The Future is Already Here

future-is-already-hereJyväskylä University—Meeting with 40 graduate students in the music department at Jyväskylä, Finland, we’re talking about noise: the kind, entropic kind, that helps you tune in, get centered. Waves at the ocean, water in a brook. By now over a dozen publications draw the paradoxical conclusion that a certain amount of noise improves brain performance, signal detection. This research bears out the predictions of stochastic resonance, the only theory to have come to neuroscience by way of meterology.

A hand shoots up. Great! I live for curiosity, its humble courage. “Are you talking about pink noise, or white noise?” I dunno. Wiseacre.

“The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed”–William Gibson, cyberpunk novelist. And there’s a lot of it in Finland.


I rode up to Jyväskylä in the pet car. The dogs were very well behaved.


Jyväskylä University is one of the few Music Therapy capitals in the cacophonous world of biomedicine, and in this market, I’m going long on music therapy. Not only do they have sophisticated graduate students who are way ahead of me, they’ve got toys: magneto-encephalography, functional MRI, EEG, motion lab.


Of course there are different kinds of noise—I’m still sorting that out. But I know that in the right measure, noise means variability, joy, a sense of humor, childlike innocence, naïveté, clowning, health. It’s how I know you’re really there.

Before you were born, the obstetricians studied the variability of your heart rate—that’s good noise. Monotony, by contrast, connotes stern-ness, joylessness, illness. Horror movies use this rhythmic principle a lot–think of the theme music of classics like Jaws, Hitchcock films.

To Jyväskylä I imagine I’ve brought a little chunk of the future. A speculation, the timorous lovechild of my courage and my vanity:  it’s the noise, the randomness in music, that improves self-knowledge, by helping us out with a royal signal detection problem–interoception. Interoception is bodily awareness, like the ability to sense your own heart beat, your breathing. Interoception links in turn to empathy: how can you “feel for” another being if you cannot feel your self? To tune up your interoception, to be present, admit some noise, the underwriter to silence, that golden child who’s always pointing towards the future. A little chatter, a little static in the back. Helps you think.

The hotel offers a jazz ballad on the overhead speakers. Leaning in on a long flat note, the trumpet just crossed over to self pity. Music evokes pre-history, childhood memories, and now, pre-adolescent whining. At the front desk, they loan me a bicycle with disc brakes, and an automatic transmission. (Do we have these back home? Am I in the future?) I take the helmet—a cycling neurologist without one is a jarring sight—and find the museum of Central Finland, which says that history is pretty new around here: the pre-historic age didn’t end here until 1500.


Helsinki At the Harald Anderson Chamber Choir Competition, I’m glad I’m not judging, because I can’t tell who’s winning.


The choruses came from all over–Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, Ireland. One of the four Finnish finalist choirs has arrayed itself all over the hall, and they’re coherent, on the beat, wired together. They’re singing with emotion, but they’re also predicting the future, so as to keep in synchrony, their auditory and motor cortices teaming up to compute the arrival of the next beat.

We Homos think we’re so visual, but everything comes down to timing. Forget our precious eyes. The ears have it. Neuro-philosophes love to ask, which came first, music or words? If you ask a book, it’ll say in the beginning was the word. And the songwriter says it’s the contract. One theory says that to keep the beat, you have to have a brain capable of speech. So if you want to jam with someone from another species, try a cockatoo. They got rhythm:

But sea lions don’t have much vocabulary, and they’re dancing machines:

Did you ever wonder why your dog won’t dance? It’s because she can’t. She can sing rubato till the cows come home, but she can’t dance to save her soul. And don’t ask me why it takes so long to teach chimpanzees to tap along with a rhythm. Even at their best, their timing is all over the place. They just don’t have it.

My trip is over; it’s been just a short journey towards the future, and I’m bringing it back home. There’s a massive orchestra of maple trees, synchronized colors, waiting. Then, come June, I’ll hear that ever-loving buzz of fireflies, and hum along to their neon beat.



