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Photo by Matthew Murphy

When Dina (played by Katrina Lenk) beautifully sings “Welcome to Nowhere,” a song introducing the audience to the show’s location, she doesn’t portray it to be one of the most exciting places. In fact, she goes so far as to sing “Such a city, nobody knows it. Not a fun, not an art, nor a culture. This is Bet Hativka.”

And her character is right: this show, like it repeatedly describes, is a simple story about how ‘’Once not long ago group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Yet, in this charming 95-minute show, audiences are thrust into a story that is so simple yet so complex, just like the human experience. Indeed, like life, the show begins with a slow start, in which we are introduced to the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt, which, due to a misunderstanding of their final destination, end up spending a night in Bet Hatikva rather than Petah Tikva.

Stuck in a new place with nothing else to do, we see these strangers begin to connect. Part of the experience of meeting new people is finding out more about them: at first, you don’t know much about each other, but as time goes on, you learn more and begin to feel more for one another. The same is true for characters in shows. While The Band’s Visit eventually introduces us to all of its characters, unfortunately, we only get to really know a few. As the show progresses, though, we see extraordinary songs and heart-wrenching moments from most of the characters that, when the characters we as the audience get to know are involved, leave us tearful and filled with emotion.

For the characters we don’t get know as well, moments of truth — revealed in admittedly beautiful songs — can be a little confusing. Why does the man who waits by the telephone wait so obsessively for his girlfriend to call, to the point of being agitated when someone else uses the phone? Just because he misses her? Knowing nothing about this man except that he waits and waits and waits, it felt as if his behavior fell closer in line with someone who is unhealthily obsessed rather than in love. While this too can be part of the human experience, it was frustrating to see this moment aggrandized as it leads into the final grand moment of the show in which the entire cast harmonizes beautifully, singing about longing, love, and human connection. If we had gotten to know this man better, perhaps the final wouldn’t have felt as if it came out of nowhere.

That being said, the final song (“Answer Me”) is still beautiful in its own right, highlighting the show’s strongest component: its music. With lyrics and composition by David Yazbeck, every song pulls at the heart, making you laugh and leaving you contemplating your own desires. Each song is stunning and invites the audience members into the moment, allowing them to connect with the music on a personal level, even if they’re not familiar with the musical style, which is inspired by Arabic culture — something rarely seen on Broadway.

In a time that feels incredibly divisive, this production shows that, despite differences in our languages, our backgrounds, and our heritages, we all still are united in one human experience. We still all have a desire to love and be answered, and The Band’s Visit is such an important musical because it reminds us of just that. Rather than focusing on gaudy, ostentatious sets, colors, and music, it strips down these elements and focuses on the simple, the ordinary. This ordinariness actually produces something  unique and extraordinary, and, accordingly, the show should be seen by all.

Tickets to The Band’s Visit can be purchased from the show’s website.

Image courtesy of Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

The hippocampus is one of those brain regions that pops up again and again in popular science literature, and for good reason. Most people associate the hippocampus with memory, mainly thanks to Henry Molaison, better known as H.M. Over fifty years ago, a hotshot neurosurgeon named William Scoville removed most of his hippocampus in an attempt to cure his severe epilepsy. The treatment worked but at a severe cost, as H.M. lost the ability to form new memories.

This curious case kicked off modern memory research as we know it. Decades of follow-up research has connected activity in the hippocampus to a variety of functions, most famously  the formation of episodic memories. Inspired by this human case, researchers peered into the brains of awake mice in an attempt to learn more.

One of the reasons why we can investigate this brain region in particular across species is just how similar the hippocampus of a mouse is to a human. It is an ancient structure, millions of years old, but it is arguably the first of the most ‘advanced’ brain regions to develop. While there are obviously differences in size between the species, the underlying organizational principles are nearly identical. What makes the hippocampus so special that we and our rodent cousins have one, but frogs don’t?

During one of these mouse experiments, a scientist named John O’Keefe made a curious finding. When the animal ran around in its environment, a certain kind of cell in the hippocampus would consistently fire only when the mouse navigated through a particular position. This finding later won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and spurred another avenue of research into how these ‘place cells’ (as they have since been dubbed) form a sophisticated ‘cognitive map’ of space.

Meanwhile, the development of fMRI in humans enabled human researchers to study learning, memory, attention, curiosity, and many other cognitive functions of the hippocampus. More than just memory, this enigmatic part of the brain is necessary for imagination, planning, and many other processes we consider so essential to our human existence.

Given the similarities between mice and men, it’s reasonable to expect that the mouse and human hippocampus are doing similar things. So why are their scopes of research so radically different? How exactly do cells that respond to a rodent’s current location in place create memory? While long existing in different spheres, new research aims to bridge the gap.

