above. Put on by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Virginia’s Divi­sion of Per­cep­tu­al Stud­ies at the 2018 Tom Tom Fes­ti­val, it places Cleese at the head of a pan­el of sci­en­tists charged with prob­ing one ques­tion: is there life after death?

Many will find the evi­dence dis­cussed here fair­ly per­sua­sive, espe­cial­ly the doc­u­ment­ed “near-death expe­ri­ences.” In these cas­es “we have height­ened men­tal thoughts when your brain isn’t func­tion­ing; we have accu­rate per­cep­tions from out­side the body; we have meet­ings with deceased loved ones who you did­n’t know had died; we have meet­ings with deceased loved ones whom you did­n’t know, peri­od; and we don’t have a good phys­i­cal expla­na­tion for this.”

So says Bruce Greyson, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Psy­chi­a­try and Neu­robe­hav­ioral Sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, one of the pan­el’s five dis­tin­guished non-Pythons. The oth­ers are Jim B. Tuck­er, the Divi­sion of Per­cep­tu­al Stud­ies direc­tor; Edward Kel­ly, one of its Pro­fes­sors of Research; Emi­ly Williams Kel­ly, one of its Assis­tant Pro­fes­sors of Research; and UVA Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Neu­robe­hav­ioral Sci­ences Kim Pen­berthy. Their work sug­gests to them that, while near-death expe­ri­ences may not reflect the detach­ment of soul from body, nei­ther do they seem to be straight­for­ward hal­lu­ci­na­tions. The trou­ble with mount­ing a rig­or­ous inves­ti­ga­tion into such a rare phe­nom­e­non is the nec­es­sar­i­ly small num­ber of cas­es. These researchers might thus con­sid­er tak­ing on Cleese him­self as a sub­ject; after all, the man’s self-pro­fessed state of near-death has last­ed more than fif­teen years now.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Elie Wiesel (RIP) Talks About What Hap­pens When We Die

Hear Kurt Von­negut Vis­it the After­life & Inter­view Dead His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures: Isaac New­ton, Adolf Hitler, Eugene Debs & More (Audio, 1998)

Carl Sagan Answers the Ulti­mate Ques­tion: Is There a God? (1994)

John Cleese Plays the Dev­il, Makes a Spe­cial Appeal for Hell, 1966

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Mozart Sonatas Can Help Treat Epilepsy: A New Study from Dartmouth

Many and bold are the claims made for the pow­er of clas­si­cal music: not just that it can enrich your aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ty, but that it can do every­thing from deter juve­nile delin­quen­cy to boost infant intel­li­gence. Mak­ing claims for the lat­ter are CDs with titles like Baby Mozart: Music to Stim­u­late Your Baby’s Brain, a case of trad­ing on the name of one of the most beloved com­posers in music his­to­ry. Alas, the propo­si­tion that clas­si­cal music in gen­er­al can make any­one smarter has yet to pass the most rig­or­ous sci­en­tif­ic tri­als. But recent research does sug­gest that Mozart’s music in par­tic­u­lar has desir­able effects on the brain: his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major on epilep­sy-afflict­ed brains in par­tic­u­lar.

For about 30 years the piece has been thought to reduce symp­toms of epilep­sy in the brain, a phe­nom­e­non known as the “K448 effect” (the num­ber being a ref­er­ence to its place in the Köchel cat­a­logue). Recent work by researchers at the Geisel School of Med­i­cine, Dart­mouth-Hitch­cock Med­ical Cen­ter (DHMC) and Dart­mouth College’s Breg­man Music and Affec­tive Sound Lab has gone deep into the work­ings of that effect, and you can read the results free online: the paper “Musi­cal Com­po­nents Impor­tant for the Mozart K448 Effect in Epilep­sy,” pub­lished just last month in Nature. What they’ve found sug­gests that the K448 effect is real: that the piece is effec­tive, to be more spe­cif­ic, in “reduc­ing ictal and inter­ic­tal epilep­ti­form activ­i­ty.”