The Real Thing

Stepping on to the boat, I think how fragile, how ephemeral, is autonomy. The regular ferry off Canna was cancelled (wind), but then my host wrangled a private boat, so I’ll get back to mainland, Maillag, on schedule. I pass a small gift—an authentic shot glass emblazoned with a covered bridge, and the word “Vermont”—to Gordon, the island coast guard/toilet-cleaner/bird-guide. He has a positive way about him. His term for the dog barking at 4AM in the resonant tin shed next to my caravan: “a Canna lullaby.”

Between tune-swapping with other isle folk at Canna Cafe, Gordon told me about the birds of Canna. He once sighted “amateur” [Scot for immature] Golden Eagles talon-grappling in the north sky. Talon-grappling is normally a courtship dance, and Gordon was surprised that amateurs were doing it. Two eagles join, talon-to-talon, drop hundreds of feet, swiveling with abandon, then catch the air again, un-folding their wings to save their lives. Teenagers.


With an inscrutable twinkle, Gordon conveyed a bird-guide’s power: “At the end of a tour, if we haven’t seen any Golden Eagles, and someone’s especially determined to see one, I’ll point to a buzzard and say ‘There’s one, a Golden!’ and they’ll believe me.” Such a betrayal! Does he lie to his birdwatchers out of kindness, or to be thought of as the best bird-guide ever? You can’t tell if he’s kidding—perhaps neither can he. It’s now an experimentally demonstrable fact that, as Lord Acton said, power corrupts, weakens our empathy, our scruples; I guess that’s as true of bird-guides as it is of the rest of us.

In Izmir, Turkey, I once had the temerity, or the innocence, to ask a merchant whether a stone he was selling was really the kind of gem he said it was. “What does it matter?” he responded. “If you like the stone, you can call it whatever you want.” What did I really want, he seemed to say, value that I recognized for myself, or that others recommended? Was I so dependent on social currency that I would deny my own senses? I remember my father’s enthusiasm when he took me bird-watching—“Oh look!” he said, pointing. How I strained to see what he saw.

The boat landed us in Maillag, where I found the Steamer Bar and B&B. At the bar, another customer approached me. “Aycheldach” I think he said, with an expectant look. I’m just off the boat, scruffy jeans, bristled, toting a guitar; must look like the real thing. Others at the bar look on with curiosity. “Aycheldach” he repeated a few more times before figuring out I don’t get Gaelic. “Sorry, I don’t get it.” “Not many people do” he consoled me.

Soon they’re slapping me on the back, asking me if I’m good enough to play a song. I tell them I am. Right now I’m neither Scottish nor American, and don’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations. The barman turns down the disco, and as I start singing, about 20 people in the adjoining restaurant attend. They applaud, they like the songs. I tell them I’ve been to a Headache Meeting. They all want to buy me a pint. I wrap up—I’ve got an early train to catch.

Back in 6th grade, I learned from my dad one of the wonders of the world, that a writer could make up his own name. His friend Whittaker was “E.L. Frimbo” when he wrote about trains for The New Yorker, and I’m sure Frimbo wrote about the Scottish West Highlands train, the one I’m on now.


Through its magical windows you can see stags run over the heath, sunny glacier-carved mountain tops crest over fog horizons, lochs, sheep. This line was used to film Harry Potter movies, so there are usually one or two Harry Potter aficionados riding it. I’ve heard they’re quite willing to scold the innkeepers in towns like Crianlach and Glenfinnan if they’re not up on their Harry Potter trivia.

The passenger across the table from me, a young scientist from Oxford, has a remote look. He’s been hiking, hoping to find some remote places in the highlands, but there were always other hikers. I found a place though: up on Canna’s high hillsides; I kept my eyes on the sky, looking for eagles. Oh look—two eagles, square dancing at 300 feet. Just as they come together, they sail behind the mountain top. Or were they buzzards? I look down at what seem like a million little cow-paths, evidence of cow-autonomy printed on the angelic sedge. I meander back to my caravan; so many beautiful ways to get back home.


