All posts by Gary C. Woodward

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Music as a Memory Trigger

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Friends of singer Tony Bennett noted that his last years with dementia did not deter him from performing his music.

[Music remains unique in its ability to refire memories that have been dormant.  Perhaps it is a trigger to important “autobiographical memories.”] 

It seems impossible to consider the vital sense of hearing without celebrating the special phenomenon of music, which has a lock on many of us. Watch a two-year-old child move to the beat of a song and we are reminded that the ear readily learns to love music’s embedded rhythms.  Often minimized as a pleasant addendum to life, music is more accurately described as central to its enactment. It is undervalued if it is seen as anything less than a prime generative source for refreshing the human spirit.

All of this was eloquently reinforced in Michael Rossato-Bennett’s 2014 documentary, Alive Inside. The filmmaker initially signed on for just one-day to film an effort to reclaim an older American lost to dementia. The experiment soon captivated the filmmaker and became a full-time project.

Most of the film’s subjects were selected by social worker Dan Cohen, who discovered that many seniors reconnected with their own lost memories when reintroduced to the music of their youth via a compact player.  For one older gentleman it was simply enough to hear the restless swing of Cab Calloway through earbuds to lift a fog of non-communication.  Beyond kick-starting lost memories, the music brought the man alive emotionally. He suddenly had access to his distant past as an accomplished dancer and musician. It was the “mental glue” that held his old self together.

The idea of a wearer of a set of headphones experiencing private ecstasy is hardly new.  But it means so much more when the person listening was thought to be little more than a piece of human furniture. It turns out that music is the perfect vehicle for reclaiming memories thought to be gone forever.  Neuroscientists have noted that music triggers well-named “autobiographical memories” that can be tapped in almost no other way. In the words of Australian researchers Amee Baird and William Thompson, music can be “an island of preservation in an otherwise cognitively impaired person.”  Songs “powerfully engage the frontal regions of the brain, which are typically spared from damage.”  The neural pathways that relay music are among the most durable in the brain. Friends of singer Tony Bennett noted that his last years with dementia did not stop him from coming fully engaged again when asked to sing his music.

The same was true in Rossato-Bennett’s documentary when headphones were placed on Mary Lou Thompson, a younger woman perhaps in her early sixties with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Even recognizing the purpose of an elevator button was difficult. Thompson’s husband could only marvel at the sight of his wife, earbuds in place, slowly unfolding her lean, tall frame to glory in an old Beach Boys song she obviously never forgot. It was like watching a time-lapse image of a closed flower opening to the sun. I’ve seen very few screen documentaries that so dramatically revealed a person’s instant transformation.

There may be reasons to lament the mobile phone as a device that undercuts the value of direct and immediate experience. But there can be no doubt that a portable music player enriches us by being a potent memory trigger.

Even the crusty innovator Thomas Edison sensed music’s power to mesmerize. Listeners at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago clamored to hear distant voices and songs on his audio cylinders, often through rubber ear tubes. It was then a miraculous idea that voices could be captured in midair to be heard years later. Even though he had become deaf, Edison seemed to understand the regenerative possibilities of sound for rebuilding the human spirit. It’s no surprise he identified the humble phonograph as his most satisfying invention.

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Darkness in the Sunshine State

Florida has a problem of preemptive censorship.

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“Students can no longer take sociology to fulfill their core course requirements,    Florida’s state university system ruled on Wednesday.” 

-New York Times, January 28, 2024

At first, I thought I misread the opening sentence of this news article, but unfortunately not. Can the leaders of an American state really be so shortsighted to ban an entire branch of the social sciences? It seems inconceivable that the vast discipline developed from the ideas of intellectual giants like Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Karl Mannheim, George Herbert Mead, and Charles Cooley could be taken out of a core curriculum in a modern university. Yet again, Florida has acted preemptively to muzzle ideas that are deemed too dangerous for students.

At its core, Sociology is the study of people in groups. No one can credibly declare its irrelevance. And the irony here is obvious; Florida’s sad-sack governor is a good example of someone who might have received help from the study of how we connect with others. Even with his limited horizons, the simple-minded charge that the whole of sociology is “woke” is hopelessly shallow and misplaced.

For good reasons, most Americans take offense to the politicization of education. Ideas about human groups fire the imagination and renew the culture. The banning of an introductory course in sociology is especially pitiful because its key ideas are foundational for a number of fields. My own discipline of Communication Studies has shamelessly borrowed some of its best ideas from the fertile minds of 19th Century sociologists. Many of us are still evangelists for the imaginative work of Irving Goffman, Hugh Dalziel Duncan, Todd Gitlin, David Reisman, and others. The window of sociology lets us see how—not if—we are the products of our affiliations, through family, marriage, and the myriad groups and organizations that shape our world. Scores of professional applications are in debt to the sociological perspective, among them: social work, ministerial training, urban planning, social services, prisons and policing, education, and the training of mental health professionals.

Sociology is the study of people in groups. No one can credibly declare its irrelevance. 

Losing the option of an Introduction to Sociology course deprives students of an eye-opening glimpse of its intriguing interconnections. And first courses are often key in helping new students decide on their majors. Given this tight weave of related subjects, I hope that higher education agencies will rethink accrediting schools who have removed sociology from the core curriculum.

                         New College Protests

Florida clearly has a problem with preemptive censorship. We already know that climate change curricula are mostly off the table in the grade school curriculum, as are fair-minded and contemporary approaches to gender, identity, and sex. Books are being locked down for promoting “unhealthy” choices. An original and modest AP course in African American Studies for high schoolers was axed as inappropriate. And diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been banned in state universities. In addition, there was also a very public decapitation of a state liberal arts institution in Sarasota. The Governor and his people controlling the University system thought that New College was “too liberal,” setting off terminations, resignations, and a wave of uncertainty for its students.

At this rate Donald Duck will soon have to be fully clothed if he shows up in the Magic Kingdom. Geologists at the Kennedy Space Center will have to pretend that the solar system is just six thousand years old. And we can imagine a false need to stow away official art considered too degenerate for public display.

Florida is not alone in attempts to purge universities of their academic independence. But it has a penchant for censorship that keeps compounding. Coastal states like Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have begun units on climate change in the schools. By contrast, Florida allows the use of classroom videos dismissing climate concerns. Somehow the state’s public utilities will have to prevaricate even faster to keep up the official delusion that water in the streets of Dade County is coming from broken pipes. Whatever political leaders in Tallahassee may wish, most homes in Florida are eventually going to have more of an ocean view than they bargained for.

Not being prepared to live in this world has consequences. Florida and its students are paying the price for a government that is not prepared to deal with the complex world around them. Parents may need to take a second look at whether they want to have their children left in the dark on issues vital to their interests.

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