Writ­ing for non-neu­ro­sci­en­tists, Madeleine Mudza­kis at My Mod­ern Met explains that when the researchers “played the tune while mon­i­tor­ing brain implant sen­sors in the sub­jects,” they detect­ed “events known as inter­ic­tal epilep­ti­form dis­charges (IEDs). These brain events are a symp­tom of epilep­sy and are harm­ful to the brain.” But “after 30 sec­onds of lis­ten­ing to the sonata, the sub­jects expe­ri­enced notice­ably few­er IEDs,” and “tran­si­tions between musi­cal phas­es lead to larg­er effects, pos­si­bly because of antic­i­pa­tion being cre­at­ed which cul­mi­nates in the pleas­ant nature of a shift­ed tune.” These neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly sooth­ing qual­i­ties may also have some­thing to do with the plea­sure all Mozart afi­ciona­dos, epilep­tics or oth­er­wise, feel when they hear the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major — or what they don’t feel when they hear Wag­n­er, whose music was here employed as the con­trol that every prop­er sci­en­tif­ic exper­i­ment needs.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear All of Mozart in a Free 127-Hour Playlist

The Wicked Scene in Amadeus When Mozart Mocked the Tal­ents of His Rival Anto­nio Salieri: How Much Does the Film Square with Real­i­ty?

Mozart’s Diary Where He Com­posed His Final Mas­ter­pieces Is Now Dig­i­tized and Avail­able Online

How Music Can Awak­en Patients with Alzheimer’s and Demen­tia

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: The Real Perceptual Disorder That May Have Shaped Lewis Carroll’s Creative World

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land isn’t just a beloved chil­dren’s sto­ry: it’s also a neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal  syn­drome. Or rather the words “Alice in Won­der­land,” as Lewis Car­rol­l’s book is com­mon­ly known, have also become attached to a con­di­tion that, though not harm­ful in itself, caus­es dis­tor­tions in the suf­fer­er’s per­cep­tion of real­i­ty. Oth­er names include dys­metrop­sia or Tod­d’s syn­drome, the lat­ter of which pays trib­ute to the con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist John Todd, who defined the dis­or­der in 1955. He described his patients as see­ing some objects as much larg­er than they real­ly were and oth­er objects as much small­er, result­ing in chal­lenges not entire­ly unlike those faced by Alice when put by Car­roll through her grow­ing-and-shrink­ing paces.

Todd also sug­gest­ed that Car­roll had writ­ten from expe­ri­ence, draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the hal­lu­ci­na­tions he expe­ri­enced when afflict­ed with what he called “bil­ious headache.”  The trans­for­ma­tions Alice feels her­self under­go­ing after she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bot­tle and eats the “EAT ME” cake are now known, in the neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, as macrop­sia and microp­sia.

“I was in the kitchen talk­ing to my wife,” writes nov­el­ist Craig Rus­sell of one of his own bouts of the lat­ter. “I was huge­ly ani­mat­ed and full of ener­gy, hav­ing just put three days’ worth of writ­ing on the page in one morn­ing and was burst­ing with ideas for new books. Then, quite calm­ly, I explained to my wife that half her face had dis­ap­peared. As I looked around me, bits of the world were miss­ing too.”

Though “many have spec­u­lat­ed that Lewis Car­roll took some kind of mind-alter­ing drug and based the Alice books on his hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry expe­ri­ences,” writes Rus­sell, “the truth is that he too suf­fered from the con­di­tion, but in a more severe and pro­tract­ed way,” com­bined with ocu­lar migraine. Rus­sell also notes that the sci-fi vision­ary Philip K. Dick, though “nev­er diag­nosed as suf­fer­ing from migrain­ous aura or tem­po­ral lobe epilep­sy,” left behind a body of work that has has giv­en rise to “a grow­ing belief that the expe­ri­ences he described were attrib­ut­able to the lat­ter, par­tic­u­lar­ly.” Suit­ably, clas­sic Alice in Won­der­land syn­drome “tends to be much more com­mon in child­hood” and dis­ap­pear in matu­ri­ty. One suf­fer­er doc­u­ment­ed in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture is just six years old, younger even than Car­rol­l’s eter­nal lit­tle girl — pre­sum­ably, an eter­nal seer of real­i­ty in her own way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Beau­ti­ful 1870 Visu­al­iza­tion of the Hal­lu­ci­na­tions That Come Before a Migraine

