The Brain Of A Master Musician (Brainjo Bite)

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Welcome again to another Brainjo Bite. Today’s episode was inspired by a comment and question that I recently came across in a banjo group. The answer to which I think greatly informs how to think about learning the banjo or really any complex skill that humans undertake. And the commenter in this case was remarking at the fact that there is very little instruction on how expert musicians, in this case, expert banjo players come up with the way they play something or their decision process when they are creating a particular arrangement or their way of playing a song. And it seemed to him like you could break this creation process into an algorithm of sorts. So there’s a set of building blocks techniques like slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, different picking patterns, licks, chord progressions.

And then an individual player could then go through the process of how he or she took those fundamental elements and combined them or decided what to use in order to play their resultant piece. And then the thought there was that if you had that information about how those decisions were made, you could study it as a way of learning how to do it yourself, or how to emulate those players.

His question was, “Why don’t we see more of that sort of thing?” Well, there is a big assumption that is buried in this question and it’s an assumption that I think is crucial to understanding how to develop musical expertise and fluency. And that assumption is that expert musicians actually know how they decide what to play. In other words, it assumes that those are conscious decisions.

And again, this assumption really gets to one of the most fundamental principles of cognitive neuroscience and how our brain is organized and how we think. And again, it’s one that has really significant implications for how we go about learning music.

One of the more fascinating phenomenon in the world of neurology is a condition known as blindsight. One of the first case reports of this condition was a gentleman with the initials TN, and TN suffered strokes that ended up affecting both of his occipital lobes. So the occipital lobes are in the back of the brain and are predominantly involved with decoding visual information. They receive visual information. You have light coming into the eyes, hitting the back of the retina. It’s then transduced into a nerve signal that flows back down the optic nerve. Half that signal crosses over in the brain then flows through a part called the thalamus ultimately synapsing onto neurons in the occipital lobes. And it’s only at that point when the signal gets back to the occipital lobes that we have the subjective experience of vision. The occipital lobes create that visual experience for us.

Again, in the case of TN and in the case of most people with the condition blindsight, both of those occipital lobes are affected, again, the part of the brain that’s involved with constructing our visual experience. And when TN was examined and tested, he couldn’t see movement, or shapes, or colors, or even differentiate different intensities of light. So by all intents and purposes, he was blind. He had no visual experience. Even though information was still coming in through his eyes getting into brain circuits, it wasn’t hitting the part of the brain needed to register in his conscious awareness.

But here’s where things start to get really interesting. And here’s where we have the condition of blindsight. In the case of TN, he was shown pictures of faces and asked simply whether the faces he saw were happy or sad. And again, he claimed to have no perception of those faces, that he couldn’t see them and that he was merely guessing.

However, he correctly sorted the happy from the sad faces about two thirds of a time, far greater than chance. He was then asked to walk down a hallway that had various obstacles in it. And at first he refused, not surprisingly, but was told that he would get an escort who would prevent him from falling or injuring himself. And so he did so, and he then proceeded to walk down the hallway easily avoiding all the obstacles as if he was a sighted person. Now, this phenomenon of blindsight has been described multiple times, again, typically in the scenario in which the occipital lobes have been damaged by something.

How is this possible? How is it that TN couldn’t see anything, but yet was still able to analyze and respond appropriately to visual information, whether it was the faces he was seeing in front of him or obstacles in his path? Furthermore, how was it that he didn’t even know that visual information was influencing his words and his actions even though it was? The reason is that there’s a lot happening inside of the brain that we have no awareness of.

Perhaps the single most important thing we’ve learned in the past half century or so in the realm of cognitive neuroscience, is that virtually all of our cognitive functions exist beneath our conscious awareness. By some estimates we’re conscious of only about 5% of our cognition. So the other 95% goes on beneath our awareness, but still exerts a huge influence on our thoughts and actions even though we’re entirely unaware of that influence.
And again, in many instances our conscious mind doesn’t even have access to those non-conscious parts that are doing all the computations, meaning there are no communication networks for it to tell the conscious mind what is happening.

In many cases, we don’t know what we know, and we don’t know how we know it. We often have very little insight as a result into why we do the things we do, or at least the full spectrum of reasons for why we do the things we do, even though we think we do. In fact, we almost always have very compelling explanations for why we do the things we do. There’s actually a part of the brain that the job is to invent these stories that we use to explain ourselves to ourselves or in some cases to other people. It gives neat and tidy explanations of why we did something, even though it’s walled off from the parts of the brain that actually control those things. In most cases, those explanations are either incomplete or entirely wrong.

In the case of TN, our gentleman with blindsight, he couldn’t consciously experience vision, no subjective experience of the visual world, but visual information was still getting into his brain. And that information was still being processed and analyzed, and it was influencing his behavior yet he was entirely unaware of this because number one, his conscious experience of vision was gone. And number two, those parts of the brain that were doing the processing of visual information didn’t communicate with the conscious parts. So non-conscious parts of the brain still receiving visual information, analyzing it, and then using it to impact behavior and yet he had no idea that any of that was happening.

This kind of phenomenon in which unconscious processing is having significant impact on our behaviors without our knowledge has been demonstrated numerous times over the years in all sorts of ways. And as mentioned, the key takeaway here is that these unusual cases like blindsight reveal to us a central truth about how all of our brains are organized, that is the most of the complex computations that power human cognition are mediated by unconscious circuitry. So put another way, almost all of our intelligence resides in circuits that are beneath our awareness. This includes the circuits that power our musical knowledge and skills and that includes when an expert musician is deciding what to play.

