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Rocking The Books!


Written By Stella Roper (they/she) @stellyvision | Arts Editor

Brains, books and Megadeth - oh my! In a fascinating discussion with associate professors Daniel Shepherd (DS) and Mangor Pedersen (MP) from AUT’s Psychology and Neuroscience department, we dive into the intriguing realm of music’s impact on wellbeing and how it could enhance students’ academic journeys.

Has there been much research that focuses on the effect the arts have on brain function and mental wellbeing?

DS: The connections between psychological states and wellbeing are deeply connected, so there has been a lot of research done in the area. There are also clinical applications to these studies, in terms of creating environments that encourage certain states of wellbeing - for example, keeping someone calm. The arts can be used to do that through means such as murals or logos on walls to reduce aggression in high schools.

When creating something like that, you’d have to think about certain colours they’d use for painting and the messaging that comes with it so it can be effective. This mindset and creation of these environments or artworks, essentially, are done in many areas. Another example is testing for road safety messages - in this example, we would show the participant these sayings and see how people respond. We would note down things such as how the participant felt before seeing the messaging, how the messaging affected their thinking, and how their body reacted. Providing tranquil spaces is very good for wellbeing, especially in cities, as you can’t get up and go to the middle of nowhere and see these landscapes in real life easily.

How did you come to research the effect of music on wellbeing?

DS: We have done work at AUT previously in the labs. One of the studies we did focused on stressing people out - it’s always one of our favourite things. We got some students in a lab and sort of threw numbers at them to add up while we were sitting with a clipboard telling them they were wrong or to hurry up. We also increased the difficulty further by giving them numbers even faster and playing different types of sounds like construction or aircraft noise.

After that, we wanted to see how quickly we could calm them down. It came to our attention that of course, young people are probably not interested in birdsong and ocean noises and stuff like that. They like music.

So we started looking at a little bit of music too, and we were looking at a song that was created in England called “Weightless” by Marconi Union, and we published that study that highlighted the calming effect of the song on young people. All of a sudden, the Benee management people came up to us and said, “Hey, we saw your study and we were shocked at how little work had been done in this area.” They were interested in creating a song that was proven to be calming, desiring a similar effect to Marconi’s “Weightless”.

What was your testing process through this collaborative project with Benee’s team?

DS: Our involvement with “Bagels” was really just two steps. Initially, we had some online meetings where we talked about the research that already existed and pointed towards songs that were relaxing and calming and songs that weren’t. We discussed how people listen to different songs to influence different feelings or states. People can listen to songs to energise and focus themselves, for example, before playing in a sports match. So we don’t always just listen to music to calm down, it can go many ways. We discussed with the Benee team in more detail the types of sound characteristics that influence a relaxed state. After that, the team went off and they brought the song back to Mangor and myself and the team, Dr Amy Kercher and Geet Vashista, and we had a little listen to it. We gave them some more feedback and the song sort of came together.

Was there some back and forth in terms of testing and edits of samples of the song, or was it quite streamlined?

MP: Yes and no. We listened to a couple of iterations of the song, and from there provided input based on what we knew about how different music affected the body. Throughout our time working with them, there was very good communication to get the song to the best state. It was a process to get there, but in the end, it was working with great people from the music side, the publishing side, and us from the academic side. While often quite busy, it was a very enjoyable process. I think it’s the feeling everyone had in the end.

Are there any certain types of music or sound environments that researchers found to enhance focus and concentration?

MP: My interpretation would be that Benee’s song would provide the best focus in terms of what we saw in the brain. Through testing, We saw that the brain went into a different state, a more zoned-out state. The song also didn’t activate any stress responses in the brain and so forth, which we have later corroborated with how people’s heart rate and skin responses were as well. The evidence lines up.

I also think culture plays a huge part in how you will react to different types of music. I’m Scandinavian and we have very different music compared to New Zealand. For example, my brain will be completely relaxed listening to heavy metal, and I'll be very stressed listening to Ed Sheeran.

