Re: reply to Benzon

From: William Benzon (
Date: Sun 25 May 2003 - 23:41:46 GMT

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    on 5/23/03 9:16 PM, Richard Brodie at wrote:


    > Your last point, though, raises a question for me. If the mind does not copy
    > or replicate the (artifact or behavior, your definition) meme, then what
    > does?

    Alas, Richard, I have no ready answer for you. I don't find the notions of
    "copy" and "replicate" terribly useful at this point. I'm am slowly arriving at a way of thinking about these things that I like. But it's a rather strange way and not at all easy to explain in bits and pieces. Given a choice between a fairly deep understanding of one relatively simple case, vs. a superficial understanding of lots of cases, I'd prefer to go for the former.

    These days I halfway think I know what's going on in music. That's because I can talk about the nervous system, how people interact in a group, and how music changes over the long term (decades and more). I've got all that in more or less one coherent conceptual framework. So that's where I think these things through. Once you add language into the mix, that changes things considerably. While I think that the story I'm developing for music can be the starting point of a story for language, I won't know that until I or someone else actually does it. That's not happening any time soon.

    I've added a few recent passages from my notes. They certainly won't satisfy you, but they should give you some sense of where I'm going.




    On the other hand, I figure we're just about ready to think seriously about how a bunch of primates could gather in a clearing and stomp their feet and hoot and holler in time with one another. So, they go at it for awhile, it feels good, and they break it off. But the next day they do it again, and then four days later, and so on. So they synchronize whatever they're doing to the same beat. And that's the limit of their coordination (other than keeping out of one another's way and so forth). Individually they may be doing various other things on top of that. But what they share is an isochronous beat.

    While that is, in some obvious sense, rather complicated stuff, as an example of cultural behavior, it's about as simple as it gets.

    It's not entirely clear to me that there is anything in there that deserves to be called a meme. But let's say there is. What would it be? Note that their ability to engage in periodic motion at all comes from the existence of oscillatory circuits in their nervous systems. They have those circuits ­ which regulate heartbeat, breathing, walking and so forth ­ courtesy of biological evolution. Those circuits go waaaay back.

    With that in mind, what I want of any putative meme is that it serve to couple the oscillatory circuits in different individuals, thus allowing them to move to the same beat. With that in mind, I say there's two of them, the period and phase of that iscochronous beat. Those memes are perceptible properties of the common activity. If you can pick up on those properties and use them to guide your behavior, then you can participate. Otherwise not. Those properties are what allow these nervous systems to coordinate their activity. And that's what I want of memes.


    Iıve been thinking about music a collective memory. Memory for what? Prior acts of musicking.

    John Miller Chernoff has an interesting observation in his book on African rhythm. He notes that even highly skilled African percussionists often have a difficult time playing a specific part without also hearing the other accustomed parts, even if the missing part was a simple isochronic beat. This suggests that what heıs learned is an auditory-motor gestalt where the motor component is so intertwined with the auditory that proper execution requires that auditory component.

    Now set that aside and letıs think about a bunch of protohumans gathered together and stomping away to a highly synchronized isochronous beat. Let us then imagine that they begin to superimpose other things on this beat, vocal calls, imitations of animal movements, whatever. They can do this as individuals, people can imitate or respond to one anotherıs gestures, and so forth. All that interests me is that whatever they do, it is done to the beat ­ and, Hebbian learning is taking place while theyıre doing this. They do it for awhile and then stop and go about their business.

    The next day they gather together and start stomping at the same tempo as they had done the previous day. Again, they start superimposing other stuff on the basic beat. I would imagine, however, that these superimpositions would be biased by the superimpositions from the previous day. What I am imagining, in fact, is that the initial period of isochronous beating would evoke the prior dayıs superimpositions, thus serving as a memory key.
    [Here Iım thinking of some ideas advanced by Christopher Longuette-Higgins some years ago about a temporal analog to optical holography.] I donıt imagine that it would evoke the prior dayıs superimpositions so strongly that they would be repeated in exactly the same way. But there would be a bias, and the bias would get stronger over time so that the collective activity would converge on a set of routine moves and gestures. We need not imagine that it would ever converge so tightly that two performances would be exactly alike.

    What most interests me about this story is that, as a story about memory, that memory is collectively distributed throughout members of the group ­ recall our African drummers. Whatever each one is doing, they all hear and more or less see everything. And the preafferent ³waves² in each individual are expecting the whole gestalt, not just individual motor components.

    Now, it seems to me that as long as the folks have only a single isochronous beat to which they dance, theyıre only going to have one performance they can execute. But if they have, say, three distinct tempos, then they can have three performances. But thereıs something else they can do. Instead of using just an ischronous beat in the groove stream, they can develop differentiated patterns. If they have five different periodic patterns they use at a given tempo, then that gives them five different performances for that tempo. [I note that the anthropological record indicates that, among tribal peoples, different deities are associated with different basic rhythms.]

    As I believe that protomusic precedes the emergence of language, I am imagining that all this is taking place in groups of people who lack language. Once language enters the picture we have the possiblity of superimosing specific lyrics on the musical stream as a further way of differentiating performances.

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