I should note, I’m not talking here about a classical musician who is sight reading, but rather a musician who is creating their own music, whether it’s working out a particular arrangement of a song or an improvisation. Those decisions are almost entirely mediated by unconscious processes, so by circuits whose operations are opaque or hidden to their conscious mind. The reason we don’t have the kind of detailed information about how experts decide what to play is because they themselves don’t know how they decide what to play, and it’s also not how they themselves learn to create music. It doesn’t make sense to teach that as the way to do it.

As usual, it is instructive to look to language to help understand the issue here. So think about what happens when you are having a conversation with someone else. All of your speech, your word selection, your appropriate application of all of the many rules of grammar and syntax, all that happens virtually instantaneously and entirely by unconscious processes. The words just come. The same is true as you listen to someone else speaking to you. Just as you are right now, your ability to understand the sounds that I’m making and your understanding is happening almost instantaneously, is mediated entirely by unconscious processes.

Now, imagine if I asked you to explain your process of sentence construction. So to explain how you decide what words to say, where you’re going to place them in a sentence, how you decide what tense to use for your verbs and so on. The answer is one, you have no idea. And two, that’s not the process for how you go about talking. Talking just happens. If we want to develop a similar expertise in talking, looking at a set of rules for how someone decides what words to use and so on would not be the path that we would want to follow. Even if someone could describe how those decisions were made in the unconscious parts of the brain, that still wouldn’t be the kind of information we would want to use in order to learn to do the same sorts of things.

And that of course beggars the question of how exactly do we learn those things. Well, we do so by creating the conditions in the brain that allows for the emergence of those desired skills and abilities. So just like with language, with music we build out a core set of skills. As I’ve talked about, there are three broad categories of knowledge and skills to acquire and they actually apply not surprisingly to both music and language since there is so much overlap between those two things. And those are technical skills, ear training, and knowledge and concepts. You could also describe them as technical, perceptual and conceptual skills.

So the technical skills are the motor programs we create in the brain that control the muscles of speech in the case of language or the muscles we use to control our instrument in the case of music. And then we train our ears or more accurately our auditory cortex and related areas so that we are able to extract more details from the sounds we hear. And language, this is being able to hear things like the different phonemes, differences in tone of voice, and all of those sonic details and language are learned which is very easy to appreciate whenever you listen to a language that’s unfamiliar to you. It’s just one big continuous wall of meaningless gibberish.

In order to learn how to decode it, you have to train your ears to be able to parse those sounds and pick up all of those important details in the same exact way that you can train your ear to hear details and music like relative pitches and harmonies and so on. And in language, you also must understand the rules of how language works. So the rules of grammar and syntax, which defines how words are put together in different ways to produce different meanings so that you can communicate effectively. And again, the same is true of music. We must understand the rules of music, how it works in order to communicate musical ideas effectively.

And again, it’s ultimately the non-conscious parts of the brain that learns how to do all of those things. Our job when we practice, is to feed the brain the kinds of inputs it needs to build those unconscious networks. And then it is the interaction of those capabilities at an unconscious level that produces the final musical results. The abilities that we seek ultimately are from that combination and they emerge from those interactions in exactly the same way that our speech emerges when we converse with someone. We have no clue what’s happening underneath the hood when we talk, but we’re able to do it because we’ve created the brain circuits needed for talking to emerge.

As hopefully this makes clear, understanding this concept of emergence is essential for understanding how to learn something complex like music, how to avoid false starts and dead-ends in the learning process. It’s somewhat counterintuitive to think that we don’t focus directly on the exact thing we’re trying to do or to learn, and that doing that wouldn’t actually get us the results that we’re after. But this is really true of any creative process, whether it’s art, or music, or architecture, or writing, or scientific insights. The creation of something novel is something that emerges from the complex interaction of a set of foundational skills in ways that the creators themselves don’t understand.

Albert Einstein once said, “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, the solution comes to you and you don’t know how or why.” So here he’s referring to the fact that the smartest bits of us are unconscious and that creative insights emerge from their operation. I’m sure you’ve heard artists or writers or musicians say before that when they produce something, some creation, it feels like it comes from someplace else besides them. Again, it’s the unconscious mind delivering that to them. You may well have had that very experience yourself.

And of course, all of this really gets back to the very first law of Brainjo, which says, “In order to learn to play like the masters, we must learn to play like the masters.” In other words, instead of trying to reverse engineer of something from a final product they produce rather look to the actual path they took to build the kind of circuitry in their brains that was needed to do the thing that they were able to do.

So to summarize, if we want to be able to create like an expert musician, we learn the technical skills needed to produce the foundational sounds. We learn the rules or the concepts for how to put those sounds together and we train our ears to be able to extract all the details that we need in the music that we hear. And then just like a child learning to talk, we practice putting those things together a lot in an effort to communicate musically. We also, like a child learning to talk, listen, listen, listen to people who speak or play like we want to play. And ultimately the sounds that we create emerge from this learning process.

The more advanced these particular foundational skills become, the greater the range of emergent creations that we’re able to produce. Once again, if you enjoy these episodes, then you’ll likely enjoy the book, The Laws of Brainjo, which you can find at Amazon and at all other major online outlets.

Thanks so much for listening. And I will see you in the next Brainjo Bite.