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Thursday, April 14, 2011

A dipper in Sarajevo

I was in Sarajevo again this week, and I always take my running shoes with me. To my surprise – and to the Sarajevans’ surprise, too – it was snowing. I ran up the hill behind Hotel Saray and had a beautiful view of the town and the mountains covered with snow. Beautiful, but also a “guilty landscape”, as painter/poet/musician Armando would put it – a landscape that has silently witnessed, and even facilitated, the shelling of Sarajevo for years on end. I can never look to the mountains of Sarajevo without a prejudice.

When I ran back along the river Miljacka something suddenly caught my attention from the corner of my eye. A rather small bird, brown with a white breast, was flying low over the river, landed on one of the stones, put his head in the water, then plunged into it, put his head above the water again a small distance away, then disappeared again under water. When it stood still, it bobbed up and down by bending and stretching his little legs.

It was a dipper. You hardly ever see them in the Netherlands, but ever after I read about the bird twenty years ago in a novel by Dutch author Maarten ‘t Hart I hoped to see one. And I did see one, in the Pyrénées, and later also in the Picos de Europa. They are mountain birds, supposed to live between 500 and 1500 meters in the vicinity of fast moving water. But to see one in the town of Sarajevo was an unexpected surprise, like the snow.

I thought about how attention works. I was reading Howard Becker’s book on writing and he mentions his amazement about how he can spot a misspelling in a fully filled A4 sheet from a mile, purely by intuition. Same thing with the chief financial officer of a university I worked for: he could spot a mistake in a complex budget sheet within seconds. Also by intuition.

How does this attention-by-intuition work? I know nothing about “the brain” (that Golden Calf of today) but it is nice to do some imagining. Maybe we actually have two brains. One is analytical, works slowly, and the results of this brain (let’s call him Brain1) become conscious and are then  leading to action and eventually expression in language. The other brain, Brain4 (the architect of the human brains died before his plans were worked out completely but Brains 1 and 4 were built nevertheless), works very fast but only in a holistic and subconscious manner. It notes everything but does nothing with it.

Nothing. Unless the little guy that is hired to run to and fro in the narrow corridor that connects Brain1 and Brain4 (let’s call him Kipchoge) finds something in Brain4 that already is available in Brain1: a budgetary mistake, a dipper, a miss-spelling, a bus nearly driving over you. Kipchoge sprints down the corridor to Brain 1 and yells what Brain4 has seen. Brain1 then makes you note the miss-spelling, the budgetary mistake, the bus or the dipper. And you think: how did my Brain know where I had to look?

Of course all this happens in milliseconds. And it also happens when you play music with an especially nice fragment in it. Your thoughts wander away, you actually don’t listen to the music anymore, but just before the nice fragment starts you become aware of the music again. Thanks to Kipchoge and Brain4. It happens so often to me, that I am glad to know now who to thank for this special musical experience.

I hope this little text will not tempt any brain researchers to put otherwise innocent people in one of those awful brain scanners in order to locate the exact whereabouts of Brain4 and Kipchoge’s tunnel. And I promise that this will be the only entry in this blog where I will talk about The Brain and its connection to music.

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