Monday, June 6, 2022

What is (musical) pleasure? [Csikszentmihalyi's flow]

I had to confront that question when writing my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001). Ever since the late 1950s there has been talk about “pleasure centers in the brain.” If that talk is valid, then pleasure is simply the stimulation of those centers. There are problems with that view, however, and I found myself forced to a more subtle conception. Here it is, in a section entitled “The Pleasures of Music: Inner Motion” (pp. 82-86):

The most important aspect of our subjective musical experience is, I believe, pleasure. Why is it a pleasure to make, dance, and to listen to music? I am as curious about ordinary musical pleasure as about altered musical states. Music can be quite compelling and pleasurable even if you don’t enter into some heightened state of awareness and self loss.

If you had read, or heard about, pleasure centers in the brain, you might suggest that music stimulates one or more of those centers. This is presumably what Stephen Pinker had in mind when he asserted that “Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest though the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once” in his recent book How the Mind Works. The reasoning is obvious:

  1. The brain has pleasure circuits.
  2. Music is pleasurable.
  3. Therefore music stimulates the brain’s pleasure circuits.

Problems arise, however, when we start searching for the pleasure circuits music stimulates.

The first so-called pleasure centers were discovered, quite by accident, in the mind-1950s by James Olds and Peter Milner. Crudely put, they found that there were small areas in the core of the rat’s brain that seemed to give the rat pleasure when they were electrically stimulated. But that formulation—“give the rat pleasure”—presumes a nonexistent intimacy with the rat’s subjective state. What they observed is that if a rat could stimulate one of these areas simply by pressing a bar, it would do so, time after time after time, for hours. That was taken to indicate that the stimulation is pleasurable. But of course, we couldn’t ask the rats whether they were experiencing pleasure. Some surgeons did implant such electrodes into patients who were suffering from epilepsy, in the hope that they could afford their patients some relief. The result, suggests Walter Freeman [neurobiologist at Berkeley], does not sound much like the delirious pleasure Pinker suggested:

In different places they reported feeling pleasure, sometimes sexual, but mostly rather bland. Some other patients, who were afflicted with chronic pain, reported that they got temporary relief from their suffering. They were given the opportunity to go home with a battery and a switch, so that they could treat their own pain by stimulating themselves and adjusting their own dosage of electric current.

But no one wanted to keep the wires. Some doctors feared that a black market might grow, with pleasure addicts going to third world countries to get implanted with wires and stimulators. That didn't happen, because whatever the pleasure is, it doesn't last, and it isn't happiness.

These so-called pleasure centers are involved in regulating appetitive behaviors such as eating and drinking. Karl Pribram has argued that self-stimulation has the effect of tricking the animal into thinking it has satisfied one of these desires. Pribram thus suggests that “the self-stimulation process would be something like repeatedly adjusting and returning to its original location the setting device on a home thermostat in a room that is already warm. The furnace turns on briefly, only to go off again as the setting is returned to its baseline.” The pleasure is thus not some generalized pleasure, but the virtual satisfaction of a virtual need.

More recently Jaak Panksepp has noted self-stimulating animals “did not have the behaviorally settled outward appearance of animals consuming conventional rewards. Self stimulating animals look excessively excited, even crazed, when they work for this kind of stimulation.” They look like they are exploring and investigating, not basking in the enjoyment of needs well-satisfied. Panksepp believes these neural centers are components of an exploratory system.

If these “classical” pleasure centers aren’t really pleasure centers, maybe we have to look elsewhere. Panksepp, for example, does look elsewhere, to the homeostatic systems that directly regulate the body’s energy balance by attending to such things as thirst, hunger, and temperature. Perhaps the centers regulating these variables yield pleasure when the variable reaches the desired level. Thus Panksepp asserts that “most of our feelings of sensory pleasure pleasure arise from the various stimuli that signal the return of bodily imbalances toward an optimal level of functioning.” But what does that have to do with music? Are we to believe that music provides virtual satisfaction for virtual thirst?

