14. Anticipation, Stimulus, Adaptation

Let’s imagine that you are feeding someone steamed rice by the spoonful. Let’s say that it is just plain rice, with no salt, no pepper, nothing else added to it.

During the first few feedings there will be some action in the person’s nose and in the sweet-taste receptors on the tongue, created by the familiar aroma and the sugar in the rice. And, as a result, the signals they send to the brain will induce stimulation and trigger some “exciting” procedures. Yet, as the plain rice keeps going to the mouth, the excitement will subside in a short time, the brain will become indifferent to the incoming messages and eventually will stop responding. This indifference or numbness resulting from predictability is called sensory adaptation in neuroscience.

If you add a pinch of salt to a few spoonfuls of rice, this will awaken the salt-sensitive receptors and they will begin sending new stimuli to the brain. “It takes about one minute of continuous stimulation for particular taste receptors to reach their maximum sensitivity. After that, the taste receptors will undergo adaptation and the taste will fade.” (Ratey, 73)

If you add something sour, then the sour-receptors will get activated and then, if you go back to salt, salt-receptors will get activated anew. “Taste” is basically the stimulation of the receptors in the mouth successively or simultaneously to keep the brain active and appreciating. That is why we eat a bit of this and a bit of that or mixtures at the dinner table.

And here is why I started this section with the topic of taste:

Humans do their best to surround themselves with predictables and repetitions and try not to leave their lives to chance, to be able to live securily. At the same time, they are continuously seeking the novel, for inherent (there are genetic explanations) and for functional (search for resources) reasons.

Everything around us moves: that is, changes. All five of the five senses try to decode the changes. The “new” that the changes bring “… may be a threat or a new source of food or comfort. The impact of the new on our survival arouses us; it stimulates us to notice and either welcome it or be wary of it.” (Ratey, 73)

If the change, after it is noticed and deciphered, begins to repeat itself, adaptation commences. Basically, the brain gets bored of the ongoing repetition and starts reconnaissance for new stimuli in other places. (This may be the reason why people look at television while having their routine dinners.) 

Change may also be seen as “information,” to use a communications term. As famously put by Gregory Bateson, “information is a difference that makes a difference.” When a message gets repetitive or redundant, it loses its informative value. 

“Live” communication, verbal or nonverbal, consists of the same process as the eating of rice I have described above. After all, just like the taste buds, our ears and eyes are connected to the same brain with same type of cables. Speaking “word by word” or showing some items “one by one” indicate the same syntagmatic procedure as feeding someone rice “one spoon after another.”

And, as I have pointed out in the previous sections, live communication (where meaning is percieved as being produced and produced as being perceived) is always mutual. For a successful communication to take place, the parties involved have to refer to codes that are familiar to all and must take the context and the matrix they are in into consideration.

Moreover, the communicating parties have to consider the mechanism of perception and the way the stimulation system operates while building the syntagm and composition. In other words, while feeding spoonfuls of rice to a person, you have to consider his/her hunger level, his/her tolerance level to plain rice, the type of rice you are feeding, the size of the spoon, the tempo of the feeding, etc. 

Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 94” (known as the “Surprise Symphony”) is famous for its exaggerated playfulness with the perception process I tried to explain above: The violins begin the “andante” section with a slow melody of which volume gets softer and softer. When the melody arrives at the second beat of the sixteenth measure, the entire orchestra sounds a one-beat chord very loudly, like an explosion, and then the soft volume resumes. The same melody is heard a few more times in the rest of the section but the “surprise” does not repeat: the “tension” created by expectation turns into a strategy to make the audience focus on the music. (Of course, the sensational effect experienced during the first performance (1792) must have inevitably diminished in subsequent performances as people learned about it.)

As a more comprehensive example, below is a “performance text” which I had prepared for a seminar on sequential composition in the performing arts. The text, which I called 213, consists of numbers written in seven columns. It is to be read vertically by a person to an audience at a steady tempo (about 3 seconds per number), keeping the same intonation. The text has to be read in a language known by the audience.

I structured this text thinking of a classroom environment, to demonstrate the perception of syntagmatic information transmitted live. It serves the purpose better when the text is performed first, without introduction,  and discussed later.

The first twenty-two numbers consist of standart counting, in the most predictable ascending order. I assume that around 10-15 the listeners will decide that there will be no change in the order and they will drift into adaptation, so that the skipping of number 23 (if that goes unnoticed, then 213 in the third column) can form a change, therefore, a stimulus. The listeners’ expectations will change after this stimulus and they will begin to wait for surprises. Thinking that I may lose their attention if I go back to regular counting, I created the subsequent three sets with irregularities which get patterned within themselves as they progress.

The above experiment is intended to play with the mechanism of perception using the learned patterns at the content level, by creating expectations and then meeting them or not meeting them – which forms the procedural essence of any composition in the performing arts.

Now let me give another example, again using numbers. Let’s imagine someone declaring that, as a performance, s/he will sit somewhere and, following a metronome set to 30 beats per minute, will count nonstop from 1 to 10,000. If s/he can do it, that will take about 5.5 hours.

Because every number will be heard exactly as expected, the informative value of each number will be zero. To repeat: It is accepted in communications that predictability and information are inversely correlative, when one increases, the other decreases. For instance, arrival of 16 after 15 has no informative value. (Fiske, 9)

Alternatively let’s assume that this person reads the numbers from a randomly ordered list (238; 7,899; 5; 325; 3,101, etc.) That will be an entropic sequence where no subsequent number can be predicted. Here the informative value of the numbers will be equal to zero as well. For the listeners, the randomly arranged, unpredictable order will quickly become as predictable as the numbers in standard one-by-one counting and will give way to adaptation.

If the performance, consisting of either regular counting or the reading of random numbers, attracts an audience, the reason won’t be a “syntagmatic curiosity” for certain (that is, the interest in hearing which word will be followed by which). 

If anyone attends this performance, what would be the reason for it?

The performer’s undertaking is a physically challenging one, so people may go to see if s/he can do it or not and watch the physical changes in the body as the performance goes on (similar to watching someone lift something heavy or climb a wall or somersault or play notes on an instrument very rapidly). Or, they may go to be associated with the social circles the performer belongs to. Or, they may go to be part of a daring, rebellious undertaking that is considered to be unreasonable and “crazy” in society. Or, they may go just to experience something unusual.

In short, the audience would be attending the performance not to comprehend the subject matter, the central information delivered (which is absent in both imaginary scenarios above) but to experience aspects evoked and connoted by the circumstance, by the matrix of the event. The delivery (recitation of numbers) serves only as pretext for the event to take place. In other words, the matrix ends up serving as the subject matter.

For a more real-world example, we can look at the venue known as the “jazz club.” By definition, a jazz club ought to have a bunch of musicians playing music. And that music ought to be in the “jazz music” genre, characterized by the use of conventionalized compositional structures, instrumentation and usually complex harmonic and rhythmic choices. 

If there is a “line” in the music that can be followed, it often requires well-trained ears to track it – to detect the choices, to form expectations, to appreciate the responses, etc. It is quite difficult for the common listeners, who constitute the majority of jazz club-goers, to find and follow the line but they are usually satisfied as long as the music “sounds like jazz” and fulfills its essential position for the matrix of the jazz club to materialize and be experienced. If you ask a jazz clubber what was played, you often get the answer “jazz.”