Touch from a Distance
DANIEL DE SEGOVIA GROSS is a serial entrepreneur and a pioneer of the early days of the world wide web. Ever humble about his accomplishments, when asked for a biographical blurb, Daniel simply responds: ‘I solve problems, I have run companies that solve problems, in my spare time I come with new problems, sometimes I transform problems into more interesting problems.’
A great thinker and life-long philosophy student who always enjoys a good debate, we invited Daniel to share some of his thoughts with Seymour’s community.
Touch from a Distance
During one of the great arguments of my life, my position was that hearing is an extension or ‘special case’ of the sense of touch, while my sister held that the two senses were altogether distinct. The argument, as I remember it, spanned several days (bearing in mind that memory is a cunning liar), ebbing and flowing in bits of conversation like a spastic tide. I don’t remember who (if anyone) won the argument. But thirty years later, my position has not changed.
The kinship between these two senses helps to explain the power of music to alter our moods, feelings and perception. When we listen to music, particularly when it is performed live, we are essentially letting someone (possibly a stranger) pet us with our clothes on.
Leaving aside the banal scientific complexities of a neurobehavioral perspective on hearing, I contend that hearing is a special case of touch because their stimuli affect us in similar ways. Air vibrates as it carries sound waves. These caress the eardrum, which converts them to electric signals, conveyed through the brain, triggering sensations ranging from pleasure to surprise to sadness to madness to epiphany.
My earliest musical experiences were quite disturbing, because I felt their emotional portent but could not explain it. Two of the earliest recordings I played repeatedly were the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and a New York Philharmonic Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastorale). Though even at age six, I could rationalize the wave of joy that came over me from listening to “A Little Help From My Friends,” because it was a pop song with words and a happy message. But I could not understand at all why the Pastorale could fill me with exultant joy, melancholy and longing over the course of a few minutes. There were no words there, only sounds.
Music has the power to touch us, literally, from a distance. This gives it the power to create an intimate experience that bypasses most (if not all) of the structures and limitations various societies place on touching. It is a sort of service entrance to the palace of human emotion. We’ve been trained to consciously perceive hearing and touch as utterly different, separate and distinct, but the not-so-conscious reaches of our minds, and our bodies, really can’t tell the difference.
All of our senses can experience a range of sensations on the pleasure-pain spectrum. The world is not made of music – many sounds in our daily sensorium are harsh, disturbing, unpleasant, or (in our overly mechanized and digitized society) exasperatingly repetitive. But touch and hearing share a short-circuit effect: our classification of a touch or sound as pleasant (or not) can bypass judgment, and comes to us immediately – no frontal cortex required. Smell, sight, taste – for these we depend a great deal more on learned behaviors and responses in determining whether a sensation is good or bad. Ask a four-year-old to take a whiff of an espresso, or perfume. Or, to use yourself as the subject of the experiment, gaze deeply into the mystery of a Chagal or a Braque. Ask yourself what your eyes see vs. what you see.
Perhaps, when we move through busy urban thoroughfares with our playlists playing and our earbuds on, we have merely found a sublimation technique for getting a hug as we walk down the street.
Published: March 19th, 2013