Why Did We Evolve To Like Music?

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Suzanne Sadedin:

Existing theories seem incomplete, so here's another one. I think music is a side effect of the evolution of self-awareness and love.

Music does have a lot of features we associate with sexual competition. It's (historically speaking) an honest display of abilities, it exploits supernormal stimuli, and it's sexy. But if those things were sufficient for its evolution, it would be widespread in other species. Instead, music seems to be nearly unique to humans.

In most species, displays are simply flamboyant exhibitions of individual prowess. Every peacock aims to have the biggest, flashiest tail; there is none of the complexity or diversity we associate with music. Guppies appreciate novel colors in their mates, but they do not evolve increasing complexity.

Closer to human music are the songs of certain birds. While nobody would deny that most bird song is some sort of sexual competitive signal, song complexity isn't consistently linked to sexual selection at all. And relatively complex and varying birdsongs, such as those of the song sparrow, can be generated using simple algorithms. Nothing in the animal world even remotely approaches the complexity and diversity of human music.

It's also often suggested that music contributes to group bonding, which could be advantageous for a species like ours, where inter-tribal competition may have influenced evolution. And since humans are unusual in that sense, it also helps explain the uniqueness of music. There's plenty of evidence that music does play this role. However, group selection is typically a weak force, while music is a costly feature; it's hard to see how the former could be sufficient to account for the latter.

Perhaps music evolved as a sexually selected feature which was co-opted under group selection. But perhaps there's a bigger hole in our thinking.

What neither idea seems to explain at all is why music is, well, musical. Why should group or pair bonding involve the sort of fractal complexity, continual novelty, and specificity of taste that sets music apart from common birdsong?

 

Here's why—maybe.

Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid argues that consciousness is a recursive computational process. Self-awareness in addition implies that the conscious mind contains a model or representation of the self.

What is this model? Why represent yourself, when you can simply be yourself? The answer, presumably, is that most of the mind is not conscious, nor even accessible to consciousness. So to have insight into your own behavior, you mentally model yourself in much the same way you model other people.

You see the problem. Modeling other conscious, self-aware minds requires an internal conscious, self-aware mind for every mind you model. Each of these models must in turn have its own models of other conscious, self-aware minds … and so on to infinity.

Our brains do not have infinite capacity. So what do we do when we encounter an infinitely recursive process? Curl up in despair? No! We approximate. We gaze as deeply as we can into the fractal, stretching the limits of our cognitive capacity. And then we acknowledge and accept those limits. We marvel at the tininess of the self in the wondrous grandiosity of the universe. We are overcome with spiritual joy.

In other words, we congratulate ourselves on our willingness to face the limits of our comprehension. Why does this make us feel good? It's adaptive.

We are a highly social species. Many researchers believe that human cognition was, for much of our evolutionary history, stuck in a positive feedback cycle of social selection. That is, those of our ancestors who could better understand and predict others had greater evolutionary fitness, which made each succeeding generation harder to understand and predict than its parents.

So: it's advantageous to enjoy peering into the depths of interesting fractals, because that stretching of cognitive ability is precisely what's required to model minds better than our peers. And music is mostly interesting fractals.

I want to take things a little further. Let's talk about love.

We're not just social. Lots of animals are social, and most of them are utter jerks. Humans, along with many birds and a few mammals, have unusually strong, lasting cooperative relationships among unrelated adults. We have love and trust.

 

But how do you evolve trust? I've puzzled over this for years. We understand perfectly well how cooperative relationships can be adaptive; for example, if your partner is likely to punish your defection severely, and hiding defections is too hard. But that doesn't explain trust.

I trust you means, precisely, that I'm not policing your defections. I'm not monitoring the evidence to check if you've betrayed me. I'm not setting in place punishments for all the awful things you might do. I'm not even worrying about them.

And I think we all want trusting relationships. I don't know anybody who would be OK with believing that their partner's honesty was only a consequence of the fear of punishment—let alone their own.

Obviously, trusting saves a lot of effort and conflict in a relationship, which makes it adaptive. But it's also vulnerable to exploitation, hence the evolutionary problem. According to standard theory, the moment you know I trust you, your motivation should change to exploit me. But I should know this, and therefore not trust you in the first place.

A solution to this quandary is emotional commitment. Love in the form of emotional commitment is a self-modification that alters our cognitive payoffs to favor the interests of the other. If I love you, then I literally cannot hurt you without hurting myself. If I love you, then making you happy literally makes me happy. If love is mutual, then our interests become aligned. And that enables trust.

