Tag Archives: Start The Week

Free Will & Sight-Reading

Catching up with a podcast of Start The Week, I was delighted to be pointed in the direction of The Mysteries of the Brain – a series of programmes on BBC World Service by Professor Barry Smith.* In his discussions with Andrew Marr, he referred to experiments carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, which pointed to the illusory nature of free will. Volunteers were asked, repeatedly, to decided whether to press a button with their left or right hand while in an fMRI scanner. Evidence of brain activity, which enabled those reading output to predict with 100% accuracy which hand would be used, appeared up to 7 seconds before the volunteer was aware of their conscious choice. John-Dylan Haynes describes the situation as follows:

Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of activity would be produced by someone sight-reading this:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/nuvzMq0YZ3k?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
I wonder if, one day, we’ll have much more of a handle on what helps us turn a skill, with which we are not born, into a learned reflex and of ways in which this can be done more effectively. Perhaps until then we’ll need to content ourselves with the following equation:
10,000 hours = expert

You can listen again to Professor Smith’s series here.
You can see John-Dylan Haynes lecture on this material here.

* I first came across Professor Smith in an excellent episode of In Our Time on Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The Music Instinct

Philip Ball discusses his new book, The Music Instinct, on Start The Week – available on here on iPlayer until Monday 15th. Scroll forward to 12:13 (or play from the beginning if you want to hear John Adams discuss his new work City Noir).

The Music Instinct seeks to explore the effects of music on the brain and emotions.  At one point in the interview he describes music as a gymnasium for the mind and goes on to outline how music engages language and motor centres in the brain. From the point of view of evolution, our skill in detecting patterns, predicting outcomes and enjoying the violation of these expectations resonates with me and with what I see in pupils’ developing experience and skills.

The last days of the polymath

While listening again to Start The Week I became fascinated by a discussion, featuring Edward Carr on The Last Days of the Polymath. Many interesting points came up e.g. narrowness vs breadth in education. The phrase which resonated with me most, however, was “interesting things happen at the intersection of disciplines” (Edward Carr). This is exactly how I feel, hence my own fascination with the overlap between music, language and neuroscience. More particularly, I’d argue that clarity happens at the intersection of disciplines and this is possibly more easily seen in the teaching of music than in many fields. Being an abstract language, the language of music cannot be used to explain music itself, and parallels with pupils’ other subjects are indispensable – and also fun.

One of the other guests on the programme, writer Audrey Niffenegger, expressed an opinion which, I feel, would resonate with many of my favourite bloggers – that polymaths have been replaced by collaboration.

The discussion begins at 12:20 here and should be available until Mon 19th.