How Are We Moved and Why Do We Like it?–with notes on the death of tragedy.

I hesitate to attempt any summary of Trimble’s disclosures, for fear of distorting or oversimplifying them. But among the ones that most intrigued me, some of which I’ve seen at least suggested elsewhere but which are given especially clear, substantiated, and up-to-date formulation here, are these:

That the development of our “emotional brain” began a long time ago—some of it is pre-hominid, even pre-mammalian—and that the most powerful of our emotional responses, the ones we sense as gut feelings, the ones that send chills, are associated with activity in the limbic system, among the oldest structures in the brain. They are autonomic, and start to happen before we are consciously aware of them.

That the development of the “social emotions,” including emotional empathy, is also related in the brain to the development of memory, in fact to the ability to think both forward and backward, to future and past, and so to orient ourselves in time. The discovery of mirror neurons confirms what many philosophers, psychologists, and artists have long discerned, that watching others commit an act or display an emotional state induces the same brain activity as if one had oneself committed the act or experienced the emotional condition.

That crying (and, presumably, the emotional responses that impel it) serves an evolutionary, biological purpose, which artistic tragedy seeks at least in part to serve. Trimble reports that findings in neuroanatomy do not support Aristotle’s theory of catharsis, according to which a purifying or purgative release (induced, for Aristotle, by the empathetic experience of pity and terror induced by the Sophoclean drama) takes place. In fact, an arousal, not a calming, happens, despite the frequent reports of  “cathartic” relief. After reviewing the many attempts, ancient and modern, to pin down the undefinable feeling—of deep satisfaction, but more than that—Trimble proposes the term “Tragic Joy,” and claims for it distant evolutionary origins linked with memory, intelligence, and language. “Tragic Joy”: that feels about right to me.

A couple of operacentric observations: 1) In opera, much more than music is involved. Words are there, mimetic action is there, ear and eye are both in reception. In the studies of responses to music that have been made to date (at least those I have seen referred to, in Trimble and elsewhere), the music has been recorded, not live, and we are not told at what volume level and in what sort of acoustical environment, much less who the listeners may be.  Bach and Mozart always seem to be the favorites. In one little project cited by Trimble, operatic excerpts at least sneaked in there—from Cosí fan tutte  (I’m betting on “Soave sia il vento“), La Bohème, and Der Rosenkavalier. A rather narrow range of sentiment there, among which only a few sections of Bohème (e.g., the “Sono andati?“) could be said to brush with tragedy. Would the Götterdämmerung Funeral March light up differently from these? And did the listeners know the words, the dramatic situation? Would any of this matter, brainwise?  2) In opera, too, it’s the voice that takes the musical lead. It’s a sort of voice like no other, developed at its peak to stir exactly the kind of primitive, nape-of-the-neck chill or overwhelming grief that our most ancient brain parts are tuned into our viscera to receive. It’s a spontaneous exchange of energy, one human’s insides straight to another’s. Whether we feel the chill or not depends on the singer. Operatic orchestral music, too, tends to be different from other kinds, even of the same “style”—by definition, more dramatic, more directly related to narrative.