Wagner, Myth and the Brain

by Siegfried Othmer | June 17th, 2010

We have a deeper and more complex autobiographical memory, which is foundational to the emergence of myth.In connection with the current performance of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung here in Los Angeles, a panel discussion was organized at the REDCAT theatre on mythology and the human brain with Antonio Damasio (neuroscientist), Peter Sellars (theater, opera, and movie director, and impresario), and Bill Viola (videographer). (REDCAT stands for Roy and Edna Disney/CAL Arts Theater.)

The Origins of Myth
Damasio started the afternoon off by delving into the presumptive beginnings of myth among our early ancestors. He drew a distinction between us and our near animal relatives, the chimpanzees, with respect to memory. We have a deeper and more complex autobiographical memory, which is foundational to the emergence of myth. He then also asserted that the emergence of imagery in our species preceded the emergence of language.

I wondered whether we might not once again be trying to preserve our sense of uniqueness as a species by denigrating the presumptive competences of our near relatives, the great apes. With regard to autobiographical memory, Science News just featured an article drawing attention to the fact that chimpanzees grieve the death of a group member, in apparent full recognition of the individuality that has been lost. It’s not just that the troop is now smaller by one. It surprises me that this should be treated as news within the realm of science. Autobiographical memory is there already. Chimpanzees know perfectly well the hazard of a personal death; they must have at least a vestigial personal “narrative.” They know how they fit in to the troop. They strategize for personal advantage over the longer term. And in order to manage their social existence their emotional repertoire has to be extensive. Their emotional memory map is superb—quite possibly just as elaborate as our own.

On the second issue, whether imagery emerged prior to the development of language, Damasio came back later (in answer to my question on this topic) to say that he was referring to the development of complex language forms. In this regard, the uniqueness of our species is certainly beyond dispute. But is the emergence of myth dependent on the prior emergence of complex language? Language emerged to augment an already existing capacity for communication, much of it gestural and postural, but also auditory. Our facial expressions have been in the service of communication for a long time. Our smile is but a societal reframing of what started out as the baring of teeth—a defensive threat gesture in our common ancestor.

The early emergence of imagery can also be seen in the larger frame of communication. And it can be seen as underpinning the emergence of myth. Imagery acquired its own intrinsic “power.” Once this power was acknowledged by the existing societal structure, it became further reinforced. The power of imagery was then further augmented by its durability—its survival from generation to generation. This durability may have led to the early association of art objects with the dead in burial chambers. Reverence for the dead then further imbued such objects with lasting cultural significance. They were the carriers of continuity. Imagery no doubt soon acquired the power of myth—of powerful associations with that imagery.

I would be inclined to turn Damasio’s argument around in several ways. I see the emergence of art as foundational to the emergence of myth, not that of language. And whereas the existence of complex autobiographical memory may make mythmakers of us all—even way back to our early ancestors—this is not enough. An isolated mythmaker becomes an outcast in any society, large or small. For something to rise to the level of myth, there has to be shared belief. Myth is intrinsically a social and communal creation. Myth acquires relevance, and power, by shared assent. The emergence of such assent does indeed depend upon communication, but not necessarily on refined language.

Damasio may reflect here the biases that still prevail within the neurosciences, the bias in favor of our verbal and logical left hemispheres, to the detriment of the understanding of our emotional and social selves; and the bias toward studying the individual in isolation rather than in relationship. Indeed, the emergence of myth also requires the imposition of a rational construct as an order parameter for organizing our experience. In the end, the narrative that sustains myth is one composed by the left hemisphere. Once anything becomes rule-based, the left hemisphere assumes custodianship. But is this imposition of rational order more like the capstone on a Gothic arch or more like a bobbing cork on a roiling emotional sea?

Wagner’s Mythology, by Peter Sellars
In the Ring of the Nibelung, we are steeped into the roiling emotional sea. Peter Sellars put this wonderfully in perspective. Much has been made of the fact that Richard Wagner had highly objectionable personal characteristics. But Wagner was very much aware of this himself; it made him deeply pessimistic about man’s prospects in general. He was particularly critical of societal constructs—of industrial society, of capitalism and later of communism, and of the institutionalized Christianity of his day. Sellars sees Wagner as finding redemption in love, and to a lesser degree in a state of nature. Limited exposure to Buddhism and Hinduism tempted him in the direction of a less overweening role for man’s institutions, as a necessary corrective for all the ills we perpetrate in our attempts to “institutionalize good.” He was, perhaps, a precursor for today’s Libertarian.