DS: We did get some results from the music tests, having asked the participants about levels of focus, arousal and pleasantness. Looking over a graph, it was calculated that both of the songs: Marconi Union’s “Weightless” and Benee’s “Bagels” average a score of 7 ½ out of 10 for individuals regarding focus, whereas songs from bands System of a Down and Tool averaged at about 2 ½ .

Through many people’s academic lives, study and test environments have been purposely set to ‘silent’. What are your opinions regarding ‘silent’ study environments while working?

DS: There’s been some research done on silence. We don’t have such a thing as silence, or true silence, something comparable to “absolute zero” for example. We can have quiet, though, so we often prefer to use the word quiet. What typically happens when you put people in quiet environments or silent conditions is that an increase in ruminations occurs. When a person is sitting down with nothing going on in silence, often stress-inducing thoughts such as assignments being due or work drama, et cetera. To tune out the silence, people will often replace it by thinking about other things. If they think about positive things, they’ll relax. But invariably what we find is that people don’t tend to dwell on the positive. Instead, they’ll sit there and start thinking about life problems and in turn, stress themselves out. The idea that silence itself is necessarily a relaxant is a little bit of a myth, and studies are showing that.

What are some key factors or advice that students should consider when deciding whether they would like to listen to music while they’re studying?

MP: I wouldn’t Google it, I would follow my own gut. Even if bands like System of a Down and Tool are your favourite bands, they might not be the music that’s gonna give you the best focus - however, recognising what you do like is a good start. I remember at uni I found specific genres like contemporary classic postrock quite easy to study with. I think it was because it still had the vibe of the harder music that I liked.

DS: In my experience, I found it was talking, specifically the human voice that distracts my attention. I found classical music to be a helpful tool to get me to focus during my studies, so yes, it’s very much curated based on each individual. When I finished studying, I put on Metallica and Megadeth.

MP: There has been a lot of research on the effects of classical music. If you play Mozart, it’s not going to cure your epilepsy, but there are studies to prove you’re going to have fewer seizures if you listen to it. So it already happened years ago, science told us that your brain is going into a different mode by listening to relaxing music.

Is there evidence to suggest that associations can form between activities and the music we listen to while doing them, and could this potentially negatively impact studying?

MP: Well, you don’t want the music to distract you. You want it to focus you, not take your attention away. If the music is associated with emotion is gonna detract your attention as well.

DS: You also get into a state-dependent fix or a context-dependent fix, which can be beneficial in some cases. People often say the best way to study is to mimic your exam environment, so sometimes it’s important to move from one room to the other so that you associate those environmental cues with knowledge and study. If you’re studying at home and in bed, listening to loud music around a bunch of posters, when you walk into an exam room there’s nothing consistent between the two environments. Likely you will feel a lack of preparedness or alienation from doing the exam, whereas if you study in a blank room, without music and in an upright chair, once in the actual exam you’d feel more familiar with the environment. It’s kind of like what they call “classical conditioning”. To a degree, it gets you in a calmer, prepared state.

What should learning institutes and students take away from your research?

MP: I think we are doing research in a different way here. Especially doing research with real-world outcomes through the project with Youthline.

Usually, we do experiments in the lab where we go through brutal reviewers and are published in scientific journals and no one hears about the research. However, through working with Youthline on Bagels, the impact of our tests went way beyond the lab. The decision-making around listening to music is a very simple thing that can have a real impact on people’s lives. So I think the new generation is gonna be a better generation of students and will get more hands-on and closer at bridging the gap between science and larger society.

DS: I think for me the exciting part was when Mangor started doing all this brain modelling and exploring these largely unknown territories when it comes to the effects of music. Doing things that included brain modelling and measuring heart rate, what he was doing was pretty special and very exciting to see. And as we’ve said, there’s not a lot of that’s going on in the world.

So here we are, down in little New Zealand, little Aotearoa, and he’s conjuring up all these connectivity diagrams and connectomes and things.

And it’s like, wow, you’re sitting right on the frontier there.


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