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Adventures in Pedantry: Fringe’s Captain Windmark Can’t Be A Toe-Tapper

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last week saw the third-to-last episode of Fox’s sci-fi family drama Fringe. Despite the somewhat wonky fifth season, for me Fringe has represented the best sci-fi offering on network television since Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse was cancelled.

For the uninitiated, here’s a bit of background (lots more here) required for today’s pedantic adventure. Warning if you haven’t seen last week’s episode: spoilers ahead. If you’re already current on Fringe, skip past the background.

In the year 2167, a Norwegian scientist found that he could genetically enhance the mental abilities of humans, but the increased intelligence came at the loss of certain emotions. Parts of the brain that had once served as the basis for the human emotional experience had been reallocated for logic, reason, and higher thought. Imagine a brain that’s mostly prefrontal cortex with an underdeveloped limbic system. The eventual success of the experiment led to the emergence of very smart yet emotionless humans.

These altered humans could not experience happiness, grief, jealousy, or anger. They had no sex drive, and thus could not reproduce. To remedy the problem, the future humans developed a technology that would grow new humans in a sort of hydroponic farm. These individuals were known to the protagonists of the show as The Observers. Thanks to this technology, Observers were typically born as fully mature adults.

Sometime in that future, the Observers made the Earth unlivable, ostensibly due to anthropogenic climate change and pollution. The Observers, aided by technology, decided to solve their problem by traveling back in time to the year 2015, where they could colonize the Earth and prevent the future environmental destruction of the planet. In the year 2036, our heroes are rapidly running out of time to enact The Plan which they hope will finally defeat The Observers and send them back to their own time.

Captain Windmark, chief executive of The Observers, stumbles upon a stereo while hunting down our heroes Peter, Olivia, Walter, and Astrid in an effort to prevent them from carrying out The Plan. He plays the music, cocks his head to the side like a lizard, and listens. The camera cuts to a shot of Windmark tapping his toes in rhythm with the music. Back to Windmark’s face, looking vaguely confused.

Captain Windmark, played by Michael Kopsa

The inference we are meant to make is this: despite the genetic alterations that gave The Observers their advanced intellect at the expense of their emotions, even Windmark can’t escape his humanity. Underneath all the tech and all the genetic engineering, he can still be moved by a piece of music. Maybe, then, he isn’t hunting down our heroes solely because it’s the rational thing to do. Maybe he hates them. Even The Observers can’t outrun their emotions.

Here’s the problem. The Observers should not be able to dance.

Dancing, it turns out, is intimately connected to vocal learning. And if The Observers are born as fully mature adults, then for them, language must be innate and unlearned.

In 2009, a group of researchers sifted through hundreds of YouTube videos that claimed to contain evidence of dancing animals, including ferrets, dogs, horses, pigeons, cats, fish, lizards, snakes, owls, camels, chimpanzees, turtles, ducks, hamsters, penguins, and bears. The researchers measured how well the motion of the animals’ bodies mirrored the rhythm of the music being placed. At the end of their analysis, the only videos that passed the synchronization test were ones that contained animals who were vocal learners. In all, the researchers found dancing in fourteen species of parrot, and in an Asian elephant. That’s not to say that all those other species don’t vocalize; of course they do. But their vocalizations are innate, not learned. Just like The Observers.

I’ll concede the possibility that The Observers have some sort of Observer School where they rapidly learn language following their “birth,” which, technically, would classify them as vocal learners, capable of dancing. But even if that were true, there’s more.

Entrainment, or the ability to synchronize one’s body movements to an external rhythm, can happen without explicit effort. Living among modern humans during the twenty-one years since The Invasion, Captain Windmark must have encountered some form of “external rhythm,” at least once. That he was surprised by his toe-tapping suggests that dancing was a new activity for him. If he was capable of dancing, surely at some point, he would have spontaneously – without explicit planning – bounced his head or tapped his toes in the two decades he spent surrounded by the human culture he was so intent on destroying. In a 2010 paper, psychologists Marcel Zentner and Tuomas Eerola point out, “one of the most curious effects of music is that it compels us to move in synchrony with its beat. This behavior, also referred to as entrainment, includes spontaneous or deliberate finger and foot tapping, head nodding, and body swaying.”

In their study, 120 human infants between the ages of 5 months and 2 years were placed on a parent’s lap where they listened to a music clip (the parents were given noise cancelling headphones, so they could not accidentally guide the infants’ actions). The researchers filmed the infants’ movements, and analyzed them, much as the first research group had done with the animal videos.

