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The Music Tunes You

The Music Tunes You

    One of the reasons I don’t listen to music throughout the day is that music changes my mood. Music is designed to manipulate your body chemistry and your mind. The songs that manipulate your emotions most effectively rise to the top and become hits. I don’t want music manipulating me in ways I haven’t planned.

    The one situation in which I intentionally listen to music is when I exercise. That works great because I load my iPod with only the songs that energize me. The music puts my body immediately into exercise mode. I’m like Pavlov’s dog when I get to the gym; I’m not in the mood to exercise until I put in my headphones and hit play. Three notes later I’m totally in the mood.

    The thing I try to avoid throughout the day is listening to random music that jerks my mood around until it doesn’t fit with whatever task is at hand. I don’t want to get pumped up before I try to sleep. I don’t want to hear a sad song before I try to work. I don’t want a song stuck in my head when I’m trying to solve a problem, and so on. The problem is not the music but the mismatch between the music and my activities.

    This made me wonder if life is full of non-music sounds and noises that could be organized to tune our bodies for whatever task is ahead. For example, I wonder if the sound of a deer walking over leaves would arouse our hunter-gatherer brains and make us more alert. I wonder if hearing sounds of the ocean would relax us. And what about sounds that make us curious, such as the sound of a key in a lock, or sounds that excite us, such as a Ferrari engine revving up? I’ll bet we have sounds that stimulate almost every type of human emotion or attitude.

    A recent study showed that it is easier to be creative in the midst of crowd noise such as you might hear at a coffee house. I discovered this phenomenon myself when I owned a restaurant. I wrote almost an entire book sitting in a booth every day in the middle of the lunchtime bustle. I couldn’t figure out why it was so easy to write in a noisy atmosphere. It was counterintuitive, but it worked sensationally.

    I wonder if a systematic study of common sounds and how they affect the brain could give us a tool to tune ourselves to any specific task. I’d have one set of sounds to keep me alert, another to improve my problem solving, and another to make me more creative. I might have sounds that make me happy, sounds that motivate, sounds that make me risk-averse or risk-tolerant, and sounds that literally make me stronger.

    Music is just one way to tune your body. With the help of brain scans and systematic studies we can figure out how a wide variety of sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even concepts affect our minds. Armed with that knowledge, your conscious mind could orchestrate your surroundings to tune your body and emotions to fit any kind of task.

    We do versions of this already, of course. When we are tense we know to go outside and enjoy some nature. When we are grumpy we know some junk food might help our mood. But how much more effective would we be if we had data telling us exactly which stimuli creates which reaction? I think the difference in effectiveness could be enormous.

    The barriers I see to this future are twofold. For starters, it must be expensive to do studies involving brain scans.

    The second barrier is the superstition of mind. Even the most rational among us believe we have something called a “mind” that is capable of something called “free will” which all feels a bit like magic. We have a sense that our minds can cook up thoughts and ideas on its own, without the benefit of external stimulation. The belief is that we can think ourselves into whatever frame of mind we need. We think we can use our “willpower” to overcome sadness, or focus on what is important, whatever. My view is the opposite. I believe our internal sensation of “mind” is nothing but the end result of external stimulation interacting with our DNA. By my view, we are moist robots and we have five senses that act as our operator interface. To me, it makes no sense to try and think my way to happiness when I can just take my dog for a walk and come back feeling great.

    We’ll be a lot happier when we stop believing in magic and start figuring out which types of stimulations create which reactions.

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