Adaptation and Transformation

Adaptation and Transformation

Our brains are remarkable in their ability to change their shape in response to stimuli. As we undergo these mutations, we become different people.

Written By

David Smooke

1503 diagram of the brain

I tend to be a late adopter of technology. As I learned electronic music in the mid ’80s, I avoided the new sampling keyboards in favor of the antique Minimoog, and kept splicing tape long after nearly all my peers had jettisoned their razor blades and replaced them with sequencers. I remained attached to LPs and CDs (in turn) long after most people had shifted their musical collections into the new preferred formats. And I finally bought my first smartphone within the past year.

As I began to program this new device, I found the interface to be a little counterintuitive—things tended to flip when I wanted them to swerve and they scrolled when I wanted them to jump. I slowly transferred my contacts and calendars into this useful little computer, gradually getting a feel for how to manipulate it. After about three days, I began to have nightly dreams that I was programming my phone. During this time, I could sense new neural pathways developing as my brain began to attune itself to how it would need to function in order to unleash the power of the device. As I was adjusting, I’d enjoy little serotonin kicks when I’d properly navigate through a computing sequence. After about a week, I’d become fully acclimated to the new technology and it began to feel like second nature.

Although I recognized this process from several prior occasions, the period during which the smartphone controlled my dreams felt simultaneously gratifying and disturbing. It seems that whenever I attempt to learn a new skill quickly and obsessively, the process seeps through several layers of my subconscious during the period in which my brain adapts to allow success at the new task. When I began to dream of Tetris, I knew that I had crossed the line into tetrisoholicism and that I needed to quit cold turkey. Indeed, this ability for video games of all sorts to penetrate deep into my subconscious is the main reason why I avoid them, despite my belief that they can provide an extraordinarily fruitful platform for artistic exploration. Conversely, when as an adult I had to learn how to sight-sing and to take dictation of tonal music, I welcomed these somnambulistic practices as a sign that I was beginning to make connections between the sounds that I’d always heard and their theoretical labels. I could feel the shape of my brain adapting to be able to associate the visual phenomenon of how a V7 chord is represented on the page with its visceral need to resolve—an imperative that I still don’t feel when I hear Mm7 chords as part of blues progressions.

Our brains are remarkable in their ability to change their shape in response to stimuli. As we undergo these mutations, we become different people. I no longer hear tonal music in the same way that I did prior to my advanced training, and I cannot recreate my prior mental state. In a certain way, this ability has transformed me into a new person, someone who accepts the basis of Western tonal music and who feels that these tools are a central part of the aural experience. While I believe that this change has allowed me to gain more than I’ve lost, it’s important for me to recognize that I no longer hear music in the same way that I did before embarking on this path.

As I train myself to use new technologies, musical or otherwise, I need to bear in mind that each adaptation changes who I am at a very basic level. Each new neural pathway that I create makes me approach my art in a different way.