Philosophy | 2011
The student speaker at TEDx UChicago interprets the code of sound.
Bruno Cabral makes a lot noise. He has been studying it all his life: through guitar, throat-singing, mixed media art pieces with microphones, and more. Additionally, Cabral, a philosophy major, has been on a debate team, performed in plays, and practiced improvisational comedy. He has made a lot noise. But as winner of the TEDx UChicago student speaker competition, Cabral made noise like never before.
“My speech is about how these beautifully human abilities are present in even the most mundane things that we do,” said Cabral. “The elegant vivacity that comes from living the life of the mind is not restricted by what we pay attention to, but by how conscientiously we pay attention to it.”
TED conferences originated in 1984 as talks on technology, entertainment, and design that soon expanded into an annual, four day event. On April 17th, 2011, the work of 15 student organizers culminated in TEDx UChicago, an independent conference of 17 talks, with speakers ranging from UChicago a cappella group Voices in Your Head to Adi Sideman, CEO of Oddcast. Despite the variety of presenters, all the speeches related back to the theme, “The Life of the Mind.” The only other requirement was time—each speech had to be under 18 minutes.
“I saw the flyer for the speaker contest and figured that I might want to give my friends a break from pestering them with stuff that I think is interesting,” said Cabral. “I love talking shop so I figured that this would be a good way to do it.”
While searching for an idea, a friend from Howard Nusbaum’s cognitive psychology lab — where Cabral has worked since his third year — suggested Cabral talk about his own research. The idea stuck.
“I think that [cognitive psychology] is a valuable subject for a speech because the discipline concerns itself with so many things that are relatable to people’s everyday experiences and does so in a way that is very concrete,” said Cabral. “I like cognitive psychology because I can investigate all the problems that interest me underneath one disciplinary roof. It’s like a very rigorous session of arts and crafts that leads up into a piece of knowledge that can be generalized across all humanity.”
Cabral competed for his slot not just against his fellow UChicago students, but also against students from the entire Chicago area. Contestants submitted a brief summary of their speech and a short YouTube video of themselves giving it. Five finalists then gave their speeches before a panel of judges, who chose one student to talk at the conference and attend a special dinner for the speakers.
“It was actually a lot of fun to go through the competition,” said Cabral. “Everyone organizing it was really on top of what they were doing and Bess Gallanis, a professional speaking coach, was an extraordinary help throughout the entire competition. There was a big feeling of fraternity between all the contestants and we each gave each other handwritten notes about each other’s presentations when we did a dry run before the competition finale.”
Cabral talked about the way people listen to everyday sounds versus human speech, and argued that they are surprisingly similar. Yet Cabral was not content to stick to pure science, and instead considered the philosophical and psychological implications of his research. To illustrate his points, Cabral called on music and the field of cognitive psychology. Through graphs, barking dogs, and musical instruments that don’t exist, Cabral explored the patterns behind the human ability to interpret sound.
“When you communicate in speech, you’re using sound as the basis for a code,” said Cabral at the conference. “The sounds are only tokens—or symbols—of what you use in order to communicate something else behind it. This is cool because we’re making these abstract connections.”
In addition to the professional coaching and opportunity to “talk shop” in Mandel Hall, the speech forced Cabral to reassess his ideas. As he wrote them down, Cabral began to think them through more meticulously, searching for the clearest way to frame them. In developing a universal language with which to express his research, Cabral to become better acquainted with it. He has benefitted from being a speaker in many ways, but ultimately what concerns him is the audience.
“I hope that they get an appreciation for the everyday noises that usually get overlooked in the day-to-day,” said Cabral. “I cannot tell you how utterly awestruck I am by these kinds of mundane noises. They contribute an extreme amount of depth to our perceptual world but no one seems to notice them. If I get just a handful of people to pick up some music by artists like Oval, Merzbow, Derek Bailey or Lucky Dragons and give it a good listen, then I will be more than happy with what I have managed to do.”
Watch Cabral’s speech here:
By Jessen O'Brien, Class of 2012, New Media Editor
Photo by Emily Lo, Class of 2012