Saturday, 19 November 2016


Ken's fascinating discussions on memory, music and attention raised a number of questions in my mind. I thought it would be interesting to try to formulate these questions broadly and solicit interpretations, answers or further questions from the readers of this blog. First, I must confess that my knowledge of psychology in general, and cognition in specific are woefully inadequate. Thus, if some of the questions I raise are naïve or have well known and documented answers it will at least serve a few like me well to get those answers. Also, of necessity some material, ideas and definitions are redundant with Ken's blogs.

I shall start with the immense power of perception, recognition and selective ''initial fundamental attention to desired detail '' (IFADD) utilised by the human and apparently other high order species at all times. This can be described by an example. If one looks at an object, the brain immediately isolates and extracts the necessary information and discards the remaining stimuli. This information is a small fraction of all information received and transmitted by the optic nerve. In other words, when you look at a person, the brain isolates the essential features and some few additional details such as colour of the wall behind etc., but ignores most of the information received. It is not like examining a photograph in detail, but extracting the necessary information instantly. This is important for survival as well as being able to learn a task by paying ''attention'' to the essential detail. Somewhere along the line we have ''learned'' the essential details. I suppose, in the process of learning what to see, a neonate also learns how to see.

I think, we can translate this to sound as well; with the hierarchy Overall stimuli +  shape + colour Û auditory stimuli + Rhythm + Pitch with analogies: Type and degree of blind » type and degree of deafness (e.g. tone deaf » colour blind).  This observation raises the first question. The IFADD is evolutionary necessity for survival so is the aural communication in higher order species. What is music analogous to? What logical or operational or simply  heuristic construct can explain our ability to focus on music?

In this first question we can use Ken's midday meal example and or our ability to listen to, for example, radio by filtering out other sound as noise. In time, we don't even hear them. Somewhere along the developmental route, some of us learn to listen to music. Usually this is at a very early age. What are the particular determinants? What makes a young child to apply IFADD to a complicated structure as music? A close examination would suggest that so far as IFADD is concerned a piece by Ligeti or Bach is no more complicated than a jingle or children's song. Given this universality, a child must learn the IFADD of music and apply that knowledge to listen to any kind of music. This does not imply qualitative judgements as like, understand, prefer etc. It is simply ability to listen to music. Unfortunately, this construct implies that the child had learned IFADD of music through paying attention to the IFADD of music. That is circular and unacceptable logic. Embedded in this, there is a question of conformity; because without a certain degree of conformity ensemble music would be impossible, we would not be able to understand each other's music.

If we accept the argument that music is extension of speech (e.g. Leonard Bernstein – Harvard Lectures – The Unanswered Question) we either have to deny the fact that only a subset of each society is musically inclined or there is a drive, desire, talent or genetic make-up that induces a child to pay attention and continue to learn the skills required to pay attention to music. What could be a plausible explanations for this? How would one explain the talented progeny of a musically not talented couple or the other way around? What is musical talent? Is it inherent or somehow imparted?                                                              

It was said many times that music is an ephemeral art and takes place in time. To be as such, the IFADD of music is changing completely, albeit at times only in detail. In order to be comprehensible, the mind has to select a finite interval over which the IFADD is defined. We do not hear music continuously but over intervals that are sufficiently small to define the ''motion'' but sufficiently large to define the timbre, pitch etc. I assume that these intervals are nearly the same for each individual. I think, otherwise, it would be difficult if not impossible to communicate musically. This difficulty does not exist in visual perception even at a reasonably close distance. This is because visual structures are not time dependent for reasonably long intervals.

 The questions these observations raise are many. Even if we accept very loose definitions such as talent, training, interest as fundamentally necessary definitions, we still need to depend upon even more woolly definitions such as mood, distraction, etc, in defining attention and / or attention span in listening. I am deliberately excluding performance, those who were fortunate to take part in public performances would be able to tell a story or two about pure adrenalin based performance on occasion.

I hope some, hopefully, many readers will have answers, further questions, conjectures or thoughts on this subject   and willing to contribute to this blog. One or both of us will continue the emerging discussions as appropriate. If nothing else, all of us can learn from each other.