Lyric and Song: Why Simple Reasons, However Incoherent or Decontextualized, are Effective Persuaders

I have a theory about explanation, and why bad explanations so frequently trump good explanations.

Good explanations (that is, explanations that are true) often do not accord with what we want to believe is true. Therefore, when evaluating a successful explanation (that is, an explanation that convinces people to believe something), don’t follow the formal logic of the explanation. That is a smokescreen. Instead, ask yourself the following question:

What module of the brain is being tickled by this explanation?

My theory is that an effective explanation plays on the brain’s modular “keys” (its evolved pleasure centers, etc.) in the same way that, say, Neil Sedaka plays on a piano. The formal lyrics sung over the piano cause us to miss how the piano (the brain) is actually being rhythmically stimulated by the pianist. The coherence is not in the lyrics–lyrics, like arguments, are rarely coherent on close inspection–but in the music. Its power is on display in the piano itself.

An example: if someone offers the following explanation or reason for believing the story of Noah’s ark–All over the world, people find shells at the tops of mountains!–the music of associations triggered are what makes the argument seem compelling to the believer. These include such things as the following:

  • It gives me permission to believe the Bible literally, which is what I want to do.
  • I learned the explanation from someone I love and trust, my pastor.
  • I see nothing wrong with it. It makes sense to me. And that’s comforting.
  • I can easily visualize shells and mountains. I don’t have to strain to put the two together to imagine a world filled with water.
  • If someone were to try to get me to follow a longer chain of reasoning about this, that would be unpleasant and difficult. I prefer simple things, to be childlike in my faith, as Jesus commanded.
  • The explanation, readily available to my reason, arrests my doubt. I don’t like to doubt. It’s unpleasant.
  • Shells and mountains are pretty.

That’s the music of an explanation–the taps on the dopamine system that play beneath the formal lyric. An unscrupulous persuader, therefore, doesn’t worry about the incoherence or context of an argument or explanation. Instead, he or she focuses on the brain modules stimulated in association with the argument’s superficial rationality–its lyric.

That’s my theory. An offered argument or explanation is designed to work on your brain more like a song than a math equation. Of course, it’s nice when lyric and song meld together in harmony–an argument or explanation that is both true and pleases us. But a too coherent lyric frequently endangers the effect of a song. Think of “Stairway to Heaven” and “I Am the Walrus.” These classic songs please in part because the lyrics ignore coherence.

And here’s an implication of my theory: if the logic of a good argument (that is, an argument that maintains its context, coherence, and truth) demands that it move in a sustained direction that brings it into ultimate conflict with the brain’s pleasure centers, the brain’s pleasure centers will invariably begin to warp the argument into its own orbit of gravity. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”

If you want to understand what’s really going on with an explanation or argument, trace its music as well as its words.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Lyric and Song: Why Simple Reasons, However Incoherent or Decontextualized, are Effective Persuaders

  1. Staffan says:

    I see two components in this theory – logic and aesthetics. The logis is that we acccept that which doesn’t upset our paradigms, unless the number of anomalies reach a critical level. The aesthetic part is a somehow more weird idea – that we put trust in beautiful ideas. That is more related to religion I guess. It’s possible that we more or less grudgingly accept logic but strive for beauty as a way to evolve and reach a higher state of consciousness.

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