The notion of “pleasure circuits” thus begins to unravel as soon as one examines it. It isn’t clear just what these circuits are or how and why music might affect them. Still, I have no a priori reason to deny the existence of specific pleasure circuits accessible to music. Who knows, maybe we will discover them. But I would like to suggest that there is a different way to think about pleasure. The “pleasure circuits” view of pleasure asserts the existence of centers which monitor certain variables. When the variable assumes the desired value—you’ve consumed enough water, you are no longer cold, whatever—the center detects that desired result and signals “We’ve got it.” That signal is experienced as pleasure.

There is, however, another kind of pleasure. John Jerome was interested in the pleasures of athletic excellence and proposed an informal theory about what he calls the Sweet Spot Theory of Performance. By sweet spot he means that spot on a baseball bat, tennis racket, or golf club that affords the squarest contact with the ball, transfers energy to it most efficiently, and thus minimizes jarring transmitted back to the hands. That spot, he assures us, is not myth but a mechanical fact. Generalizing from that, he argues that the superior athlete “is the one who in effect reaches the sweet spot of the arc for each segment of his or her skeleton as he or she goes through the athletic motion.” The pleasure of sport—at any rate, the pleasure that derives from the activity itself, rather than from beating someone else in competition—is simply the feeling one gets when the body is working at its best.

The pleasure of music, I submit, is like that. Musicians certainly know the kind of physical pleasure that Jerome talks about, as do dancers. But so do people who only listen.

Jerome is focused on the smoothly functioning athletic body. But muscles cannot contract and flex in just the right way unless the nervous system controls them just so. The smooth motion is in the body, but the pleasure is in the nervous system. Even if a listener does not move his body, his nervous system does have to follow the sound. I am suggesting that a great deal of the pleasure we take from music lies in overall dynamic character of the activity itself—it is a property of the neural weather. Some weather feels better than other weather. This is not a matter of some brain center detecting some property in the neural weather and signaling good or bad. Rather, we are talking about the overall state of the brain. You don’t need to detect this state because this state is you; it is your mind.

We are now in familiar territory. The idea that music is linked to motion is an old one, one explored by Charles Keil in his essay “Motion and Feeling through Music” and validated by studies that show activity in motor areas of the brain when people are listening to music. Musical pleasure is an example of flow, a term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is not special either to music or athletic performance, but is a capacity inherent in the nervous system and can happen during a wide range of activities. In Csikszentmihalyi’s model, flow is a function of the conditions of task performance. Where one’s skill exceeds the demands of a task by a considerable margin, the task is boring. Where task demands exceed one’s skill by a considerable margin, the task provokes anxiety—which we’ll examine in more detail in the next section. One feels flow only when the task demands are just a little beyond one’s current skill. In that situation one must be fully alert and attentive in order to perform the task and, if one is so, then it is possible to perform the task well. Thus flow represents a style of action, not some specific set of activities.

The idea of musical pleasure as flow does not preclude the possibility that music stimulates specific “pleasure centers.” Any such centers that are activated through music will contribute to that music’s pleasure. But musical pleasure does not depend on such centers. In general I would expect that music is pleasurable in proportion to its capacity for exercising the inherent properties of the brain, especially the rhythmic properties. Thus:

Pleasure as Coherence: Musical pleasure is the subjective awareness of overall neural flow where that flow is well-timed and coherent.

Further, this musical flow is not under the control of any particular brain system but reflects the joint interaction of all active neural systems, at all levels of interaction. The pleasure-center view would have us believe that musical flow is regulated by those specific pleasure centers. If musical pleasure is not localized in a few centers, it follows that musical flow is not regulated by those centers. We have mutual adjustment and interaction here and there, indeed everywhere, but no omniscient master dictating the terms of the neural dance. Music’s pleasures have no master.

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