The Physics of Congregational Singing, Or Why I Go To Church

When I was a kid, especially in middle school, I used to love to sing. To myself. All the time. It was in junior high that my depression first manifested, tied with fears of inadequacy and failure – but the act of singing lifted my spirits, momentarily melting away whatever cares I had. Even when I graduated to high school, I still loved to sing. Until one day my mother said to me, “You have such an awful voice. I don't know why your voice is so hard to listen to; your father and I both have good voices.”

It didn't happen immediately, but over time I sang less and less, becoming more and more self-conscious about it, and eventually stopped. The things I struggle with – perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish – these are things that I know many of us struggle with to varying extents. And sometimes, unfortunately, these fears cause us to give up things that we actually enjoy doing.

For years, I avoided singing at all except for the obligatory “Happy Birthday”, and even then I'd mumble along hoping others would pick up my slack. Better to not sing than to ruin the sound with my awful voice.

I stopped singing until the Fall of 2003. That's when I first stepped in to All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC and was so moved that I immediately committed to becoming a UU.

At first the hymns were painful. It'd been so long since I'd sung, and as y'all probably know, like everything else singing is a skill that requires practice. The less you do it, the worse you are at it. I could hear my weak voice wavering. I could feel as I ran out of breath before the end of a note. But something about doing this painful, potentially embarrassing thing in the context of a UU church made me want to persevere.

See, I had bought in – heart and soul – into the vision of the Beloved Community that All Souls preaches, the vision that Unitarian Universalism preaches, that UUSF preaches – come, with all your imperfections, your weaknesses, and still be embraced into community. The only thing that we ask in return is that you commit to creating this community with us.

So I sang, without fear of judgment, and without judging others. And lo and behold, together the congregation actually sounded pretty good. The All Souls Choir even recorded a CD that included the entire congregation on a couple of tracts.

There's a scientific explanation for why untrained people singing as a group sound better than untrained individuals. In physics, when two sound waves vibrate in the air at the same time they get "added" together. The parts of the two waves that are in sync with one another get amplified and the parts of the two waves that are out of sync get canceled out. (As an aside, that latter part is how noise canceling headphones work.) If instead of only two sound waves, we have multiple waves, the same thing happens to an even greater extent. When a person sings, especially an untrained person, there are usually fluctuations in the pitch. But with a whole group of people singing together, all our fluctuations happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas the good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. The over all effect is that weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I think that is a good metaphor for a congregation in general, not just while singing hymns.

Some of my unchurched, “free-range” friends sometimes ask me about my involvement with a congregation. “Why do you bother going to church?” It's a legitimate question. After all, I can hold the same UU values by myself, and be able to sleep in on Sundays, and not have all those committee meetings....

I go to church because it's in church that we actually get to practice living those values, knowing that we'll make mistakes. If there is any place in which it is safe to make mistakes, then church is it. (Or at least it should be.)

In community, all our fluctuations – our momentary lapses and bad days - happen more or less randomly and thus cancel out, whereas our good, on-pitch parts strengthen each other. Weaknesses are minimized and strengths are amplified.

I go to church because we have the potential to be better together than apart.

Learned Helplessness and Thinking Outside the Box

When scientists try to study human illnesses, they look for an animal model.  That is, they try to find a similar illness in a non-human species so that they can do experimentation on said species.  (Sorry all my animal loving friends; that’s how it’s done.)  One of the animal models for human depression is called “learned helplessness” in dogs.  Essentially, psychologists would place a dog in a cage with an electrified grid at the bottom.  Then they would apply a shock.  A healthy dog will naturally attempt to escape the shock by moving to a location where it doesn’t occur.  If, however, the dog is unable to find a way to escape the painful shock - if she learns that she has no power to affect the outcome of her experiences - she will go into a state called “learned helplessness.”  In which case, the dog will not try to escape the shock even when the cage door is wide open and any healthy being would be able to see that there is a way out.  A dog suffering from learned helplessness will just sit there and take the shocks.

Not only does this behavior look like some forms of human depression, it also responds pharmacologically like it.  Thus, even tho the state was brought on by experience, it can be alleviated by drugs.  Experience affects brain chemistry which in turn affects behavior (which affects experience). Giving a dog with learned helplessness certain anti-depressants will often alleviate the symptoms and the dog will once again act as if she has the power to change her situation.  She will leave the cage - the box that she’s in - when she sees that the door is open. 

What we call depression is actually a complex set of illnesses - most likely not just one illness, even if there are similarities in outward behavior.  We know that some depressed folks respond well to some kinds of anti-depressants but not others, and some don’t respond to any of the known drugs.  This means that different people with so-called “depression” are affected by the altering of different neurotransmitters, indicating that the biological bases of their depressions are different.  (I do not mean to imply that the only way to treat depression is thru drugs - I only focus on the drugs because that’s an easier way to show that what we call “depression” is actually several different illnesses manifesting similar symptoms.) 