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Orig­i­nal Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed Man­u­script for Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land (1864)

Lewis Carroll’s Pho­tographs of Alice Lid­dell, the Inspi­ra­tion for Alice in Won­der­land

Ralph Steadman’s Warped Illus­tra­tions of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land on the Story’s 150th Anniver­sary

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, Illus­trat­ed by Sal­vador Dalí in 1969, Final­ly Gets Reis­sued

Curi­ous Alice — The 1971 Anti-Drug Movie Based on Alice in Won­der­land That Made Drugs Look Like Fun

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Why Do We Dream?: An Animated Lesson

Why do we dream? It’s a ques­tion sci­ence still can’t answer, says the TED-Ed les­son above by Amy Adkins. Many neu­ro­sci­en­tists cur­rent­ly make sense of dream­ing as a way for the brain to con­sol­i­date mem­o­ry at night. “This may include reor­ga­niz­ing and recod­ing mem­o­ries in rela­tion to emo­tion­al dri­ves,” writes com­pu­ta­tion­al neu­ro­sci­en­tist Paul King, “as well as trans­fer­ring mem­o­ries between brain regions.” You might imag­ine a defrag­ging hard dri­ve, the sort­ing and fil­ing process hap­pen­ing while a com­put­er sleeps.

But the brain is not a com­put­er. Impor­tant ques­tions remain. Why do dreams have such a pow­er­ful hold on us, not only indi­vid­u­al­ly, but — as a recent project col­lect­ing COVID dreams explores — col­lec­tive­ly? Are dreams no more than gib­ber­ish, the men­tal detri­tus of the day, or do they con­vey impor­tant mes­sages to our con­scious minds? Sev­er­al mil­len­nia before Freud’s The Inter­pre­ta­tion of Dreams, “Mesopotami­an kings record­ed and inter­pret­ed their dreams on wax tablets.” A thou­sand years lat­er, Egyp­tians cat­a­logued one hun­dred of the most com­mon dreams and their mean­ings in a dream book.

The ancients were con­vinced their dreams car­ried mes­sages from beyond their con­scious­ness. Many mod­ern the­o­rists begin­ning with Freud have seen dreams as pure­ly self-ref­er­en­tial, and neu­rot­ic. “We dream,” the les­son notes, “to ful­fill our wish­es.” Instead of mes­sages from the gods, dreams are sym­bol­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion from uncon­scious repressed dri­ves. Or, “we dream to remem­ber,” as some con­tem­po­rary neu­ro­sci­en­tists claim, or “we dream to for­get” as a neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal the­o­ry called “reverse learn­ing” argued in 1983. Dreams are exer­cis­es for the brain, rehearsals, night­time prob­lem solv­ing … the les­son touch­es briefly on each of these the­o­ries in turn.

But what­ev­er answers sci­ence pro­vides will hard­ly sat­is­fy human curios­i­ty about the con­tent of our dreams. For this, per­haps, we should look else­where. We might turn, for exam­ple, to the Muse­um of Dreams, “a hub for explor­ing the social and polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of dream-life.” Philo­soph­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries of dream­ing are all spec­u­la­tive. “Rather than seek a defin­i­tive expla­na­tion, the Museum’s goal is to explore the gen­er­a­tive and per­for­ma­tive nature of dream-life — all the remark­able ways peo­ple have put their dreams to work.” Before we share and, yes, inter­pret our dreams with oth­ers, they remain, in Toni Morrison’s words, “unspeak­able things unspo­ken.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Do Our Dreams Pre­dict the Future? Vladimir Nabokov Spent Three Months Test­ing That The­o­ry in 1964

Do Octopi Dream? An Aston­ish­ing Nature Doc­u­men­tary Sug­gests They Do

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Take an Intellectual Odyssey with a Free MIT Course on Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

