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It's Nelly's World

Borne Away

alec vanderboom

Why does some music, entering the ear, seem to launch itself directly to the lachrymal glands? In other words, make you powerless not to weep? By what strange physiology does this occur?

[Actually, it's not all that strange--contrary to some of my previous assertions, science has taken a bit of the literary magic out of this by studying how music affects us, e.g., here. The seat of the emotions is the amygdala, the most "primitive" part of the brain, so this is what lights up when we listen; also when we eat, have sex, or fear, not necessarily in that order. It is also a part of the brain all other higher animals possess, so so much for the naysayers who would deny other species emotions like ours.]

I am asking myself these questions as I wipe the tears from my cheeks during a concert in the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, after a performance of the famous Largo from Handel's Xerxes (transcribed for flute and piano) . I simply cannot hear this air without feeling that upwelling of--what? It's not sadness, but it is; it's not regret, but it is; it's not yearning, but it is.

The theme music that rises and falls behind the logo of New Line Cinema movies does something even more profound to me, even more ungraspable. Does this mean it was written by a better composer than Handel? I won't say that. Only that whoever it found a way to transport the heart in a fifteen-second clip.

Our brains live in our bodies. Our bodies experience nothing without our brains. Some people want to forget this. Indeed, much of human culture is based on efforts to try to forget this. But I can't. Not when thoughts are loosed by action, and vice versa.

Thoreau knew it, without the latest findings in neurobiology: "In my walks I would fain return to my senses. . . . I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. . . . My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant."

And (since you knew I was going to get here eventually, good Saunterer to the various mileposts of my life as I am) riding a motorcycle makes the amygdala positively glow red. A fascinating book about the physiology of riding, Bodies in Motion by Steven L. Thompson, details why our emotional and hormonal selves are fed by riding.

If there were a little window in Nelly's brain, I would see more clearly the feedback loop that is triggered when she, too, takes her physical and artistic pleasures: out in that Thoreauvian Wild, moving, crashing through the undergrowth, catching a scent, sinuously, athletically exploding, running on the very edge between control and abandon. The flow of brain chemicals would limn neon paths, both provoking her further action and streaming stronger in turn by it. Ah, life.

Now let me go bathe my head.