From the mouse side, non-place features of place cells are increasingly providing evidence for a broader, more integrative role of hippocampal pyramidal neurons than simply recording place. Recent findings, some unpublished, from the Society for Neuroscience 2017 Annual Meeting demonstrated many of these newly discovered, more diverse functions.

In highly social bats, ‘place’ cells can record the location of their fellow bats just as well as their own. In rats, ‘place’ cells can ‘map out’ a representation of sound. In monkeys, ‘place’ cells can fire without movement simply by looking around the environment. Most convincingly, a number of studies have shown that ‘place’ cells can also record a detailed representation of time.

Increasingly, it seems that these special hippocampal cells fire not only to locations, but a number of other things too. Some, if not most, of these cells respond to multiple things at once, like place and time, or sound and place.That feature, crucially, is indispensable in creating a memory. These cells aren’t just recording places, they’re combining different aspects of an experience together. Put another way, a ‘place cell’ isn’t simply mapping space, it’s making a memory.

While neither I nor neuroscience more generally has an answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this column, combining decades of research in mice and humans will help guide the way forward.

 

Citations and further reading:

  1. Scientific reviews are a great way to delve deeper than articles like mine without wading too deep into the terminology of primary articles. For an overview of the importance of H.M. to the field, I recommend: Squire, L. R. (2009). The legacy of patient H.M. for neuroscience. Neuron, 61(1), 6–9.
  2. To read the seminal place-cell study by O’Keefe: O’Keefe, J., & Dostrovsky, J. (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain Research, 34(1), 171–175.
  3. For a broader review of place cells by nobel laureates in the field: Moser, M.-B., Rowland, D. C., & Moser, E. I. (2015). Place cells, grid cells, and memory. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 7(2), a021808.
  4. Bats encoding in 3D, same lab with the preliminary unpublished social findings (primary paper): Sarel, A., Finkelstein, A., Las, L., & Ulanovsky, N. (2017). Vectorial representation of spatial goals in the hippocampus of bats. Science, 355(6321), 176–180.
  5. Rats encoding non-spatial ‘sound map’ (primary paper): Aronov, D., Nevers, R., & Tank, D. W. (2017). Mapping of a non-spatial dimension by the hippocampal–entorhinal circuit. Nature, 543, 719.
  6. Monkeys encoding a non-movement based ‘visual map’ (primary paper): Killian, N. J., Jutras, M. J., & Buffalo, E. A. (2012). A map of visual space in the primate entorhinal cortex. Nature, 491(7426), 761–764.
  7. Review of time cells by a giant in the field: Eichenbaum, H. (2014). Time cells in the hippocampus: a new dimension for mapping memories. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 15, 732.
  8. To read more about a fascinating brand-new big-picture theory about the hippocampus: Stachenfeld, K. L., Botvinick, M. M., & Gershman, S. J. (2017). The hippocampus as a predictive map. Nature Neuroscience, 20(11), 1643–1653.

The new Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer has been out for months now, and fans—old and new alike—are still raving about it, once more submerging themselves in that paroxysm of fervent fan-boy anticipation, pre-packaged with every preview of the upcoming chapter which instantaneously dominates the masses, spreading like wildfire the moment they hit YouTube. “What this trailer did,” said Jeremy Jahns, popular YouTube movie reviewer, “is what Star Wars trailers do, and that’s put Star Wars at the forefront—like yeah, this is happening.”

One person who’s probably less excited about the upcoming film is Star Wars creator himself, George Lucas, who gave up creative rights to the Star Wars universe after selling the franchise to Disney in 2012 for a whopping 4.05 billion USD. In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, when asked how he felt about Episode VII: The Force Awakens (the first installment of the reboot trilogy) Lucas said: “We call it space opera but it’s actually a soap opera. And it’s all about family problems—it’s not about spaceships…They decided they were gonna go do their own thing…They wanted to make a retro movie—I don’t like that. I like…Every movie I make I work very hard to make them different. I make them completely different: with different planets, different spaceships—yenno, to make it new.

I disagree with Lucas’ judgement of Disney’s “nostalgia” approach and maintain that, in order for the reboot to have had the same initial impression of awe-inspiring proportions on the new generation as A New Hope (’77) had on the old, it had to retain as much of its mythic dimensions as possible—which, in order to accomplish, adopting the nostalgia approach was clearly the most surefire way to go. Whatever backlash The Force Awakens (2015) might have received in regards to its “uninteresting” and “boring” semblance to the original fails to recognize what it is that makes Star Wars so compelling a cultural force: that is, its function as myth, which, by its very nature, must remain as little changed as possible if it is to remain relevant.

Here it is important to distinguish between myth and narrative, for the latter is merely the particular (and always varying) mediation of the former (which is always the same). Put another way, a narrative, or an individual story, is simply a representation of a kind of “master story” that pre-exists in the audience’s mind long before they sit down to watch The Force Awakens for the first time—assuming, of course, the audience has lived long enough to have acquired a fairly confident intuition in regards to what constitutes this so-called “master story” that is myth.

“Myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos,” meaning “story.” It is from this definition that our understanding of myth must necessarily arise, for most theories of myth begin from the accepted idea of myth as a kind of “canon of story.” Here it is noteworthy that the medium of the story is not signified, for it would be erroneous to confine myth to a single art form (i.e. myth as the literary canon). Consider, for example, how ancient cave paintings are fraught with narrative imagery, from the dancing scenes of Serra de Capivera, Piauí, Brazil (28,000 to 6,000 BC) to the enigmatic beings and animals of Kadaku, Northern Territory, Australia (26,000 BC); after all, the story “I saw a kangaroo” is still a story, though, to us, not a particularly interesting one (insofar as it is not all that sophisticated).

What is interesting is that such geographically disparate populations, who would have had no physical means of contact with one another, should engage in the same activity (which is not necessary for biological survival) with the same level of behavioral predictability of birds from separate continents—all of whom seem to instinctively grasp the concept of “nest-building” as pivotal for their offspring’s protection. What is it, then, that prompts what appears to be a primordially entrenched instinct of human nature? What is the point of saying, “I saw a kangaroo”?

The answer to this can be arrived at by emphasizing the two subjects of the sentence and studying the resulting truth-values derived thereof. For if the emphasis is placed on “a kangaroo,” then one extracts an empirical value tantamount to the scientist’s collected data. Here, the sentence derives significance from its illumination of some perceived aspect (in this case, the “kangaroo”) of the world, that is, of reality. On the other hand, if one places the emphasis on “I saw,” a second meaning is discovered, this time signifying the presence of “I,” that is, the storyteller. This too can be perceived as empirical but, more notably, as humanistic, for the manifested will to engage in an activity that will record the existence of oneself at a given time is a behavior unique to the human species.

What results from this innocuously curios act of paint-on-wall, then, is the radical evolutionary leap towards self-reflexivity, whereby an innate curiosity is cognitively mastered through creativity. Of course, this process has long been practiced by humans, but early-on it was strictly in the material sense, and motivated by survival at that. With the emergence of art, however, the human’s cognitive faculties began to operate within a more fundamentally psychological dimension, one motivated not by survival, but the acquirement of knowledge, especially as this knowledge relates to the human being. In other words, cave painting illustrates a primordial desire to understand reality–that is, the universe–and humanity’s place in it.

The primary questions which myth asks, then, are: What is the nature of reality, and why am I a part of it?

The narrative patterns that emerge from humanity’s collective efforts to answer these questions is myth. These patterns can be found not only in paintings (depictions of animals, hunting scenes), but also, more complexly, in the literary tradition. Herein lies my previous need to distinguish the “storytelling” canon from the “literary” one, since the literary, by its very nature, allows for a more immediate and elaborate representation of stories. We can count in these patterns, among others, creation stories, Campbell’s “monomyths,” earth/water mothers, etc. Most of us brought up with a classical education which included a relatively similar rubric of books are no longer surprised to find that the narrative elements of the Bible can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, can be found in the Popol Vuh, Homer, Shakespeare, Faulkner—you get the idea.

The last author mentioned beautifully described this intrinsic human need for myth during his Banquet Speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1949. Having discussed the paranoia bred by the Cold War, and the consequent nihilism of that milieu, he insisted that Man must remind Himself of “the old virtues and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice…[otherwise] His griefs grieve in no universal bones.”

All the “universal truths” Faulkner mentioned are major narrative forces of George Lucas’ epic saga: Anakin’s pride leading up to his metamorphosis into Darth Vader (The Revenge of the Sith, 2005), only for him to express compassion and pity in his final moments (The Return of the Jedi, 1983); the honor and love between friends that keeps the pack together through all manner of adversities (as in, say, Leia’s rescuing of Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, 1980); and, more recently, the sacrificial deaths from all of Rogue One’s (2016) major characters. Thus, The Last Jedi will be the latest installment of what can safely be called one of modernity’s greatest myths, for its treatment of these perennial themes has given it a universal appeal and, consequently, a formidable staying power worthy of mythic status.

In light of all this, the Reader (especially if they do not consider themselves a fan—on any level) may begin to appreciate the magnitude of cultural significance The Last Jedi is bound to have come this Christmas. Its inception into cinemas this December will call upon (as the best mythic tales often do) a mass gathering of people who will expect to be awed and moved and shocked and, on top of all these things, reminded of these universal truths, thereby permeating, if at least for a moment, a sense of solidarity among the masses which the cynical media eye will have us believe is practically nonexistent in modern times.

Too sentimental? Perhaps. Let’s just hope the film isn’t (i.e. don’t kill Rei yet, by far my favorite Star Wars character ever!).

P.S. You can watch the trailer here, for those of you who (for whatever reason) haven’t seen it yet.