In 1979, math­e­mati­cian Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Esch­er, and com­pos­er J.S. Bach walked into a book title, and you may well know the rest. Dou­glas R. Hof­s­tadter won a Pulitzer Prize for Gödel, Esch­er, Bach: an Eter­nal Gold­en Braid, his first book, thence­forth (and hence­forth) known as GEB. The extra­or­di­nary work is not a trea­tise on math­e­mat­ics, art, or music, but an essay on cog­ni­tion through an explo­ration of all three — and of for­mal sys­tems, recur­sion, self-ref­er­ence, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, etc. Its pub­lish­er set­tled on the pithy descrip­tion, “a metaphor­i­cal fugue on minds and machines in the spir­it of Lewis Car­roll.”

GEB attempt­ed to reveal the mind at work; the minds of extra­or­di­nary indi­vid­u­als, for sure, but also all human minds, which behave in sim­i­lar­ly unfath­omable ways. One might also describe the book as oper­at­ing in the spir­it — and the prac­tice — of Her­man Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, a nov­el Hesse wrote in response to the data-dri­ven machi­na­tions of fas­cism and their threat to an intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion he held par­tic­u­lar­ly dear. An alter­nate title (and key phrase in the book) Mag­is­ter Ludi, puns on both “game” and “school,” and alludes to the impor­tance of play and free asso­ci­a­tion in the life of the mind.

Hesse’s eso­teric game, writes his biog­ra­ph­er Ralph Freed­man, con­sists of “con­tem­pla­tion, the secrets of the Chi­nese I Ching and West­ern math­e­mat­ics and music” and seems sim­i­lar enough to Hof­s­tadter’s approach and that of the instruc­tors of MIT’s open course, Gödel, Esch­er, Bach: A Men­tal Space Odyssey. Offered through the High School Stud­ies Pro­gram as a non-cred­it enrich­ment course, it promis­es “an intel­lec­tu­al vaca­tion” through “Zen Bud­dhism, Log­ic, Meta­math­e­mat­ics, Com­put­er Sci­ence, Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Recur­sion, Com­plex Sys­tems, Con­scious­ness, Music and Art.”

Stu­dents will not study direct­ly the work of Gödel, Esch­er, and Bach but rather “find their spir­its aboard our men­tal ship,” the course descrip­tion notes, through con­tem­pla­tions of canons, fugues, strange loops, and tan­gled hier­ar­chies. How do mean­ing and form arise in sys­tems like math and music? What is the rela­tion­ship of fig­ure to ground in art? “Can recur­sion explain cre­ativ­i­ty,” as one of the course notes asks. Hof­s­tadter him­self has pur­sued the ques­tion beyond the entrench­ment of AI research in big data and brute force machine learn­ing. For all his daunt­ing eru­di­tion and chal­leng­ing syn­the­ses, we must remem­ber that he is play­ing a high­ly intel­lec­tu­al game, one that repli­cates his own expe­ri­ence of think­ing.

Hof­s­tadter sug­gests that before we can under­stand intel­li­gence, we must first under­stand cre­ativ­i­ty. It may reveal its secrets in com­par­a­tive analy­ses of the high­est forms of intel­lec­tu­al play, where we see the clever for­mal rules that gov­ern the mind’s oper­a­tions; the blind alleys that explain its fail­ures and lim­i­ta­tions; and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ever actu­al­ly repro­duc­ing work­ings in a machine. Watch the lec­tures above, grab a copy of Hofstadter’s book, and find course notes, read­ings, and oth­er resources for the fas­ci­nat­ing course Gödel, Esch­er, Bach: A Men­tal Space Odyssey archived here. The course will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How a Bach Canon Works. Bril­liant.

Math­e­mat­ics Made Vis­i­ble: The Extra­or­di­nary Math­e­mat­i­cal Art of M.C. Esch­er

The Mir­ror­ing Mind: An Espres­so-Fueled Inter­pre­ta­tion of Dou­glas Hofstadter’s Ground­break­ing Ideas

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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