Literary Distillation: Notes on John Coates’ “Between The Hour Of Dog And Wolf”

John Coates’ Between The Hour Of Dog And Wolf (2012) proposes that our thinking and decision-making are inseparable from our bodily experience, and more specifically, dependent on the various chemicals (testosterone, cortisol, dopamine, etc.) that course through our brains and literally alter our perceptions. His case studies revolve around Wall Street traders (Coates worked in finance before going into neuroscience–how interesting is that bifurcated career?) and their experiences as they go about their jobs.

For years, it was assumed that some traders had an almost magical intuition that led them to be able to read the markets expertly, avoid bad decisions, and make lots of money. Coates doesn’t so much disprove this notion of gut feelings as pattern recognition as much as unpack its biological underpinnings, showing step by step how small bits of information not consciously processed inform traders’ decision-making. What’s fascinating here is how Coates describes the feedback loops that arise: a bit of information hits us, literally changing the chemical state of our body-minds, thus altering our perceptions and ultimately our decision-making and capacity to notice other informational bits. Around and around it goes, and before you know it folks under stress are making bad decisions. As Coates describes the lesson of these feedback loops, we should not be asking whether we should trust our intuitions, but rather “how we can train ourselves to possess a skill that can be relied on” (96). In sum, the book suggests that we re-think the fragility of our thinking and the degree to which body and brain depend on one another.

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I found plenty of compelling ideas in this book. Coates’ expertise makes for succinct and engaging writing as he explains the ABCs of neuroscience matters in a clear manner. (Another good book for that is David Eagleman’s Incognito.) I also zoned in on passages on the nature of information. Here is one rich with musical resonance:

“information manifests itself in the shape of novelty. When the world sends us a message it does so through the language of surprise and discrepancy; and our ears have been tuned to its cadences” (132).

As I read, I of course thought about music: about how music that interests us manages to introduce sonic (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, timbral, dynamic, or otherwise performative) novelty in the form of change or variation or what Coates calls “the language of surprise and discrepancy.” In music, too much novelty or change can be chaotic or overwhelming, and too little can be boring. Usually the music we like has just the right ratio of novelty and repetition or stasis. But it’s interesting how we typically frame our preferences for one musical style or another in terms of unquestioned personal choices (“I just like what I like”) or socio-culturally-shaped interests (“This is what my friends and I listen to”). Reading Coates, I wonder if our tastes aren’t equally a matter of sonics triggering chemical messages deep within us.

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