Zentner and Eerola found that the infants easily entrained their motions to the rhythm of the songs that they heard, whether it was Mozart, a childrens’ song, a simple tune, or even just a rhythmic drum solo. They spontaneously modulated their movements according to increases or decreases in tempo.

And the more synchronized they were, the more they displayed “positive affect.” In other words, dancing made them happy.

Dancing, or more accurately, rhythmic entrainment, is an unlearned response to an external stimulus that occurs in members of species that have vocal learning, and that – at least among humans – results in increased happiness. This leaves us with three possible reasons that make Windmark’s dance entirely impossible, or at least not a reflection of growing emotions.

First, not being a vocal learner, he should not have been able to tap his toes in sync with the song.

Second, even if we granted that Windmark was a vocal learner, capable of dancing, then he should not have been surprised by his toe-tapping, since entrainment is involuntary and he had surely been previously exposed to external rhythms.

Third, even if we granted that The Observers have vocal learning, and that Windmark’s confusion can be explained by having never encountered music – not even an errant rhythmic drumbeat during his more than two decades surrounded by human culture – then dancing is still not evidence of emotion. Zentner and Eerola put it this way: “what may have generated positive affect in our infants is the interoceptive feedback from moving in time with rhythmic pulses.” In other words, the emotional response was a consequence of dancing; dancing is not, itself, derived from emotion.

Update: The big bad himself, Captain Windmark (Michael Kopsa) appears in the comments to tell us that it was the other Observer who was toe-tapping. I maintain that my criticism remains intact, even if applied to the other Observer.

Related:
Lords of the dance: Are humans the only species that enjoy dancing?

Header image via Fox Broadcasting Co; Windmark photo from a screenshot of Season 5, episode 3, “The Recordist.”

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Ing3nu 5:50 pm 01/17/2013

    A delightful rundown, Jason. I would remark, based on the camera work, that it as not Windmark who was toe-tapping, but the second observer (hence the puzzlement).

    None of that, however, invalidates your analysis.

    The question I would ask is, could those tendencies have developed later in life? Is the plasticity there for an older adult Observer (since WIndmark appears to be older than, say, September) to learn (consciously or unconsciously). We have already seen that September is significantly changed since the removal of his implant, which suggests that the remapping of the brain is an external stimulus, something that reverts once the technology is removed.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Sean Treacy 5:52 pm 01/17/2013

    Huh! Very nice. This is some fine pedantry.

    I can get why it must subjectively seem like dancing is derived from emotion. After all, before we dance, it usually feels like some feeling is driving us to dance — excitement, etc. But, often enough, things aren’t what they seem.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jason G. Goldman in reply to Jason G. Goldman 5:56 pm 01/17/2013

    Interesting. I’ll have to watch again to see if it appears that it’s the Observer henchman who is toe-tapping.

    As for the rest of your comment, I suppose its possible. One thing that leads me to think that it couldn’t be learned is that even domesticated animals who live their whole lives among humans – dogs and horses, for example – never develop the ability to entrain their bodies to external rhythms. It’s not within the realm of possibility – at least as far as we know!

    And could the neural implant be causing a lack of dancing ability? Also possible. Though I’d counter that the child Observer has no tech and he appears to have many, though not all, of the Observers’ abilities and non-abilities… Thanks for the comment!

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  4. 4. Trafalgar 6:23 pm 01/17/2013

    You’re trying to apply science to analyze Fringe. Think about that for a minute. It just can’t be done.

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  5. 5. Jason G. Goldman in reply to Jason G. Goldman 6:37 pm 01/17/2013

    @Trafalgar: point well taken. I did say, from the top, that it was a super pedantic rant, after all :-)

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  6. 6. goldbond007 6:54 pm 01/17/2013

    Very interesting observation, Jason, if you’ll forgive the pun. However, Ing3nu is correct: it’s the 2nd observer who taps his foot. Windmark remains puzzled, as alaways, by music.
    Michael Kopsa (aka Windmark)

    Link to this
  7. 7. smhouston 3:54 am 01/18/2013

    @Ing3nu, I think you would be interested in some of this work: http://archive.sciencewatch.com/dr/nhp/2011/11marnhp/11marnhpScho/

    I think, though, that part of Jason’s critique (or pedantry) is the innateness of vocalization among different species, and how that itself may lead to the ability to either “do” or “acquire different skills as “adults.”

    Link to this
  8. 8. Ing3nu 12:32 pm 01/18/2013

    Granted, we are discussing fictional characters in a fictional universe (with inconsistencies for the sake of the story), but as a mental exercise it’s rather interesting :)

    Link to this

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