Basically, the human brain isn’t some kind of computer which calculates, or ‘runs’ algorithms. Antonio Damasio, the great American neurologist, was one of the first to argue that emotions play an extraordinarily important role in most cognitive functions such as memory and intellectual functions, motivation, perception, etc.
(…) There are descriptions of patients who suffer from ‘production aphasia’ (Broca's aphasia) which means that although they understand language, they no longer have access to their lexicon, their vocabulary - they’re unable to produce words. If I can speak now – something that seems so simple to us – if I want to say things and the words come to me so spontaneously, that’s because I have access to my vocabulary. If on the other hand I had a cerebrovascular accident [stroke] in a frontal cortical region of the left hemisphere (Broca's area), I would suddenly have aphasia. Has the vocabulary disappeared or is it just no longer available for us to access? Here’s a metaphor of a library that helps to understand the question. Is it that the library is destroyed, or have they taken away the ladder that I need to help me explore the books? It's a problem of availability versus accessibility. And we don't know the answer to that today.
But to come back to our emotions, when we get these aphasic patients to sing, music, with its strong emotional component allows to regain a certain access this lexical store. The emotion suddenly ‘reconnects’ the processes. Emotion is extraordinarily important. It cuts across all areas of cognition.
(…) The first thing that a baby in utero hears from the sixth month after conception, thus three months before birth, is the prosody of the mother's language: it’s in a certain sense the music of the language, which is detectable in a range of low frequencies and which expresses the emotions conveyed by the human voice. There have been some remarkable studies which show that the child, at this stage of brain maturity and in the intrauterine environment, can perceive (even if unconsciously) frequencies below 400 Hz. Nothing to do with the higher frequencies which allow us to recognize phonemes: the difference between Gros and Crocs, between Gue and Que. Those are very complex high frequencies, which are filtered through the amniotic fluid. The low frequencies of the prosody are not filtered. The baby in utero therefore hears this music in the mother's voice and may manifest, early after birth, a form of recognition of this voice.
But this music translates our life, it is emotion in language. When we speak, we sing. I'm singing right now, in a sense. I vary the tonal pitches as well as the rhythm, the intonations, and the intensities. And that's what the child hears.
A child at birth is very short-sighted. They see the mother's breast. That’s all they’re interested in anyway. And then quite quickly the ocular system matures. At the very beginning, the visual system isn’t very efficient, but the auditory cortex is already mature as early as three months before birth. Prosody is therefore the key to entering the language.
And it’s amazing because deep down it’s language that characterizes us. We are word-beings – zoon logon echon, as Aristotle says. The human is an animal with language. This is its distinguishing feature. And in language, there is emotion – of course in the sense of the words spoken, but also in the musicality of language. And in language, there is poetry, theatre, science, there is everything.
So, please, in our lives, in our schools, let us cultivate emotion. It is extraordinarily important to continue to be in emotional contact, in contact with our imagination, with the works that make us cry or laugh, that make us live. It's essential. Stop telling us that culture is not essential in these times of confinement.
— Interview on October 22, 2020.
→ Marc Crommelinck is professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of Leuven. He has devoted his career to teaching psychology and neuroscience in different universities and, more recently, the epistemology of these disciplines. He has conducted research on eye-head coordination processes and the nervous mechanisms of face recognition. He was advisor to the rector for culture. He is a member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Medicine.
Photo of rehearsal of L'Errance de l'hippocampe.
Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles, November 2020.