Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Interdisciplinary Studies

As long as I can remember I've always been a generalist. There's never been one topic that I wanted to drill down and become the world's foremost expert in. My fascination and interest has drifted all over the place from music performance to dance to scuba diving to sailing to.... you get the idea. And so it is that I've come to be interested in books and TV shows that are written to incorporate many disciplines. Watching a show like The Wire which incorporates studies of at-risk youth, police structures, drug dealers and how they interact with other entities like shipping ports, and the media is far more interesting than watching a show in which each episode is entirely self-contained. Similarly with The Sopranos, incorporating concepts of business, leadership, psychology, family issues, and studies of organized crime.

I've read a few books recently which are strongly inter-disciplinary in nature and that I've found incredibly interesting. First was Freakonomics and its sequel SuperFreakonomics. The goal of these books is to apply the tools of economists to problems that economists rarely think about. Detecting cheating school-teachers, economic implications of the Roe v. Wade decision, what really is happening in the global warming space if you ignore the stupid politics of the situation, etc. Using the tools of mathematics with complete disregard for moral and political considerations can apparently tease out very interesting conclusions. If you're a thinking person and haven't read these, you should.

In the social space, Sudhir Venkatesh is generating a ton of research by studying the culture of inner city (south side) Chicago. Academic anthropologists and sociologists traditionally spent their time studying new, foreign cultures outside of the Western sphere and nobody spent much time in the trenches of inner-city America. Probably because it is such a dangerous place to hang out. But Venkatesh did it, and wrote a very interesting book called "Gang Leader for a Day". It's a great read and captures the imagination as he basically lives as a distanced observer inside of Chicago gang culture. Lots of analysis of the culture using the tools of anthropology, psychology, sociology, and economics. If you like it, you can attempt to tackle his "Off the Books" dissection of the Underground Economy, but it isn't for everyone. Then you can go on to watching The Wire and BET's documentary series American Gangster.

My current read, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy is a fascinating look at how we experience music. It starts with the evolutionary biology of the human ear, how that translates into signals in our brain, the different pieces of our brain involved in music, and the mathematics and psychology in how we experience music (broken down into rhythms, melodies, harmonies, etc.).

For example, the human brain is really good at categorizing information (which is why we tend to generalize and then group our experiences of the world together) but we can't keep track of that many categories for any given topic of information. Hence, why our musical scale is broken down into 12 categories (notes), because when we hear a tone we need to generalize it and see which category it falls into (is it A-flat? or F-sharp?) It would be unworkable to have categories like A-flat-flat-sharp-flat or A-sharp-sharp-flat-sharp, our brain just couldn't deal with the complexity. Even though we can tell the difference between all those notes if they are played next to each other, we can't hear one of them and accurately categorize it differently from the other. The analogy given in the book is like picking out paint for your house at a paint store. You can tell the difference between all the various gradations of light red for example, but if given one of the gradations you probably wouldn't be able to name exactly which one it is without a serious amount of previous training on the topic.

Also interesting is that the human brain experiences things in relative ways. So if an orchestra tunes to A-430, A-440, or A-450, as long as all the relative pitches are in tune to that one our brains will be equally pleased by the performance. My intuition is that the way we live our lives is very similar. People in Manhattan are just fine living in tiny cramped apartments that are expensive, yet it would be crazy to live like that in Fort Collins because none of your peers/contemporaries there would live like that. Imagine trying to tell a potential date that you are a subsistence hunter-gatherer living in a teepee... they would look at you like you were crazy. Unless of course you were living 400 years ago on the plains, and then having the biggest teepee could be very appealing. So the fact that the human brain works on relative principles has all kinds of applications, even to music.

Then there are just surprising things that you never would have guessed (like Freakonomics!). People with no musical training experience mostly through their left ear and via the right hemisphere of the brain. As you develop more and more musical training this starts to migrate across to the point where professional musicians overwhelmingly use their right ear and the left half of the their brain. This is where we store and analyze patterns and progressions, and since professionals have essentially developed a library of sounds, patterns, note/chord progressions, and common rhythms, this is where they experience the music.

So anyway, if you're like me and want to see a topic looked at from many different angles and disciplines, there's a few places to start.


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