The Ring is a juxtaposition of the destructive potential of the accretion of power with the countervailing regenerative force of love. Alberich must foreswear love to gain access to the gold, in order to fashion the ring. Siegfried is the hero raised in a state of nature, unblemished by civilization’s imprints, who listens to forest voices and whose love of Brünnhilde is genuine and total, and therefore proper—-even if she is his aunt.

I don’t find Sellars narrative entirely convincing either. Even at the individual level, and perhaps particularly in matters of love, man can be as destructive as in any other sphere. Brünnhilde was complicit in the assassination of her beloved Siegfried, and then there is Otello. Sometimes that destructiveness is even innocent—as in the case of Siegfried’s loss of Brünnhilde’s memory, which was chemically induced. If redemption is to be found anywhere in the Ring, it is finally to be found only in the music itself. Wagner wanted his work to be seen as a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a total work of art. But ultimately it remains a conveyance for the music. The story line is bizarre. The libretto does not show Wagner at his creative best (Sellars). But the music redeems it all.

Sellars was most convincing when he talked about the corrosive effects of power in Wagner’s Ring. The seeds of destruction were planted early on. Both the ostensibly well-meaning Wotan and the malevolent dwarf Alberich were dishonest schemers in the identical cause—-the attempt to consolidate their power, which led to their undoing. Sellars sees an analogy between the Götterdämmerung and the present day, when the relative decline of American power is apparent. With the BP disaster, we are helplessly in the grip of a technological imperative. And with the blowing up of Afghani civilians with our Predator drone we come face to face with our own overweening cultural and technological arrogance. The moneychangers are in the temple. We are politically in fibrillation while the ground of our physical existence decays around us.

Wotan was cognizant of the ebbing of his powers, and even became a facilitator in the final immolation of Valhalla and of its inhabitants. Likewise, our key institutions are active agents in their own relentless trajectory toward impotence and self-destruction.

The Role of Art, by Bill Viola
As an artist concerned with visual representations, Bill Viola had the least to say. He appealed to us briefly through his art:

Three female figures are dimly perceived standing in the middle distance in shades of grey. After some period of expectancy, they slowly approach, one by one. They pass through a totally transparent sheet of water that is rendered visible to us only by the water droplets that bounce off them and scatter the light. They pass through the thin sheet of water and emerge in full color. After lingering, one by one they retreat back through the veil of water into relative obscurity and resume their prior stationary pose.

What he did say complemented the others and cut to the core. So much of the visual media we see nowadays are either in the service of a cause or overtly trying to sell us something. Art, by contrast, honors the observer by seeking to evoke a response rather than to dictate it. The more the medium is abstract, the more that is the case, and the more we are forced onto the non-verbal domain of feeling. Finally this also holds true for the Ring. What holds us in its grip is the emotionality and evocativeness of the music.

A Perspective on Neurofeedback
If one looks at the role of myth from the perspective of neurofeedback, one has the impression that a lot of mythology prevails within our field. Offense may be taken at such usage of the word in connection with a discipline that purports to be scientifically guided, but that is mainly a matter of perspective. What looks like nothing more than the proclamation of a truth on the part of the proponent may in fact be little more than myth when seen from the outside. The proclamations being made are often mutually contradictory, so they can’t all be true. They are firmly held nonetheless. A lot of experts in the field must therefore be in the grip of myth.

While many myths simply try to give form to our own past, others are intended to be both descriptive and prescriptive. Like laws of nature, they must hold true everywhere and for all time. Their adherents can brook no alternative perspective. The tendency to settle prematurely on a particular outlook is exacerbated in the guild system of health care. The practitioner must not be seen as equivocating, and the field as a whole must not be seen as thoroughly divided in its core orientation. Science is unitary, and in order to appear scientific, at least provisional assent must be yielded to a unitary vision. Such a unitary vision is likely to start out as largely myth.

The aspirational social sciences have a particular problem here because it is so difficult for a proposition to rise to the level of established fact or theory. Indeed one can sympathize with political scientist Clinton Rossiter who declaimed at one point: “I believe this so strongly that it almost becomes a fact.” Instead these fields move forward by consensus. If reasonable consensus is achieved within a discipline, then provisional scientific validity is simply claimed. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of psychiatry is perhaps the best exemplar of this process at work. The science behind it is meager, but that becomes a non-issue in the face of general acquiescence to the DSM formalism. What we have here, plain and simple, is myth masquerading as science.