For some folks suffering from the depression, the learned helplessness model may not feel at all like your experience.  I get that.  But for me, learned helplessness is exactly what it feels like.  There are voices in my head - I call them my demons - telling me me that everything I do is worthless.  That no matter what I try I will ultimately fail.  That there is no point in even trying.  I don’t necessarily feel sad, tho there are certainly days when I do. The predominant and pervasive feeling that I experience is powerlessness.  Even the smallest things like getting out of bed, showering, brushing one’s teeth, seem to suck up large amounts of energy.  And God help me if I am asked to do something out of the routine, something that requires that I think outside the box, even a small thing. My mind goes blank. I can’t fathom how to accomplish the task, how to even approach it. Problems seem insurmountable.  I fail to see options that are right in front of me, options that any healthy human being would see.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

I totally understand how perplexing it must look to folks on the outside watching this behavior.  It’s like your friend is sitting in a cage - a box - and from your perspective there are doors open left and right thru which she can easily exit.  You try helpfully to point these options out to her.  Yet inexplicably your friend “chooses” to stay in the box. 

I understand why you are frustrated by friends who can’t “snap out of it” or at least seek help.  I understand why you can’t understand why your words of encouragement aren’t enough, how rather than be uplifting your words are actually painful.  After all, why doesn’t your friend *trust* you when you say that she’s wonderful?  It’s almost insulting that she refuses to listen to you.  I understand that you can’t hear the demon voices in my head, which are closer to me than your voice will ever be no matter how much I might care for you. I understand how you start to feel that your friend is like a weight dragging you down... for no good reason!  And that’s why I generally try to hide the box that I’m in from you - camouflage its walls so that it looks like wherever I am is where I choose to be.  Only showing my face in public when I have summoned enough energy to appear “normal.”  “Chipper,” even.  It’s not a fake me; but it is a heavily edited me. 

I have lived with depression all my life.  Or at least since the age of nine, which is when I first remember the pervasive feelings of helplessness.  And there have also been times when I’ve overcome my depression.  I’ve applied to and been accepted by top notch schools and prestigious fellowships.  I’ve gone on interviews where I sold myself as the ideal candidate, successfully stilling the demons in my mind telling me otherwise.  I know that I’ve done these things.  And yet at this moment, I cannot for the life of me imagine how I could have.  It feels like a different person, in a different lifetime. 

So why am I sharing this with you today after admitting that I generally carefully construct an image that hides these things?  It’s because I had an insight that showed me how ridiculous my situation is, and I wanted to share it with you, so that I don’t forget, and perhaps maybe you’ll better understand what it’s like to suffer with at least one form of depression.   First of all, I was asked to make a short video.  That task seemed overwhelming.  I’d never made a video before.  I didn’t know what machine to use, what format to record in, and for some reason I was unable to just sit down and try various approaches until one worked.  That would be the obvious solution, right?  But the idea of trying and *failing* filled me with anxiety.  Finally, over two weeks after the requested deadline, I mustered enough energy to just sit down and mess with things until I’d gotten a useable video. Unfortunately, when I sent in the video file, the sound did not work and I was asked to send another where the sound worked.  A perfectly reasonable request, but it filled me with anxiety. I had tried and I had FAILED.  What do I do now?  I sat on it for a day.  Then I tried emailing the original file, which played fine on my computer, but the file was too big to send as an attachment.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I tried to download Quicktime, as had been suggested.  But there is no version for Windows 8, which my computer runs.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I figured out a way to get Quicktime for Windows 7 to operate on Windows 8.  And the video played fine, but I couldn’t save it because I had to have the “pro” version of Quicktime to actually create videos.  So I sat on it for another day.  You might think that I just blew off the deadline and the fact that there were people depending on me to do what I had promised, but the truth is that the thought of the video loomed over my waking hours, and the fact that I was disappointing folks was just further evidence that I am a failure.  Finally, today, I all-of-the-sudden remembered that I have a Youtube account and that ordinary people like me can upload videos which can then be played, with sound.  It took less than ten minutes.  Between the time that I was asked to fix the sound and the time I realized that I could put it on Youtube was four days.  It took me four days to *see* a solution that others would have seen immediately.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

But my point isn’t that I’m stupid.  There are times when I can be quite intelligent.  My point is that being stuck in my own little box, the only thing that I could see was the immediate task in front of me - how I could successfully send a video file that had sound?  I could not for some reason reframe the problem to see that there were other ways to share the video that didn’t involve directly sharing a file.  At the moment when I suddenly remembered Youtube, it was as if I looked up and there was a door open that had been there all along but I did not see before.  So I stepped outside of that particular box.  Doesn’t mean that everything is ok now - I know that I’m still in a larger cage - but I’ve temporarily given my demons the slip and have some breathing room, and I do now remember that there are actually ways out.  I do now see that problems that seem enormous are actually sometimes small.  And I hope that by sharing this ridiculously embarrassing story it can encourage some depressed folks in a *non-direct*, not in-your-face, “you can do it” kind of way because trust me I know how much that sucks.  And I hope it can help non-depressed folks better understand the seemingly inexplicable behavior of their depressed friends.