How do we create love? By a process of massive cognitive remodeling. Our brains must learn to respond to the stimuli of the other with extreme, unique pleasure, and they must learn how to likewise uniquely stimulate the other. To do that effectively, we create the most profound representation we can of the other, and imbue that representation with almost as much significance as we attach to our self-representation. And in a two-way relationship, that representation must contain a self-representation, containing an other-representation … and so on down the recursion rabbit-hole.

That, I think, is a big part of what courtship and friendship do in species with long-term relationships. It's an intimate mutual rewiring in which our brains gradually learn to play and be played; we allow the other unique insight into our self-model, so they can learn to uniquely reward us; and vice versa. Love makes us vulnerable and powerful at the same time. In keeping with this idea, pair-bonding, rather than simply social group size, is the most widespread predictor of brain size evolution in other species. Among primates, brain size and sexual competition are negatively correlated.

Our ancestors won their success in part because they were able to create and maintain trust. So they evolved to love, and loving required them to find unparalleled pleasure in the effort to contain an infinite depth that they could never really grasp.

So the sense of immersion in fractal depth feels like love, because that's what the experience of loving is. And when we encounter an audible fractal process that happens to stimulate our brains with a culturally attuned interleaving of familiar and foreign, self and other, we willingly immerse ourselves in it. We don't just like music. We love it.

So … music, love, and fractal representations of the other … what all that amounts to is an unprecedented excuse to link this Arcade Fire song:

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

Buy it: $20 for four (50 percent off)

2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
XtremeTime

These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

A batch of disposable masks.
Odash, Inc.

If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

Polyester protective masks.
Triple7Deals

These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

Protective mask case.
Triple7Deals

You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

What Do Pets See When They Watch Television?

This dog would like to turn off Netflix's autoplay feature.
This dog would like to turn off Netflix's autoplay feature.
Amatore/iStock via Getty Images

In 2012, a television commercial aired in the UK for Bakers dog food that was conceived and produced specifically to attract the attention of dogs. The spot used high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to human ears. In theory, the dog would be so captivated by the advertisement that owners would take note and perhaps purchase Bakers for their next meal.

This didn’t quite work. Many dogs failed to react at all, proving that when it comes to television ads, humans may be more impressionable than canines.

While pets may not be so easily manipulated, they still find the television screen interesting, sometimes reacting to other dogs, animals, sounds, or images. But what is a dog really seeing when they tune in?

When it comes to color, television is no different from reality for a dog. They have dichromatic vision, which means they see the world through the range of two primary colors, yellow and blue. (Humans have trichromatic vision, able to see the full color spectrum.) Cone cells in canine eyes are also believed to blur their sight to a degree. More importantly, dogs process the frame rate, or “flicker fusion frequency,” of screens differently than people. Humans can detect movement at between 16 and 20 frames per second. Dogs need 70 frames per second or more. If they’re looking at an older television, it might resemble a flip book or even a strobe light effect to them. (Modern sets have a faster frame rate, which is why dogs might be more interested in your high-definition television.)

That helps explain the visuals. What about the content? Typically, dogs will react to the same things that would draw their attention in a room—barking, squeaking toys, or commands. In a study published in Animal Cognition in 2013, nine dogs were observed to see if they could pick out the face of another dog—regardless of breed—on a computer screen instead of another animal or a person. The dogs were rewarded with treats with a successful choice. Though the sample size was small, it indicated dogs can recognize other dogs on a screen. (Which you likely already knew if you’ve ever observed your dog suddenly on alert when a canine appears on camera.)

If your dog used to get excited by another dog on television but has since lost interest, it’s possible they simply became desensitized to their appearance, realizing the image in front of them isn’t going to move out of the boundaries of the monitor.

Content unrelated to dogs might not be of much interest. In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, dogs presented with three different viewing screens didn’t exhibit any particular preference for one over the other. If they were shown three screens at one time, they seemed uninterested in watching anything at all.

The study also noted that dogs had a limited television attention span. Rather than mimic the binge-watching habits of humans, dogs prefer to glance at a screen for a few seconds at a time. But that behavior could also be breed-specific. Dogs bred for hunting might be interested in moving objects, while dogs that rely more on smell might be indifferent.

And what about cats? In a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2008, 125 shelter cats were given a television to view for up to three hours a day. The cats were split into five groups and given a variety of programming to watch, from humans to footage of prey to a blank screen. On average, cats spent just 6.1 percent of the observation time watching the screen. When they did, it was mostly to focus on the prey.

Because cats may react to images of birds and rodents on television, owners should avoid letting them watch unattended. You can also secure the set to a wall to make sure they don’t knock it down.

For the most part, dogs and cats are far more interested in what’s going on in the real world compared to what's on TV. We could probably take a lesson from their limited screen time.