Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Performing Precise Research with Blunt Instruments

I began this month with a pretty jaundiced view of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works, on the basis of the review for the San Francisco Chronicle written by David D’Arcy.  Today, thanks to the London Telegraph, I had the opportunity to sample an excerpt from the book itself.  The bottom line is that I am just as jaundiced, if not more so.

I shall put aside the extended portion of this excerpt that deals with expert surfer Clay Marzo.  This is not because I would contest the proposition that expert surfing is a matter of creativity at work.  Rather, it is an admission that I do not know enough about surfing to assess the value of this portion of the text.  Indeed, had Lehrer applied such humility to his other sources, I suspect he would have had a much shorter book, if he had enough to constitute a book at all.

Fortunately, the excerpt begins with two ventures into music;  and I feel qualified to comment on both of them.  The first has to do with the creativity that Yo-Yo Ma brings to his cello performances, recognizing, as Lehrer does, that those performances have made Ma “as famous for his recordings of Bach’s cello suites as the swing of American bluegrass.”  However, the problem with Lehrer’s purported analysis is that he spends pretty much all of his text analyzing Ma’s physical behavior and what Ma has to say about how he works and gives basically no attention to actually listening to the results.  As far as the former is concerned, I have to worry that, if Lehrer is not much of a listener, then I am a bit skeptical about his capabilities as an observer.

The real fly in the ointment, however, concerns the extent to which the words of Ma’s introspective musings count as data.  In this respect I wish to invoke a key sentence from Tim Parks’ recent post to NYRBlog about Riccardo Manzotti and his radical externalist approach to the study of consciousness.

Language, or at least our modern language, thus encourages a false account of experience.

With all due respect to Parks, any anthropologist could have told him that;  but I suspect that Manzotti could come up with far more vivid examples.  The point is that ethnography is dependent on both observation and interviewing based on the premise that both of these techniques are highly blunt instruments.  Thus, one develops methods to play them against each other and to draw upon other sources, all in the interest of arriving at a consistent data set before attempting to make any inferences.  This discipline does not seem to influence Lehrer one way or the other:  He is ready to start making inferences at the drop of a hat, regardless of the soundness of his data.

The excerpt then moves into the creativity behind jazz improvisation.  This is where Lehrer presumes to “look inside the brain” to find his data:

The story begins in the brain. Charles Limb, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, has investigated the mental process underlying improvisation. Limb, a self-proclaimed music addict, has long been obsessed with the fleshy substrate of creative performance. “How did Coltrane do it?” Limb asks. “How did he get up there onstage and improvise for an hour or more? I wanted to know how that happened.” Although Limb’s experiment was simple in concept – he was going to watch jazz pianists improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner – it proved difficult to execute. That’s because the giant superconducting magnets in fMRI machines require absolute stillness of the body part being studied, which meant that Limb needed to design a custom keyboard that could be played while the pianists were lying down. (The set-up involved an intricate system of angled mirrors, so the subjects could see their hands.)

Lehrer is not the first to have been seduced by Limb’s experimental studies.  Last June I used my national page for Examiner.com to pick on an equally deceptive piece that Pam Belluck wrote for The New York Times entitled “When the Melody Takes a Detour, the Science Begins.”  The title of my own piece was “Further thoughts on what scientists do not understand about music.”  For a variety of reasons, the most important being that (as any conservatory student will tell you) the performance of music is a “whole body” activity, the apparatus for Limb’s work is as blunt an instrument as language, if not more so.  No matter how the scientist tries to compensate, any efforts to restrain the body are going to distort the data.  The bottom line is that Limb’s equipment does more to promote the prestige of his professional community than to tell us about the creative practices that emerge during jazz improvisation.

The way I put it in my Examiner.com piece is that Belluck bought the bill of goods that Limb was selling.  On the basis of the Telegraph excerpt, it appears that Lehrer bought it too.  Thus, as a corollary, we see that the Telegraph itself, D’Arcy, and all those who have pushed Imagine to the top of best seller lists have eagerly bought Lehrer’s own bill of goods.  As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”

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