I am unreasonably saddened by David Bowie’s passing. To understand why, it is helpful to know a little bit of network theory and understand the implications of neuroplasticity.
On the network theory front, the “Rule of 150” states people can easily keep track of about 150 people in their lives. This is by some reckoning the size of traditional hunter-gatherer bands. In our modern lives, celebrities fill in some of the 150 for many people. David Bowie was one of my 150. He was the Kevin Bacon of my musical universe. One degree to Brian Eno, Talking Heads, Arcade Fire, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bing Crosby, Annie Lennox, Luther Van Dross, Pat Metheny, Secret Machines, LCD Sound System, TV on the Radio… And two degrees to anybody you choose.* He was, as Sylvester Stallone said of Rocky Balboa at this year’s Golden Globes, “The best imaginary friend I ever had.”
In one concert I saw, Bowie described himself as having been in his “Nietzsche phase” when he wrote a particular song. He said, “You remember your Nietzsche phase, when you carried your pocket Nietzsche in your trench coat?” Was he talking to me? Yes, I had a pocket Nietzsche! I seriously doubt there was anyone else in the audience that night who had a Nietzsche phase.
I only saw him live three times over the years: on the Serious Moonlight Tour in ’83, on the Glass Spider Tour in the late 80s, and for 2004’s Reality — which came on the heels of Heathen (one of Bowie’s most listenable records – start to finish). The last tour showcased a man who had found his groove. He laughed. He was comfortable. And he was entertaining. He was at the height of his success as a person. He was a happy father and spouse. But throughout his career, I felt his evolutions and realized deep truths about what creates happiness and about ongoing innovation.
In the documentary David Bowie: Five Years in the Making of an Icon, they point out Bowie was uncanny in his selection of collaborators (a few are even listed above). And as Josh Groban tweeted about his death, “He bent genres, genders and our minds.” This is why I was attracted to David Bowie — for his purported ability to bend minds. How did he do it? He was a network designer par excellence. He deliberately designed his network to create novelty.
Identity stood at the heart of Bowie’s career. As The Atlantic said on his passing, if you are going to invent as many characters as David Bowie, you have to give consideration to their death. As they note, identity and dissolution is essential to so many human relationships. And it is this that stands at the heart of the pain I feel. As one critic said on Bowie’s passing, quoting Gorky on Tolstoy, I cannot be ‘an orphan on the earth, so long as this man lives on it.’
To understand the neuroscience of this, consider the following simple hand tapping experiment: Tap a table and tap a subject’s hand under the table simultaneously. After a few minutes, you can smack the table and a galvanic skin response shows the subject responds as if they have been struck. Why? Because, as neuropsychologist Donald Hebb coined, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Put yourself in the subject’s shoes. You aren’t hurt when the table is struck. Yet you think you are because neurons that fire together wire together. It is this that allows us to play the game of life. But it is also this that causes us suffering. We aren’t actually in the picture. We don’t actually get hurt. Our body doesn’t sustain blows when the table gets smacked. But we react as though we did because we are, in cyborg–like fashion, wired into these stimuli. We have inadvertently begun to identify with the table. And neuroscientists tell us there is an especially acute pain when our mirror neurons activate — when we experience a sense of “I/me/mine.”
We have all sorts of things we are attached to inside, but one of the most basic or largest is our identity. David Bowie became a part of mine — for 38 years. That is longer than many friendships. And I know we shared a Nietzsche phase. That is why I am so sad … because as Bowie sang in “This is Not America” — “a little piece of me, a little piece of you… has died.”
* Yet, strangely in a perfect illustration of being trapped in our past preferences by the internet, the David Bowie Station on Pandora on the afternoon of his death repetitively plays the Kinks (Lola six times), the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Talking Heads. It is like some kind of transitional 70s music ghetto. I don’t discover anything new.