[ maps and memes ]


Take Fred. He's a typical Anglo-Saxon. If I ask him to write the word "Kawasaki", he does it: Kawasaki. If I now ask him to write the same word in Japanese characters, he will tell me he can't do it.

Now, he is typically dextrous, he learned to write when he was at school, and he is quite familiar with pens and paper. What is missing is the mental "map". When Fred learned to write in English, he practised again and again until he'd stored up a mental image of every letter of the alphabet. As a man, many tasks of co-ordination have passed from a state that requires concentration and will to one where actions seem to be almost automatic. Fred can now carry out tasks like writing by hand, riding a bicycle, playing the guitar, or planing a piece of wood with very little effort. When he is confronted by a task he has never attempted before, like writing in Japanese characters, he has no store of mental images to follow, so nothing happens. He is trying to navigate round a foreign town without any road map. In many ways, Fred is now back in the position of a very young child learning a new skill.

It doesn't matter what skill you are learning, in the beginning you practice - it is preparation for the "real" activity. Practice usually involves reducing the task to small manageable pieces that gradually fit together to form a bigger and bigger picture. So writing starts with letters, but soon the letters have to be arranged into words and then the words build into sentences, and so on. Ultimately single letters appear almost irrelevant, as we have become so skilled at manipulating them that we seem to be able to go directly to the inner meaning. The process is similar whether we are trying to write, or build a guitar, or play a piece of music.

Much of this kind of map-making falls into the category Richard Dawkins calls "memes" or mental genes. He has recognised that we are as much shaped by our mental inheritance as by our genetic one. Just like genes, memes struggle to survive. Some are flawed and die away. Others mutate as ideas become more sophisticated. Some memes such as, for example, Christianity survive across very many generations. In the case of handwriting, it could be argued that Fred's memes form part of his cultural inheritance. The use of English as his native language partly defines his identity. So every one of us carries a great stockpile of memes around in our heads. They shape the way we interpret the world around us. We may be physically shaped by genes, but the inner person is shaped almost entirely by memes. This is the "person" we relate to in all the relationships that make up our lives : our students, our friends, or fellow minds across the medium of print. Our "maps" help us to navigate a safer path through the uncertainties of life, but they can also make us lazy. When new experiences come along, it is often easier to mould them into some preconception rather than appreciate that they have something new to offer. Some students persist in carrying out tasks that lead to mistakes. The faulty image of the task is so strong that it is easier to carry on in the same way than to recognise the better way. Often in very many situations, we see what we wish to see and hear what we wish to hear. This can make learning difficult.

However, if we persist in learning a new task, the process gradually changes as our learning deepens. As we move towards our horizon, it recedes and the nature of the task becomes more global. In the case of playing the guitar, we have done our scales, we have whizzed about the fingerboard showing our technical prowess (to a greater or lesser extent), but it becomes clear that this isn't the point. The point is to shape notes into music. Gradually the builder turns into an architect, and what distinguishes one from the other is the nature of the "map". Some of these new maps may also fall in the category of memes : for example, we may aspire to perform in the style of our teacher, or in the style of a great recording of the past and so on. But other maps at this stage may serve quite a different function. An architect will have an overview of the whole building - he is effectively a maker of virtual buildings, since the virtual building takes shape long before there is anything tangible to see. For many activities besides architecture, mapping can be used as a design tool - it can be a way of visualising an event before it happens. This is one of the most fascinating and rewarding facets of the mind. Mapping becomes a form of modelling. In other words, it is possible to take what is currently known, blend the elements together in our imaginations and create a new understanding. Scientists have used mathematical modelling for a very long time as a way of interpreting the underlying mechanisms of the universe. At the beginning of the 20th century, some scientists like Einstein were struggling with concepts so bizarre that it was very difficult for human minds rooted in everyday life to handle them. In order to make the concepts more accessible, some of the great pioneers used techniques of "Gedankenexperimenten" : something I translate as "mental modelling". Since our minds are very visually oriented, such models are often visual in nature. For example, while travelling on a tram one day, Einstein famously asked the question :"what would the world look like if the tram was travelling at the speed of light?" From such an apparently innocent question came eventually the theory of relativity.

It is equally possible to model sound, and equally possible to do it with visual images. Although on the face of it this may seem rather a contradiction, it can be surprisingly rewarding. In terms of making instruments, it is crucial to be a able to "map" acoustics. In other words, we are back with the task of creating "virtual" things through a leap of imagination, in this case not buildings or compositions but guitars. The ability to visualise with greater clarity can lift any activity to a more rewarding level. It can also allow new flexibility, since changing parameters in the model presents a range of possible outcomes. I believe this kind of modelling can be a very useful teaching aid in terms of helping students to understand the acoustics of their instrument. To give a detailed explanation of the ways I use visual images to model sound would take more space than is currently available here, however, I would be pleased to provide further information to anyone interested.

©1998 Trevor Semple

"EGTA Journal", 2000

There is a more detailed description in the Proccedings of the Institute of Acoustics, ISMA '97
Trevor Semple: "Mental Modelling for Guitar Acoustics"

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