speculating on a nightingale’s song

Reading an older book by science pop-star Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, one of his speculations was something I hadn’t come across before, and it struck me as fascinating. I do not know if it is his or he borrowed it from some one else. However that may be, for me, this passage alone proves the point of his argument, i.e. that an understanding of science can inspire the human imagination and enhance our wonder of the world (as opposed to destroying it as some would argue because explanation would equal dispelling mystery). Obviously science can and does do a lot more, and may very well be our doom, but that is hardly the point. Mystery and the ideologies build upon it can be equally dark.

Anyways, Dawkins references Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and argues that it suggest the idea of the nightingale’s song working as a drug.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness —
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1820)

Read the words aloud and the images tumble into your brain, as if you really were drugged by a nightingale’s song in a leafy summer beechwood…

Now, as Keats does preciously little for me and might not get your juices flowing either (one might need a proper Briddish education for those images and vibes to start tumbling…), before continuing let me share a bit of infectious music (Thanks Jans!) that should convince anyone of the neuro-chemical effects of sound.

And just to prove my intellectual credentials, let me add a bit of much more subtle musical mind control, this one suggested by a piece on Murakami’s latest novel.

Back on topic:

Keats may not have intended it literally, but the idea of nightingale song working as a drug is not totally far-fetched. Consider what it is doing in nature, and what natural selection has shaped it to do. Male nightingales need to influence the behaviour of female nightingales, and of other males. Some ornithologists have thought of song as conveying information: ‘I am a male of the species Luscinia megarhynckos, in breeding condition, with a territory, hormonally primed to mate and build a nest.’ Yes, the song does contain that information, in the sense that a female who acts on the assumption that it is true could benefit thereby. But another way to look at it has always seemed to me more vivid. The song is not informing the female but manipulating her. It is not so much changing what the female knows as directly changing the internal physiological state of her brain. It is acting like a drug.

There is experimental evidence from measuring the hormone levels of female doves and canaries, as well as their behaviour, that the sexual state of females is directly influenced by the vocalizations of males, the effects being integrated over a period of days. The sounds from a male canary flood through the female’s ears into her brain where they have an effect that is indistinguishable from one that an experimenter can procure with a hypodermic syringe. The male’s ‘drug’ enters the female through the portals of her ears rather than through a hypodermic, but this difference does not seem particularly telling.

The idea that birdsong is an auditory drug gains plausibility when you look at how it develops during the individual’s lifetime. Typically, a young male songbird teaches himself to sing by practising: matching up fragments of trial song against a ‘template’ in his brain, a pre-programmed notion of what the song of his species ‘ought’ to sound like. In some species, such as the American song sparrow, the template is built in, programmed by the genes. In other species, such as the white crowned sparrow or the European chaffinch, it is derived from a ‘recording’ of another male’s song, made early in the young male’s life from listening to an adult. Wherever the template comes from, the young male teaches himself how to sing in such a way as to match it.

That, at least, is one way to talk about what happens when a young bird perfects his song. But think of it another way. The song is ultimately designed to have a strong effect on the nervous system  of another member of the species, either a prospective mate or a possible territorial rival who needs to be warned off. But the young bird himself is a member of his own species. His brain is a typical brain from that species. A sound that is effective in arousing his Own emotions is likely to be as effective in arousing a female of the same species. Instead of speaking of the young male trying to shape his practice song to ‘match’ a built-in ‘template’, we could think of him as practising on himself as a typical member of his species, trying out fragments of song to see whether they excite his Own passions, that is, experimenting with his own drugs on himself.

And, to complete the circuit, perhaps it is not too surprising that nightingale song should have acted like a drug on the nervous system of John Keats. He was not a nightingale, but he was a vertebrate, and most drugs that work on humans have a comparable effect upon other vertebrates. Man-made drugs are the products of Comparatively crude trial-and-error testing by chemists in the laboratory. Natural selection has had thousands of generations in which to fine-tune its drug technology. (p.79-81)

The above directly connects to other fascinating snippets I’ve picked up earlier, like neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran‘s observations about mirror neurons and Jaron Lanier‘s on the plasticity of our brains and how that potential connects us backward through evolutionary history with near every other living organism. Both of whom fit right in with Dawkins’ core argument about the power of science to enhance wonder. And as I am at it anyway, let me share another long quote, this one from anthropologist Edward T. Hall‘s The Dance of Life, The Other Dimension of Time (1983), one of those out-of-the-box thinkers and researchers who have acquired a fan following but seem to have been confined – kaltgestellt as my mother tongue would label it so evocatively – to the utter fringes of their discipline. 

But it’s another long quote so let’s first enjoy some visual priming that sets you up for exactly what the quote is not about. Yes it is about rythme and synchronicity, the kinda stuff we know from this (and no, these guys are not Chinese):

Obviously, other associations are possible and relevant:

Getting closer to Hall’s meaning is this great metaphor for working life (thanks Keiko!):

But also the latter still evokes countless hours of practice, conscious striving toward perfection, awe of onlookers at the level reached, enchantment by the seemingly extra-ordinary. While Dawkins, Ramachandran, Lanier and Hall, all point at the wonder within the ordinary, the wonder we are part of, every breath we take, the wonder we are unaware of unless jarred out of our automatic pilot.

. . . Rhythm is basic to synchrony. This principle is illustrated by a film of children on a playground. Who would think that widely scattered groups of children in a school playground could be in sync. Yet this is precisely the case. One of my students selected as a project an exercise in what can be learned from film. Hiding in an abandoned automobile, which he used as a blind, he filmed children in an adjacent school yard during recess. As he viewed the film, his first impression was the obvious one: a film of children playing in different parts of the school playground. Then — watching the film several times at different speeds, he began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. Concentrating on the girl, my student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground! There was something about the pattern of movement which translated into a beat — like a silent movie of people dancing. Furthermore, the beat of this playground was familiar! There was a rhythm he had encountered before. He went to a friend who was a rock music aficionado, and the two of them began to search for the beat. It wasn’t long until the friend reached out to a nearby shelf, took down a cassette and slipped it into a tape deck. That was it! It took a while to synchronize the beginning of the film with the recording — a piece of contemporary rock music — but once started, the entire three and a half minutes of the film clip stayed in sync with the taped music! Not a beat or a frame of the film was out of sync!

How does one explain something like this? It doesn’t fit most people’s notions of either playground activity or where music comes from. Discussing composers and where they get their music with a fellow faculty member at Northwestern University, I was not surprised to learn that for him, and for many other musicians, music represents a sort of rhythmic consensus, a consensus of the core culture. It was clear that the children weren’t playing and moving in tune to a particular piece of music. They were moving to a basic beat which they shared at the time. They also shared it with the composer, who must have plucked it out of the sea of rhythm in which he too was immersed. He couldn’t have composed that piece if he hadn’t been in tune with the core culture.

Things like this are puzzling and difficult because so little is known technically about human synchrony. However, I have noted similar synchrony in my own films of people in public with no relationship with each other. Yet, they were syncing in subtle ways. The extraordinary thing is that my student was able to identify that beat. When he showed his film to our seminar, however, even though his explanation of what he had done was perfectly lucid, the members of the seminar had difficulty understanding what had actually happened. One school superintendent spoke of the children as “dancing to the music”; another wanted to know if the children were “humming the tune.” They were voicing the commonly held belief that music is something that is “made up” by a composer, who then passes on “his creation” to others, who, in turn, diffuse it to the larger society. The children were moving, but as with the symphony orchestra, some participants’ parts were at times silent. Eventually all participated and all stayed in sync, but the music was in them. They brought it with them to the playground as a part of shared culture. They had been doing that sort of thing all their lives, beginning with the time they synchronized their movements to their mother’s voice even before they were born. . . .

Before the Renaissance, God was conceived of as sound or vibration. This is understandable because the rhythm of a people may yet prove to be the most binding of all the forces that hold human beings together. As a matter of fact, I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music. (Hall, p.154-156)

It’s worth pointing out that synchronicity is receiving more attention these days, and Hall may someday be integrated into this ’emerging science’ as one of its more interesting predecessors. 


PS: What is weird, funny, confusing and ultimately a most emblematic sign of the human condition is that Dawkins’ reading of Keats poem may be totally wrong. The poem may not at all suggest the idea of the nightingale’s song working as a drug; it may rather present its effects as an alternative to drug induced forgetfulness and suicide. At least that is what this school teacher’s analysis of it argues:


About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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1 Response to speculating on a nightingale’s song

  1. Pingback: delivery beats content | roger henke's fancies

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