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A flash of lightning produces a single sound. Pain in the brain is not like that. Neurons in the brain can excite or inhibit many other neurons, to which they are connected. Pain is not controlled by a single neuron.

A flash of lightning has no intended direction. But pain in the brain is not like that. The synaptic connections between neurons enable coordinated patterns of activation between millions of interconnected neurons. A type of pain is just a type of activation pattern.

Pain in the brain is not conducted like a symphony orchestra by a single individual. It is more like a free-jazz ensemble whose music is produced by loose and coordinated effort among the ensemble members.

‘Do you try to find the real artichoke by stripping it of its leaves?’ Wittgenstein once said. The same can be said of pain in the brain.

The brain is a causal mechanism to convey pain as a sensation. Pain also conveys to us itself. Pain in the brain is like a melody in music. When we feel a pain, the pain doesn’t convey something else that compounds with the activation patterns in the brain. We get the feeling of a pain because pain just is an activation pattern.

In the absence of a general theory of pain or brain function, metaphor and philosophy serve useful placeholder roles.

It is not obvious that experiences of pain are identical to brain activation patterns. In reply, it is not obvious that an ensemble of human beings could produce exciting jazz music, either.

It has sometimes been stated that classical music is superior to other forms of music. Why would a person say it? Well, human beings are consummate imitators, and if a person stands to gain by publicly making another copy of it, then imitation – camouflage? – is a strategy for success.

There are other possibilities. Listening to and performing classical music does not conventionally engage the human body in dance. The relative passivity of the body in classical music may therefore signify by default – to some, at least – that this form of music is more cerebral than other forms of music which have a dance component and, therefore, is superior. Certainly, the body produces bodily sensations and perceptions (e.g., propioception). Take those out of the picture, and what is left: mind. We would like to say that very much. Is it correct?

Apparently, human beings who wish to be only happy in life, are the same people who the next moment willingly listen to sad music and make themselves become sad. Why?

Does such a person think to himself: ‘This music is sad; I want to be sad; therefore, I listen to this music to be sad’? No, of course not. A person in this situation does not need to inform himself why he acts as he does. In addition, there is typically no such thought process preceeding a musical experience, during it, or following it. It is not characteristic of listening to or performing music to bethink to oneself such motivating factors as if the experience must be accompanied by a spoken soliloquy to make sense. Isn’t this true of routine human behaviours generally? Second, such a thought process cannot inform me in the same way as it informs you. For you, it is information. For me, a point of emphasis? Let me develop this last idea.

A human being may talk to himself inwardly while the music is on, but not to give himself information. Then, what is the meaning of this internal monologue, and how should it be described? The words used may convey the the level of interest in the music (a melody, a recurring theme, how the trombones sound, etc), and may function more like an exclamation than a descriptive statement. Certainly, one can imagine this occurring in upbeat or joyful music. In sad or melancholic music, self-talk is expressive of the sad quality perceived in the music. Again, it stresses what is noteworthy in the music. The music merits attention. It really did amaze me.

We want to be sad for a time; at least, sad for as long as the music lasts. The listener follows the sad music as he follows the sad face which changes expression. Music is like a familiar face, and we resonate with it in understanding as long as we are interested. The music plays on, the face moves predictably. On occasion, the music is too predictable. So, we stop it in mid-flight, like an uncomfortable human conversation, and move to something else. Typically, however, the sad piece of music I know completely by heart is a rewarding experience as though I listen to it for the very first time. It really is like empathy for a fellow human being, or parity in facial expressions exchanged between close friends during conversation. Now – is your closest friend entirely predictable? No. Even deep rapport between human beings harbours dark regions. I do not even wish to say that we aim in music listening to recreate sadness, happiness, or any such fleeting emotional response. What human beings do, I believe, is empathize with what is perceived in the music as expressive of our shared human interests, wants, desires, hopes, etc. We find it there in music, and return to it habitually, just as we find it in the faces of other people.

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Simon van Rysewyk

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