Tuning in: Music and empathy

A car pulls up in our street, its windows wide open.

Music is playing in the car – lively music with heavy bass heartbeats.

The street is, to use the technical jargon ‘acoustically bright’ – a few young summer trees notwithstanding, you can hear every word of a conversation along its straight, wide, semi-detached-lined, length_

The music stops – cut off with the engine.

Though the car’s an inanimate object, and the sound has no more bearing on its original creators than the electrons bringing you this post have upon me,  I can’t help feeling – just for that fraction of a second before reason takes over – ‘Doesn’t that seem rude?’

I’ve wondered, every summer for years, why the feeling springs unwanted to my mind.

Just the other day, I found the answer.

Some people relate to music more deeply than others – almost like as with an intense friendship.

It looks as if I’m one of these people.

Weirdly though, I might have known all along.

In ‘The Price of Time’ and its yet-unpublished sequel ‘The Evening Lands’ characters have the ability to ‘visit people’s minds’, including their own. Inside a mind are rooms with machines for the various faculties (power of reason looks like a Difference Engine, while a portrait gallery represents ability to remember faces, etc).

Last year a plot turn required a character to see empathy. I chose to represent empathy as a crystal dial like an analogue radio set, which ‘picks up’ people’s feelings by resonance.

The crystal dial has radial lines with the names of everybody the person cares about.

And in one particular character, these names are interleaved with those of their favourite pieces of music.


Is this how it’s supposed to be?

“I barely know what living feels like…”

Sometimes, under severe stress or trauma, our brains ‘step us out of ourselves’, to give us the time and – almost literally – the headspace needed to realign our thoughts. People say – or used to, I’ve not heard the expression recently – ‘beside myself with grief’ and similar. This is the phenomenon that the metaphor so beautifully describes. We’re not there: mentally, we’re somewhere else.

With most of us the trauma passes, the balance restores and, back in our own heads, feeling once again as if we’re completely ‘there’, we go on with our life.

But sometimes the upset’s so severe, so fundamental, that this doesn’t happen. Sometimes there are relapses, or prolonged periods of ‘dissociation’. Sometimes, real life becomes the exception rather than the rule.

Victims of this condition – Depersonalisation Disorder (DPD) – are able to carry on doing everything they must – holding down a job, looking after a family, all the usual social interactions, but don’t feel they’re actually there, doing those things. The quote at the top of this piece describes a sufferer’s almost Existentialist longing for her ‘normal’ state of ‘connected-ness’.

But there’s more:

Is it possible that, instead of being the result of a memorable trauma, the ‘damage’ – whatever it may be – that gave rise to the state of depersonalisation, had always been there, or had been set-off before memory dawns, when the person was still very young?

If you had this, you’d never know the ‘normal’ state of ‘being connected’ – of stitching together conscious experience as a continuum like everybody else – feels like. You’d develop coping mechanisms to ‘get into other people’s heads’ at times when this is needed and learn, by imitation, how to socialise.

Able to do everything expected of you, and unsuspected of fault by anyone else, you’d go through life never knowing that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be…


There’s an experiment in which people play ‘The Ultimatum Game’. The game’s absurdly simple, yet what it tells us about human nature has spawned volumes.

It goes like this:

  1. There are two people: they’ve never met before, and they’re politely told they’ll never meet (at least, not in the experiment) again.
  2. One of them is handed a sum of money: say £10.
  3. Both are informed that the game’s ‘default’ outcome is that they get to keep their share of the money at the end.
  4. This person with the money offers the second person – who may or may not be within their sight – some share of their loot: any share they choose…
  5. But there’s a catch.
  6. Both are told that if the second person is unhappy with the miserliness of the offered share, that second person can turn it down AND that in that event – i.e. a rejection – neither party gets to keep any money.

Now then.

What, as a ‘second person’, would people choose to do?

Classical economics tells us that, however miserly the offer, it should always be accepted. £1 is evidently better than nothing, after all, and classical economics takes it as a given that we all act rationally to maximise the loot in our hands.

But that’s not what happens here.

People, in real life, tend to reject the lower offers even though they know that it ‘costs’ them and that the possibility that doing so might ‘encourage a better offer next time’ is simply not on the table: recall, they understand they’ll never see the other person again.

We – human beings – reject those low offers because there’s a much older mechanism at work here: our sense of what is fair.  That sense (and someone has now demonstrated it’s so deep-seated that it’s older than actual humanity: chimps might have it too) causes us to want to ‘take down’ someone perceived to be treating us – or someone we care about – unfairly, even if the taking-down comes at a cost to ourselves.

