Saturday, September 30, 2006

"Brainpower" -> Phonemes and Tonality (Part II)


Part II: Now from the previous section, we know that the brain goes through a settling process. This is not, however, strictly neural apoptosis (a fancy way of saying pre-programmed cell death). Not to say that a ton of brain cells don't die (which is another subject well worth discussing), but that something else happens to our brains—the software gets loaded.

For purposes of discussing this, we need to understand just a bit about the brain. Most people have a brain, but they really don't know anything about the way the brain is put together. I find this fascinating, since the brain is the major tool that we have, yet people don't even want to think about it. (Pun intended.)

The brain major functions, for purposes of this post, will be divided into two pieces:

1. Brain cells
2. Brain connections

The lay person might think about "brain cells" as the most important factor in the brain. Well it isn't.

The cell connections are the most important. Really, all people have, give or take, roughly the same amount of brain cells. The big difference is how they are all hooked together, or the synaptic connections. If you want to simplify this, think of the synaptic connections as "the software." Everybody gets roughly the same computer; however, we get different software. Even those that don't know about the brain, such as the young Noam Chomsky, could derive that there was some type of an intrinsic software programming toward language.

Once we get past 10-11, we go through a synapse rearrangement or synaptic remodeling. This means that the software in our brain starts to complete itself. What is cool, is that this is a bit like getting a version of a word processor. You may get an English version (if you grow up in the US) or a Chinese version of a word process (if you grow up in China). Once the word processor software is loaded, you can type a trashy love novel, or you can type "War and Peace." However, an English word processor will have a difficult time typing in the great Chinese novel in Mandarin. Why? Because the English word processor doesn’t have Mandarin characters. And unfortunately, once you get the software loaded, there really isn’t a way for you to load a different version in.

Piaget recognized this with his schema ideas, but he didn’t relate this all the way back to the intrinsic wiring of the brain.

Now there is a fine line here that gets totally, and I mean totally, goofed up by the academics as you get away from the true neural scientists. Many academics get trapped in thinking that settling is confining. “Oh, they weren’t trained at a young age, therefore, they are stuck.” This idea won’t be the main thought of the rest of the post, but I want to digress for a minute.

The best way to think about this is that you have one set language that you can work with, but a million ways to use that language (or tones). Norman Weinberger spent some time talking about this on his Musica website, which he no longer updates. However, he points to how people can learn instruments at an old age, and even become accomplished musicians. Those that grew up in the west, will find that the basic wiring for western music is in their brains although they never studied music. These people could not, however, become accomplished in africian Kasena music. Perhaps, they could emulate it a bit since Western music overlaps Kasena music, but they could never become accomplished.

However, here is the kicker, if you are reading this in English and grew up in a Western culture, guess what. You’re with the winning team.

What do I mean? The basics of the European and American tonality (often call 12-TET) has gone through out the world, and this basic musical meme is proving to be the dominate meme. Everything else is becoming recessive. I blame this victory on the piano, that required 12-TET tuning to sound good and to allow composer to compose.

This isn’t to say that non-12-TET doesn’t crop up as a delightful favoring to the music, but in reality, the European tonality has won. Youssou N'Dour may bring a wonder “non-western” flavor to his music, but in reality, the songs scream “I use your language.” Only this is a musical language. His mbalax (combination of African and Western music) is more west and less African. Let me clear, however, I am not saying that the African content is less important. Think of this as garlic on your favorite disk. When you order a “garlic” dish, you are not ordering a dish that is mostly garlic, what you are doing is ordering a dish that the favor of garlic stands out and may be the most important thing in the dish, even though it is not the major ingredient.

So now that I’ve finished this posting, you may think to yourself, “well that is depressing.” It may seem that a whole part of the world is closed off to you because you are over 10 years old and the brain has set. However, this is just half of the story. As I hinted about earlier when I mentioned Weinberger, although the software is set, you can do amazing things with the software you got. And in reality, the knowledge base of the world is finding out that we can make some basic patches to our own software, and perhaps even put a couple of “hot rod” components into our hardware to make us run better and faster.

So the question is “now that I have my limits, how to I expand upon my base?”

And this is for a future post.

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