familiarity, neuroplasticity, and receiving ability

Conducting doesn’t work unless the conductor accurately expresses what she intends to express.  And even that depends on the musicians in the ensemble interpreting the expression accurately and translating it into musical expression.  I’ve already described how mirror neurons facilitate empathy, which is how you feel what other people feel.  That means that we are built to communicate in this way.  Our brains are, as they say, hard wired to empathize.

That is the reception of unintentional “spontaneous” signals–a system of signals that all humans share biologically.  We all have blood and muscles that change when we feel different things, and we all have brains that can perceive those changes in others.  Dr. Buck, my guide through the nation of Communications Science, has explained it in thorough detail, but stuff conductors want to know is this:

Receiving ability has somewhat to do with emotional intelligence–that is, some people are naturally better than others at deciphering the signals of others.  But it can be improved through the education of attention, which brings me back to mirror neurons, empathy, and neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is one of my favorite words.  It sounds like our brains are crawling around inside our skulls, changing all the time.  Which they are.  Slowly.

Like intelligence of any kind, our awareness of emotion levels varies according to our aptitude and according to our training or, in this case, “education of attention.”   Practice of Eastern philosophies like meditation, for example, is credited with enhancing an individual’s ability to sense our own internal states, including emotions.  My point today is that education of attention is also applied to the ability to receive communication from others. Receiving ability is linked to mirror neurons. That they fire when we observe something we have experienced, suggests that  our brains can also infer intention from observed action based on our own experience performing those actions with intention.

Familiarity, a result of the education of attention, enhances our ability to understand what we see.  Daniel Glaser’s research has demonstrated that familiarity—particularly expertise—increases the strength with which our brains react to observed behavior. Ballet dancers’brains reacted strongly to watching ballet. Caporeira practioners’ brains reacted equally strongly to watching Caporeira, a form of martial arts from Brazil. Each group reacted moderately to watching the other’s activity, but members of neither group reacted with weakness to either, as did control the brains of control subjects who were experts in neither discipline. This suggests that familiarity increases our capacity to connect to what we observe.

Based on this tendency towards stronger neural response to more familiar stimuli, it is no surprise that a study (which I’ll discuss in detail later) found that conductors were better interpreters of conducting gesture. Not only do they cognitively know what to do, they are also biologically prepared to respond strongly.

What does this mean for conductors?  It means we need our ensemble members to be experts at recognizing expressive displays, at reading our displays in particular.  How do we educate their attention and develop their empathic capacity?  That’s another post.

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