We actually have a ready diagnostic to distinguish myth disguised as science from actual science. If a particular proposition brings forth strong emotions in its defense, then we are dealing with myth. One can be sure that no one mounts the ramparts on behalf of Newton’s Laws of Motion. In the field of neurofeedback there is lots of emotion around many issues, and that is proof that we are still wading through a lot of myths. Mainstream practitioners keenly feel the threat posed by the lack of a unitary mythology. The very legitimacy of a discipline is at stake in the absence of a shared core belief. It is therefore of crucial importance to reconstitute the core myth as quickly as possible whenever it is threatened by major controversy. This is not far removed from the tribal consciousness of our early ancestors—the hive mind. Now as in earlier times, myth fleshes out the mental constructs by which we order our affairs.

The threat to the core myth comes with every major new idea that enters the field. In an emerging discipline such as neurofeedback, such significant new insights are likely to be plentiful. And on each occasion, these new ideas are not welcomed with eagerness as scientific textbooks would have one believe, but rather they are met almost uniformly with hostility among the priesthood. There is no better litmus test for the predominance of myth in our collective core beliefs about neurofeedback than the hostility to new findings and to the emergence of new concepts.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the principal division within the field cuts right through our hemispheric fissure. Is the field to be primarily prescriptive in its methods, subject to the dictates of the left hemisphere, or is it to be primarily evocative in a more open-ended fashion, cultivating the emergence of new competences in the Gesamtkunstwerk that is man? Unfortunately, the relevance and potency of our science is likely to be judged by our ability to be prescriptive in our methods. So a large part of our current mythology is the claim that we are able to be prescriptive, irrespective of whether or not that is borne out in actual practice. The greatest progress has in fact been made over the years by those who see nature as it actually behaves, and are not constrained by the prevailing myths.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

4 Responses to “Wagner, Myth and the Brain”

  1. Dear Siegfried,
    I finally had a chance to read your piece on the Wagner lecture, and what a parallel I am experiencing!
    I am reading Francher’s “Cultures of Healing”, wherein he sets out to deconstruct first the DSM, then 4 schools of care: pychoanalysis, behaviorism, CBT, and (I think — haven’t got this far) biological medicine. It is a terrific read, although my first reaction was that I should close down my practice. I have got beyond that, and am learning to question more, not take all the things therapists “just know as fundamental” without skepticism and analysis, and challenge the “scientific” claims that therapy puts forth. I do recommend the book. It was published in 1995 and I wonder why it took me this long to find it. Our schools of healing are cultures, not science.

  2. One of the hazards of reading such a book is that one begins to question whether there is any firm ground to stand on at all. Perhaps that is what caused you to question even the “habits of mind” that underlie your own work. The difference here is that we are so closely tied in our work to what actually happens in the client’s life. We are fortunate in having such a short “feedback loop” to observe the consequences of our own intervention. So the work itself is a corrective on our models. We are also fortunate in working so closely with the way nature in general, and our brains in particular, actually behave.

    Our understanding of neurofeedback has undergone major adjustments over the years, not just our clinical approach. And the approach we use now will likely undergo further significant change as we move forward. Yet every milestone along the way remains verifiable. The past may have been superseded clinically, but the findings of the past all remain valid, and to a certain extent the older methods remain useful in a limited role. (In Europe they are still researching the techniques that we taught twenty years ago.)

    So the theory behind our methods is of secondary concern. It is unlikely to get us off track, even though it may narrow our focus for a time. That cannot be said for the other methods that you refer to above. One sure way to discomfit a pharmacologist is to cite back to him the truth he proclaimed five or ten years ago, because that “truth” will most likely have been superseded.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Jane–
    A new edition of the book you refer to is available.
    It was published in 2003, with a new introduction.
    The reviews are uniformly highly favorable.
    It is:

    “Health and Suffering in America: The Context and Content of Mental Health Care”
    by Robert T. Fancher

  4. Hanno Kirk says:

    I read this essay for the first time just now. I thought that it was in response to the Met performances of the Ring Cycle, which were widely seen in theatres over the past weeks.

    I agree with your last commentary about the inter relationship between myth and the discord in the field of Neurofeedback

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