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The Worst Song in the World: Music & Evolution (And a Challenge to Readers)
Several years ago Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid teamed with violinist, composer and neuroscientist Dave Soldier to explore popular music preferences in the United States. They determined what music people enjoyed or disliked based on a series of questionnaires and used the data to profile “the most unwanted song” and “the most wanted song” in America. They found that the most unwanted song, “veers wildly between loud and quiet sections, between fast and slow tempos, and features timbres of extremely high and low pitch, with each dichotomy presented in abrupt transition.” In contrast, the most wanted song
comprises a moderately sized group (three to ten instruments) consisting of guitar piano, saxophone, bass, drums, violin, cello, synthesize, with low male and female vocals singing in rock/r&b style. The favorite lyrics narrate a love story, and the favorite listening circumstance is at home… Most participants desire music of moderate duration (approximately 5 minutes), moderate pitch range, moderate tempo, and moderate to loud volume, and display a profound dislike of the alternative…
Soldier recruited professional musicians to compose songs based on the results from the questionnaires. (You can listen to both here; ironically, the most wanted song is horrible.) The project is slightly tongue-in-check yet it raises a question that some evolutionary psychologists are exploring: Is music an evolutionary adaptation and, consequently, do humans share music preferences regardless of culture as a result?
Sometime in the beginning of the 20th century modernist composers partially, albeit unintentionally, answered this question. For the modernist the aesthetic mind was a blank slate and with enough time and exposure people will come to enjoy virtually anything. Arnold Schoenberg, a pioneer in modernist music, infamously prophesized that one day paperboys will whistle atonal and dissonant tunes during their routes.
Schoenberg turned out to be wrong and in the last few decades the modernist perspective of the mind has crumbled. The human brain is prepackaged with a series of innate preferences widespread, from culture to culture. In terms of music we prefer repetition to randomness, consonance to dissonance, tonality to atonality, and predictability to unexpectedness. Differences in music exist around the world, but like food, there are several essential ingredients the brain is programmed to pay special attention to. Contrary to the modernist, what’s pleasurable to the ear is not arbitrary.
How did music – and preferences for it – evolve in the first place? The modernist will argue that the only evolved aspects of music are physical auditory limitations (e.g., the fact that the auditory system can only process certain frequencies). A few decades of research gives us more fruitful explanations. A common theory of musical evolution is that music is all about getting the girls. According to this theory Jagger and Lennon were not necessarily motivated to push aesthetic boundaries or sell records but spread their genes. As the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller quips, if a car drives by on a city street with very loud music pouring out of rolled down windows and expensive speakers, is there any question about the gender of the driver?
An experiment (pdf) conducted by Bob Cialdini, Doug Kenrich and Vlad Grizkevicus provides supporting evidence to this line of reasoning. They wondered if creativity in human males is linked to sexual selection and, if so, whether or not reproductive motivations trigger boosts in creative output. In one experiment they asked college students to write a short story about an ambiguous picture (a colorful abstract painting or a cartoon of two men at an outdoor café). Before the students took to the page the researchers put half in a mating mind set by showing them six photos of attractive females and had them indicate which one they most desired as a romantic partner. After making the selection the researchers instructed the undergrads to imagine what they would do on a first date with their new, hypothetical girlfriends. The other half of participants – the control condition – only observed a boring photo of a street with buildings and wrote about ideal weather conditions for walking around and grazing at the buildings.
Cialdini and his researchers analyzed the stories and rated them based on how “creative, original, clever, imaginative, [captivating], funny, entertaining, and charming” they were. They found that the photos of attractive women had a significant effect on creative output. As Kenrick says in his latest book, “[they] really got the men’s creative juices flowing… it’s not that the mating motivated men wrote more, but that what they wrote was judged more clever, imaginative and original.”
The NYU psychologist and author of Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus, mentions five reasons why sexual selection theory is flawed. First, most physiological traits shaped by sexual selection are dimorphic, yet women are just as capable musicians as men. Second, most musicians are passionate about music just for the sake of it. Third, it is only recently that eminent musicians receive celebrity treatment. During nearly all of human evolution few performers became internationally renowned. Fourth, sexual selection suggests that evolution targeted a specific music module in the brain. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that such a cognitive space exists. Finally, the sexual selection theory is musically naïve in that it treats all music equal: no one genre is universally pleasing and no one song is universally praised. In sum, evolutionary theories of music are, at this point in time, insightful but not necessarily persuasive. Steven Pinker argues that creating art is actually counter-productive in the context of reproduction and survival. We were better off burning calories on finding food, securing shelters and ensuring the well-being of the community than making music.
To the contrary, in What is Art For? and Homo Aestheticus the anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake posits that art is not a by-product or the result of sexual selection but the product of natural selection and that it contains several clear evolutionary purposes. She gives three reasons why this might be true: art is ubiquitous, pleasurable for the creator and the viewer, and it is effortful and humans rarely exert effort without an adaptive rationale. These are all true but the question is if they are evidence for music as a product natural selection. In a recently published paper Marcus provides a few objections:
In my judgment, the evidence that music is a product of natural selection is relatively weak. A variety of adaptive pressures have been proposed, for example, for social cohesion, communication, or conﬂict reduction, but aside from items such as a bone ﬂute dated to approximately 35,000 years ago little direct evidence for music exists, archaeological or otherwise, until sometime after most scholars believe language evolved and although music is ubiquitous across cultures, many individuals prosper without being able to carry a tune; language impairments, by contrast, are far rarer.
Later on in the paper he concludes that,
“[M]usicality should be seen not as a direct target of selection, but rather as something that the human mind can—and often does, across a broad range of cultures—naturally acquire, given a range of other mechanisms that were more directly selected for.”
With this in mind, go back to Komar, Melamid and Soldier’s project. Their project indirectly asks if we can make objective judgments about music. Is there such thing as “the most unwanted song” in America? What about “the most wanted song?” What we say that one song is “better” than another? According to Schoenberg the answer is no. Since “good” and “bad” are merely social constructions, what we call “good” and “bad” music is a function of exposure. The research outlined here suggests that taste in music is the result of how the brain is organized; it follows that music preferences, despite culture and exposure, maintain a certain degree of universality.
Can we conclude that objective answers to music questions exist? I rarely hear this argument. In a few weeks of research I’ve only come across one text that makes a case for objectivity in music. It comes from the composer John Winsor. His book, Breaking the Sound Barrier: An Argument for Mainstream Literary Music, argues that, “some pieces of music are better than others, [even though] people consider such qualitative judgment in the arts to be purely subjective.” (The book is available for free here.)
As such I issue a challenge to readers: If you minions find any material that argues that objective answers to music questions exist please send it my way. I’m preparing an essay on the subject and would gush over any helpful ideas. (my email here)
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.