In entirely separate news, in the run-up to the European Union Referendum two years ago most spokespeople for the government (which was pro-‘Remain-in’ at the time) spent a lot of time and energy stressing that leaving the European Union would damage the Banking industry, only to appear genuinely puzzled by what happened next…

Stuff of Nightmares


I seem to have been writing a lot of Horror lately. This may – or may not – have been the result of having just finished wading through a text about the neurology, psychology and purpose of Nightmares.

For most people the peak era of nightmares is toddlerhood. In that sense at least, I am like most people. Some of my nightmares – getting lost in a derelict house inhabited by Something Menacing that I Never Saw, or being pursued through a speeding train, again by SMtINS, I can still remember, along with the typical wading through treacle, or not being able to move at all. My childhood nightmares seem, at least according to the agreed ‘definition’, pretty much the classic formula. Not to be confused with ‘bad dreams’ which are still unpleasant but more mundane and without that nameless, abject terror.

The text delved into related matters: REM sleep, slow-wave sleep, the roughly 90-minute cycles of these and other sleep states in a normal night, and what happens when any of these states are disrupted. It got quite technical – I’m sure the parts of the brain were named by a committee whose remit was ‘make these words as forgettable as possible by people all over Western Europe.’

The part which really puzzled me, though, came next.

The character, constitution and body chemistry that make some people more prone to  nightmares than others are to an extent hereditary. If – after a million or so years of human-racing – nightmares haven’t died out then they must, in some bizarre way, have been useful.

Perhaps they still are.

The theory proposed here was that in prehistoric times those of us who suffered nightmares were held in awe and believed to be privy to esoteric knowledge no-one else could get at. We were considered useful. We were also in a way powerful because in our ‘other life’, in darkness, we had confronted Evil Things and come away unscathed. But to reach all these benefits we had, of course, first to tell other folk what had happened to us in the night…

I can’t quite make sense of this. People are surely more likely to believe the nightmare victim the source – or at least the conduit – of Evil Things rather than their vanquisher. And people who were regarded as having a connection with Evil wouldn’t have lasted long – in a tribe they’d be excommunicated and later, in modern but pre-industrial times, they’d be executed as a witch.

And as if that’s not enough, why toddlers? Why did nightmares come to afflict the very people least able to put their terrifying experiences into words, and thus to benefit from them?

Perhaps we were just supposed to remember them for later, and write Horror stories…


Image By wartburg.eduimage, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1170857

The evanescent face

An invisible affliction haunts Verity, main character in ‘The Price of Time’.

Here, she bares all:

What if you had life-saving surgery as a kid and it worked, you think it’s all over: job done. You do well at school – heck, you go on to a career in scientific research. You like people: you’re always interested in what they have to say, yet you find socialising stressful and you’ve no idea why. You travel, you pick up foreign languages – including Chinese with its tones – yet you struggle to follow the thread of a film: always thinking wasn’t that the same bloke as the one who-?

You care about your surroundings and join a political party – the Greens – yet you feel unable to stand for office: you could make a brilliant interview for radio, TV or town hall but worry you’d look an idiot as their representative ‘on the street’. You wonder why.

People always seem to remember you, even if you can’t remember them. As a teenager you ponder the outlandish possibility that all bar you are telepathic but no-one’s had the heart to let on.

When you have children, someone asks you if looks run in your family and it dawns on you that you can’t begin to describe your Mum’s face – or your Dad’s, or even the husband you love. When the children go to school and you pick them up at 3:30 from a crowded playground you notice you have to wait for them to come to you before being able to tell who’s who.

And later, when their friends call round, it gets embarrassing: “Oh hello, er… come in!”

At international conferences you find your eyes flick to people’s name-badges: just to be sure.

Your former boss, whom you saw every day for years till last spring, happens to spot you working the allotment and you have a whole conversation before he says, quite casually, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

You can’t lie.

You’re mortified.

And then, after nearly half a century of this, you find out that face-blindness – prosopagnosia – is a thing. There are people – about 0.5%, your comrades – who are no more able to remember a face than an ordinary individual is to remember what Middle C sounds like.

That doesn’t stop us seeing a face and noticing what it looks like – no more than failure of Perfect Pitch prevents the appreciation of music. It doesn’t stop us remembering a voice, a gait, a mannerism, a whole life-story: and that’s how we get by. Or we might try, during an introduction or a handshake, to ‘store’ a face using a list: ‘triangular; brown deep-set eyes; turned-up nose-’ but after 2 seconds it’s rude to stare.

Some folk inherit their face-blindness. For many it’s partial rather than complete and practice, especially when still young, can help.

In my case I was oxygen-starved for just one minute too long after that life-saving surgery and the tiny knot – it’s only a few hundred neurons of the brain – that deals with faces was lost.

Prosopagnosia doesn’t interfere with a person’s ability to read facial expressions.

Verity’s inability to do this – singling her out for her encounter in ‘The Price of Time’ – has its roots in a second injury.