minstrel: Lowest Common Denominator

hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu
Tue Mar 21 10:16:22 PST 2000

On Mon, 20 Mar 2000, Jennifer Friedman wrote:
> Yes, listening to Heavy Classics made me completely nuts, but no one else
> in the room cared, and probably only a few others would have been able to
> place "In the Hall of the Mountain King" out-of-period.  I don't think it
> would have killed me to put up with it for an hour or so, for the sake of
> maintaining peace.  I am still wondering if she was inwardly hurt that I
> flew at her like that.  AND YET...if I hadn't told her, would she have
> arranged to have something from Heavy Classics played as a processional for
> the Prince and Princess at some local event in the future?  Should I have
> shut my mouth when I had information that might have helped her understand
> SCA period better and thus have more fun in the Society?

In a sort-of sideways manner, I think it _does_ matter (positively) that
you did what you did, but it may take a roundabout discussion to show
where I'm coming from.

I've been developing this theory of "emotional resonance" for discussing
certain aspects of why things "work" or "don't work" for particular people
in the SCA, and some day I hope to wrap it all up as an extended essay,
but in the meantime here is the basic outline of ...

The Neural-Programming Theory of Historic Re-Creation

The essence of "nostalgia" is that certain sensory stimuli are able to
evoke within our brains the context and circumstances in which we have
previously experienced those stimuli.  So when we hear a song on the radio
that was extremely popular when we were in High School, we aren't simply
hearing a particular song, our memories are stimulated to recall all the
other experiences we've ever had while listening to that song.  When you
indulge in that "comfort food" of your childhood -- the dish your mother
always served you when you needed cheering up -- your brain pulls up all
the attendent sensations and experiences, of being loved and fussed over
and feeling cared for.

I'm not talking about some sort of "woo-woo" mystic connection here, but
rather looking at the phenomenon from the point of view of cognitive
neural theory, one aspect of which looks at the ways we understand and
manipulate concepts due to the relatively "coincidental" neural
connections made when we experience certain stimuli simultaneously.

So what does this have to do with the reason why the newcomer in your
shire desperately wants to wear the dress in that movie she just saw and
is indifferent to all the books of Renaissance portraiture you've been
showing her?  And what does it have to do with the reason why people will
hang on every word of the 20-minute-long "Alice's Restaurant" filk and
yawn for a two-minute sonnet?

The relevance is that one of each pair has come with pre-existing neural
connections that make it a richer emotional experience.  The dresses in
the portraits are all just pictures in a book -- the dress in the movie
is an entire story, with love and adventure pre-attached.  The sonnet
comes with a half-remembered English literature class attached, but the
filk comes with a smokey coffee-house and the frisson of '60s
anti-establishment counter-culture.

And the ultimate truth is that these differences in "emotional
resonance" can't simply be _ignored_, they have to be worked with.  And
the only way to establish "emotional resonances" for authentic historic
material -- whether music, of clothing, or food, or whatever -- is to
expose the experiences regularly to that historic material in a context
that _creates_ pleasant and desirable neural connections for it.  That is,
you have to "train your brain" to evoke a complex emotional context for
historically authentic stimuli, because you don't normally pick it up
passively from the surrounding culture.  What we pick up passively from
the surrounding culture is "Braveheart" and "Camelot".

So the choice of what music CD to have playing in the background of the
sewing party -- or what movies to have on the video at the household work
party; the choice of what food you eat at events (even when it isn't the
fancy feast); the choice of what art you have around your house; all these
are as important as what you do at events in _creating_ that "medieval
experience" at events.  If you can connect, in people's brains, the idea
of having a troubadour playing softly in the background while you gather
in the solar ... uh, living room, sewing for coronation ....  If you can
connect, at a neural level, the experience of poking your head out of the
pavillion in the morning, watching the mist rise off the meadow as the
children play a quiet game of tag, and smelling the preparation of
historic food for breakfast ....  If you can take that newcomer and give
her all the romance and excitement attached to the dress the woman in that
portrait is wearing ....  That's the only real and lasting antidote to
Hollywood, modern filks, and cheeseburgers at the feast.

Anyway, I've been kicking this general notion around for quite some time,
and every time I get a chance to present it to people it takes a slightly
more defined shape.  Feedback and illustrative examples cheerfully


Heather Rose Jones         hrjones at socrates.berkeley.edu

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