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Language, Music and the Mind - In Conversation with Gary Marcus

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Gary Marcus is an experimental psychologist and the Director of the NYU Center for Language and Music at NYU, where he studies what babies and toddlers know about language and music, and how they come to know it. His most recent book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning was a New York Times bestseller, and he blogs regularly for The New Yorker .

Language and Music: Windows into the Mind

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What can language tell us about how the mind develops?

The most interesting thing about language is that only human children are good at learning it. So, language is a centerpiece to longstanding discussions about the relationship between nature and nurture.

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Gary Marcus.

[Noam] Chomsky has made the arguments – and Pinker has developed them – that there must be something that’s innate about language that would allow children to acquire it. Chimpanzees can’t acquire language. Even the best computer scientists at Google haven’t figured it out. There’s something really special about human children that allows them to acquire this system where you have a finite number of words more or less – you can always add one or two – and you can make an infinite number of sentences out of that. There are only a few things like that. Mathematics is another one. We call them discrete infinities.

When people hear the word innate, they tend to jump to the nature verses nurture discussion. How often are you asked about it, and have you developed a knee-jerk response?

Every time I’m asked about nature verses nurture, I think about a question that somebody asked me in a radio interview a few years ago. They said, “Well which one is more important. Can you give me a number?” Is it 80% nature and 20% nurture?

I said I can’t answer the question, and not just because I don’t know the number, but because it doesn’t work that way. The truth is that nature and nurture work together every step along the way.

You look at a single gene. What a gene does is describe the building of a protein in particular circumstances. Those circumstances themselves are mediated by the environment. If you ask is it genetic or environmental – well it’s both. The gene doesn’t do its thing unless there’s the right kind of environment. The fact is that we can’t really take them apart. It’d be sort of like saying what makes the car go better the wheels or the engine? It’s both. They work together. What you can do is to better understand that nature of nature and the nature of nurture. You can try to understand the biology that actually allows the brain to unfold over time, and how that interacts with the environment.

How do children and babies help you to learn about the mind, and what’s it like having them in the lab?

Working with kids is great. They give a window into ourselves. Everything we do comes from the minds of children and how they develop. As a practical matter, it’s really challenging work, mostly because it’s just really hard for us to get parents to bring in their kids, especially in a busy city like New York. We would always love more people.

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Dr. Marcus witnessing some development in his son (age 12 months) in January of 2014. Photo Credit: Athena Vouloumanos

[Editor’s Note: If you are interested in participating in a study, explore the list of projects at NYU.]

The practical day to day of it is slower than I would like. I sometimes envy researchers that have captive audiences in which they can test 300 subjects in the same day because they’re studying fruit flies or something like that. It’s a little harder studying human kids, but they’re adorable. I now have one of my own. I’m constantly studying him and how he develops.

Do you ever get research ideas from your 13-month-old?

I’m always observing. I more or less follow the Star Trek Prime Directive. I try not to mess with his development too much. I kind of just let him grow on his own. Like anybody else, I’m trying to teach him some things. I just love watching – every day something changes. It’s amazing.

When did you first like music, and how did it transition into something that you worked on in the lab?

The story is sort of embarrassing. I always wanted to be able to play an instrument but it was just completely beyond me. I was terrible at it. I think I have a congenital arrhythmia, which is to say that I have an innate lack of rhythm. Then I played a video game called “Guitar Hero.” I was terrible at that again. Then I played a second time with my wife, and I finally made a little progress. When I finally have a little taste of success, I get completely obsessed. It fit in with all of my interests as a scientist. Language and music are both very structured systems that are kind of infinitely generative. Basically, there are an infinite number of songs that people can make up and so forth. I just immediately fell in love both as a human being and as a scientist.

Is there something that music can teach us about the mind that language can’t?

I think that neither is perfectly well understood yet, so it may be premature to say what either will tell us about the mind. There are lots of things they have in common, like being infinitely generative systems. Yet, they are certainly different in some ways. Music is a much more emotional thing than language is. Language is much more specific in terms of ways of describing meaning. Of course, a lot of music combines the two. We have songs with lyrics. That’s some of the most potent stimulus known to man. People just absolutely love songs with lyrics. They can’t get enough of them because it’s sort of tickling two different funny bones of the mind at the same time.

Tell us about the process of writing Guitar Zero .

Just knowing my own personality, the only way I was going to get any good at guitar was if I could keep practicing, because I wasn’t naturally talented, and if I made it part of my own work. So all in this sort of blinding flash, I came up with the title of the book and the fact that I was going to write a book. It suddenly hit me that if I did this, then that would give me the impetus to keep going. And it did and it was fabulous. I had a great time both learning the literature on music cognition, learning how to play the guitar, and also meeting a lot of the musicians – not just famous guitar players, which was a blast, but also fabulous teachers. Putting this all together, thinking about the science of this as I was being a subject. The language acquisition – I can learn a second language, but learning music is not the same as learning a second language. I already did that a long time ago. I got to do a kind of first language learning for music.

Next: In Conversation with Gary Marcus: The Future of Artificial Intelligence and Spike Jonze’s “Her”

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.