Update on the Evolution Debate in Florida

About two months ago, I blogged in recognition of Darwin Day, at which time I pointed to a disturbing trend in Florida. Twelve county school districts had passed resolutions banning the teaching of evolutionary theory.

The teaching of evolution is no more a matter of ideology than the teaching of the Big Bang theory or thermodynamics. These are scientific theories, and whether or not one agrees with them, valid scientific theories are what is taught in a science class room. I myself have serious misgivings about the theory of natural selection, but I would still put it forth if I were teach high school science. To censor the teaching of evolution in a science curriculum is like censoring the teaching of Plato in a Greek philosophy curriculum. Teaching Plato has nothing to do with whether or not you agree with him.

At that time the Florida State Board of Education was scheduled to vote on the new science standards. The good news is that the board did vote to adopt standards of science education that require the teaching of evolutionary theory in Florida schools.

However, in response to this, anti-evolutionists then took on the strategy of requiring that Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative theory. Eight Florida school boards have since passed resolutions insisting that “alternative theories of organismal origin” be presented alongside evolution. On February 29th, Florida State Senator Ronda Storms introduced a bill in the legislature to the same effect.

The claim is that it’s not about religion (as that would obviously violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment) but about allowing teachers to teach alternative theories. The problem with this, as I said in my previous post, is that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It is by its very nature unscientific. This has nothing to do with whether it is “true” or not. I myself believe in a God who interacts in the world. But theories involving God as a cause simply cannot be empirically tested, and one of the criteria for a valid scientific theory is that it makes testable predictions.

When the bill was first introduced, the Florida Citizens for Science blog predicted it would go nowhere. Likely, that was the author’s hope. It so far has passed through two committees. And once again, these events have gone largely unreported in mainstream media, being carried mainly through blogs.

Happy Darwin Day

Most people know today as Abraham Lincoln's birthday. What you might not know is that the man who saved the Union shares his birthday (to the year) with the man who proposed natural selection as the driving force for evolution. February 12th is "Darwin Day," promoted by some as an "international celebration of science and humanity," mainly in reaction against those that favor creationism/intelligent design.

As a former biologist, there is no doubt in my mind that the diversity of life on earth today came about by evolution. The common genetic origins that we share with all living organisms is seen not just in evolutionary theory but also genetics, developmental biology, molecular and cellular biology... In short, all of biology points to this unifying explanation. Even so, I would not normally be holding up Charles Darwin's birthday as something particularly important to note. So why am I doing it now?

Yesterday, February 11th, the Florida Department of Education held its final public hearing on new state-wide science standards that would supercede any policies at the local levels. The proposed standards, which have been favorably received by teachers and scientists, would make the teaching of evolution a required part of Florida's science education for the first time. This little fact drew people from all over the state to testify both in favor and against the proposed state standards. The controversy was so great that it eclipsed discussion on any other aspect of the proposed standards.

While I appreciate their sincerity, the arguments presented against the teaching of evolution show a fundamental lack of understanding of science and highlight the desperate need for improved science education. People argued that the word "theory" means it's unproven, ignoring the fact that science doesn't use the term that way. Few people go around disputing the theory of gravity, for example.

Nor do proponents of teaching intelligent design in science classrooms understand that while "God did it" is a valid theory, it is not a valid scientific theory. The assumption seems to be that "science teaches the truth and since I believe that creationism is true, science should teach it." In reality, science describes the natural world and thus has no room for supernatural explanations. Science is not saying that there is no God; it makes no statement about God whatsoever.

One seemingly open-minded suggestion was that kids should be exposed to "all theories of creation," and then free to decide which one they like best. That is great on a personal level. Every one of us is free to decide what we will and will not believe. However, we are not free to decide what is science and what is not science. Science is determined by an objective set of standards, not by subjective feeling nor popular vote.

Most shocking of all in this debate was the revelation that twelve county school districts in Florida have passed resolutions against the teaching of evolution in schools. Yes, twelve. First, I had no idea, after the Scopes (Monkey) Trial, that it was still possible to ban the teaching of evolution in schools. (What exactly does this mean? - will teachers be arrested or fired for teaching science?) Second, I would have thought that something like this would have received more attention than it has. A school board here and there is a blip; twelve school boards in one state is a movement. Yet so far, I've only been able to find scant mention of it in local Florida newspapers.

The Florida State Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the new science standards on Feb 19th. On this Darwin Day, let us pray that it votes to uphold education for future generations.

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative