Why do we continue to power 41% of the world with coal power — a non-renewable, environmentally destructive cancer-on-wheels? Why are we causing earthquakes and destroying natural resources to switch from coal to natural gas?
Why do we insist on basing our music culture around exploiting musicians? Why do we focus on music’s role as entertainment while greatly ignoring the development of its far greater powers of social bonding, therapy, motivation, inspiration and personal development?
Why do we as individuals continue to embrace ideals that concentrate wealth among the already wealthy? Why do we put ourselves in entertainment comas instead of contributing to the betterment of ourselves and society?
Is it because there is no alternative? Hardly.
Is it because we are intrinsically bad people who make bad decisions? I don’t think so.
Is it because the man is keeping us down? I mean, he is, but we the people have always had the power to stick it to him.
Is it because of political, economic, social and technological pressures? Sure, but there’s a force even greater, the very thing that gives rise to these pressures.
Is it because of the wiring of our primitive, susceptible, arrogant human brains? That’s where I’m putting my money.
The neuroscience of free will is a fascinating subject. Scientists and philosophers have been studying it for ages, but in the last few decades we’ve made huge strides in understanding the brain with advanced technology.
The field is highly controversial, mainly because the findings suggest, at least in many cases, that free will may largely be an illusion. Our brains really are just neurochemical bags firing in response to stimuli, and we only become conscious of our actions after our brains unconsciously produce them. In other words, the “I” in us is more of a passenger than a driver.
On the one hand, our brains are fantastic machines capable of incredible feats. Our grey matter is the product of millions of years of evolution and the very organ that puts us at the top of the food chain. As the seat of the soul, brains are the source of all human greatness.
But our brains are also the source of all human fallibility. There is an ugly side.
The neuroscience behind the famous case of the Seekers is a perfect illustration of this ugliness. In the 50s, the Seekers cult formed around the belief that the apocalypse was coming soon but aliens would save the true believers. When the apocalypse date came and went, and no one was tractor-beamed into flying saucers, you might have expected the cult to lose its steam. Instead, followers became even more dedicated to their beliefs. They invented a reason why the apocalypse didn’t happen and doubled down on their beliefs.
The theory behind the story is motivated reasoning. To oversimplify, the idea is that our brains react emotionally and subconsciously before a stimulus enters our consciousness. Input is filtered through previously held beliefs before it is processed. What we think of as reasoning is actually rationalizing. It explains cognitive dissonance and why two opposing sides of an issue can go centuries or even millennia without reconciliation.
This is just one of many studies showing what might be considered the ugly or flawed nature of the brain, like the famous placebo effect in which our brains are quick to believe the lies of ourselves and others. Our brains trick us into going broke. They create false memories. As much as they can be hardwired for good, brains are also hardwired for evil.
Now let’s contrast all of the brain’s intrinsic fallibility with its counterpart: its ability to create beauty. Nowhere is this more present than in the humanities. In art, music, philosophy and the like, the flawed brain suddenly transforms into a vessel of great beauty. Somehow, the humanities pierce the veil of self-deceit which cloaks the brain, and penetrates what feels like the very essence of our being (a pleasant neurochemical reaction).
Our brains aren’t all bad.
Music in particular rises above the rest of the humanities as the most direct conduit to beauty in the brain. Scientists have found that music stimulates more areas of the brain than any other human function. Let that sink in for a second. Nothing else in your life is greater than the power of music to engage multiple areas of your brain, whether you love music or not.
Think about what music has become: a multibillion-dollar industry of vapid pop music that merely serves to tickle our brains. We’ve handed over 75% of the thing that engages the most of our brains to four record labels concerned not with advancing the human condition, but profiting so they can buy another yacht. But I digress.
There are so many other beautiful facts about music and the brain. Music improves brain function from infants all the way up to the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Music moves us by “recapitulating the past and predicting the future”, quite a beautiful concept in and of itself.
We are born musicians. We simply fail as a society and a culture to develop and cultivate that ability (which might have something to do with the music industry hijacking the power and meaning of music). The beauty of music, to a large extent, is hardwired in our brains from millennia of evolution.
As the science behind the beauty of music piles up, we must use our somewhat flawed brains to ask ourselves, does the music industry make sense? Does our market for music encourage us to become smarter, happier, healthier, more productive, focused and creative? Or does it subvert these goals, and use the same neurochemical pathways to keep us in an entertained trance that does little for our personal and social development? If the purpose of making music is to tap into the beauty of our brains, why do we allow money to dictate what people hear? Why do we regard music as a product to entertain us and not a service to enrich us?
To evolve or be entertained — is that the question?