Saturday, 4 January 2014

I’ve got so many articles bookmarked that sometimes I forget about the really good ones until another good one comes to remind me about them. I love it when this happens – when two seemingly unrelated articles collide and create new ideas. I love the possibility of these ideas and what I can do with them. It always elicits a strong emotional response from me, as well as an intellectual one. I’m not sure I really view my emotions as separate from my thinking processes. This is why, as a researcher and academic, I find it strange to talk to anyone who claims that their research is a purely intellectual exercise for them. I often can’t separate mine from the same feelings of wanting and needing and desiring that I associate with someone I’m attracted to, or that strong emotional connection to certain books, or the way a piece of music makes me feel.

I’m about to get touchy feely here. About my research; or, more specifically, about the desire to research – what compels it when it’s often an unrequited, difficult and taxing exercise that doesn’t necessarily come attached to a pleasant or calm ‘enjoyment’ factor.

There’s this ad on TV at the moment that is played a lot. It uses a song in the background. This song, without fail, makes my heart thump when I hear it. It’s a response of ‘happy sadness’; a kind of indulgent sadness that makes me want to cry indulgent tears. I’m not actually sad when I hear it, it makes me feel good in a sense. But it’s not a straightforward ‘feel good’. It’s the kind of contradictory ‘feel good’ that you get when you think about someone you love: pain mixed with pleasure. I don’t actually like this song. I think its lyrics are naff and there is nothing particularly remarkable about it. Yet, my body and mind seem to react to it every time I hear it.

This reaction was summarised in an article I read and bookmarked a while ago:

It’s easy enough to understand why sex and food are rewarded with a dopamine rush: this makes us want more, and so contributes to our survival and propagation. (Some drugs subvert that survival instinct by stimulating dopamine release on false pretences.) But why would a sequence of sounds with no obvious survival value do the same thing?

The truth is no one knows. However, we now have many clues to why music provokes intense emotions. The current favourite theory among scientists who study the cognition of music – how we process it mentally – dates back to 1956, when the philosopher and composer Leonard Meyer suggested that emotion in music is all about what we expect, and whether or not we get it. Meyer drew on earlier psychological theories of emotion, which proposed that it arises when we’re unable to satisfy some desire. That, as you might imagine, creates frustration or anger – but if we then find what we’re looking for, be it love or a cigarette, the payoff is all the sweeter.

This, Meyer argued, is what music does too. It sets up sonic patterns and regularities that tempt us to make unconscious predictions about what’s coming next. If we’re right, the brain gives itself a little reward – as we’d now see it, a surge of dopamine. The constant dance between expectation and outcome thus enlivens the brain with a pleasurable play of emotions.

This is exactly it. I hear that damn song, and I expect something. I can’t name what I expect, but it’s a constant dance in my head, my body, my desires. It’s the same with love. It’s a feeling of wanting and needing. This also summarises why I do what I do. Research and writing and teaching aren’t simply a job as such (although thank all the gods I finally have a decent one), they’re about wanting and needing. This doesn’t mean I do this work in a constant stream of pleasure, enjoyment and happiness, but it does mean that I feel like me as a result of doing it.

It took me a long time to realise that it’s the expectation that counts for me. I’d hate to think, for example, what would happen if one day I stopped wanting to know things – that I stopped expecting the world to be interesting and full of possibilities and complex ideas.

I was reminded of this article on music when I read an article that Jane linked yesterday called The ecology of Pooh. It really has nothing to do with what I’m talking about here, but its subject matter is close to my heart in so many ways, not least of which in that it explores some ideas I have spent years thinking about and formulating in writing. Ideas that I want to continue exploring. Ideas that are basically Expectation with a capital ‘E’.

As I was reading it, I thought about how my research seems to connect with some early wanting and needing and expecting. The idea that “Most of us find ourselves distant and dislocated from all that reminds us of home. And this is true even for those who do not migrate, for adulthood is its own form of exile, in time if not in space” connects with the memory of Wuthering Heights sitting on my lap and creating that same feeling as the damn song on TV. I want more! I want, I want! It’s a feeling of childhood itself for me.

So then maybe ‘home’ is a return to that feeling, and maybe my research is a constant process of turning that feeling into something that is mediated intellectually. As someone who has written so much about nostalgia in my own line of research, this also struck me: “To balance the negative psychological state of ‘nostalgia’, a couple of years ago Albrecht proposed ‘endemophilia’ (the sense of being truly at home within one’s place and culture — or ‘homewellness’).” I’m suspicious of nostalgia, but the concept of endemophilia, to use an appropriate pun here, hits home. ‘Homewellness’ is how I describe what compels me to research, teach and write. It’s a pain and pleasure, sort of like many homes tend to be. It’s not a distinct place, but a feeling of belonging. This belonging though, is restless by nature for me. I will always want and expect more and yearn for something out of reach, and when I stop wanting and expecting I’ll stop feeling like I belong in the work that I do.


The Almost Famous Writer said...

There are all sorts of wonderful things in this post. It helps me to understand why I feel so at home in academia, and yearn for it now that I've finished university. I'm very glad to be reading you again, Hila.

Hila said...

I never really wanted to leave university, which is a pretty good sign that I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing. I wish for the same for you.

Glenn Albrecht said...

Glad you liked endemophilia. I was not sure if anyone would empathise with it.