Lost & Found

I’m in Scotland, and I lost my hat. The one that was supposed to do for me what my father repeatedly suggested to me when I was young: “Get your head screwed on boy!” I took it kindly. It was an encouragement towards mindfulness, or core strength. And now, the screwing entails some deduction: by now, if I’d left my hat in the cab, the Glaswegian taxi driver would have turned it in to the Convention Center where he dropped me off, so I must have left it at the ticket counter at the Queen St. Railway Station. Two days after losing it, I’m here, hopeful, making a precise description of a non-descript black hat to the lady at the station’s Lost and Found desk. She disappears for an intolerable number of seconds into a room full of lost things, then re-appears with .… that’s it! We smile at the hat.

And now I’m sitting on the West Highlands train, rolling headlong into the mountains, delighted how things come around. The ferry connection will get me to a lodging gracefully called a “caravan,” Scottish for a corrugated rectangle containing some of the comforts of home.


the caravan


view from the caravan


Surrounding the caravan, the Isle of Canna, which may be too small to be a Hebride, though I shouldn’t second guess it. It has, in any case, a similar density of sheep, lichen, and off-shore seals embracing its polygonal coast.

The weather in Scotland, like in Vermont, strikes one pose after another.



Maybe it was the fog blurring their horizons that made the Scots such persuasive, persistent scale makers, meting out this spectral, mysterious world in numbers and categories, all the way back to Lord Kelvin with his Absolute Zero Temperature scale. More recently, the head trauma cases coming in from the local highways gave neurosurgeons Teasdale & Jennett the idea for the Glasgow Coma Scale.

I have a bit of that ornery, Scottish measurer/categorizer in me, and come by it honestly, from the McQueens and McPhedrans in my ancestry. (McPhedran—in fact it’s not the name for a Scottish herbal stimulant.) I felt their presence when I stood at the microphone with a question for the speaker in a large, dark Glasgow auditorium, and the moderator was about to pass me over for a second time. “Hellow!” blurted my inner Scot. The moderator heard the W, and promptly apologized.

“Do you think the disposition to placebo and nocebo response resides in the same person? Or are they in different people, as though we’re either optimists or pessimists?” I don’t remember the response, which probably means it was 65 seconds of polysyllabic gesticulating, academic for “I don’t know.” Aykhh. When it comes to reviewing medication side effects, clinicians would like to know which among their patients is prone to side-effect-by-suggestion, nocebo.

I used to think I’d avoided “social infections,” but since I’ve attended the “European Headache & Migraine Trust Conference,” I’m not so sure. Here, a social infection is something like what the Italian experimentalist Benedetti caused when he sent over a hundred students, clambering guinea pigs, up a 10,000 foot Alp. And now, the bad magic, the sorcery: simply by whispering into the ear of one of the climbers “You will very likely get a headache during the climb; it’s from the high altitude, …” Benedetti increased the headache rate at the mountain top from 52% to 86%. That’s social primates for you, spoiling the picnic with a contagious headache, algesia-by-suggestion. I wanted to ask if Benedetti, like any good experimentalist, ran the study twice, to reproduce his results. Recruitment could be a problem … But I forgot to ask him, as I was missing my hat at the time.

The nice thing is, it seems you can save the picnic with a placebo, though only the nocebo headaches respond to it; it won’t touch those original, 52% of headaches. There is a way, however, to fortify a placebo. It’s all about expectation: tell the consumer that there’s a very low chance—one in ten instead of the usual 50-50—that he’s swallowing a placebo. He thinks, correctly, “this is most likely the real stuff,” and so, even when it’s a fake, it works, better than a work-a-day, 50-50 placebo; or Prozac; or molasses.

Wrangling expectations can be a social thing. Or not. Now that I’ve got my hat again, I’ll carry it in my hand, and ask my expectations to be nice. They’re bound to listen.