“We never just hear music”

Music profoundly changes our emotions. Sound has the potential to turn our feelings inside out.

In September, I committed to bringing my mother to the theatre. Local theatres do a lot of film screenings, I found with disappointment. Among them, I spotted The Graduate. I don’t understand why, but I love the film.

The events and characters are grim. The atmosphere is anxious. The ending is certainly filled with angst. But that’s not the aftertaste it leaves.

I rooted out The Graduate in college. Third year of medicine, a year dedicated to learning ginormous amounts of information, weighed heavy on my mind.

It was the weekend. Alone, I had nothing to do other than study and the mood dwindled. Somehow The Graduate lifted me out of melancholy.

I reckon it is down to the soundtrack. Amazing.

In an essay filled to the brim with reference to science, a music cognition scientist (yes, that’s a thing), says:

We never just hear music. Our experience of it is saturated in cultural expectations, personal memory and the need to move.

The revelation reminded me of something a friend said. She shocked me with a simple truth: you start having sex long before you enter the bedroom.

So yeah, our perception runs away from reality at the first chance it gets. I am sitting here imagining: in a film about Macbeth, what soundtrack would I choose? And when you think about it like that, you see that music manipulates emotion like nothing else.

The neuroscience of creativity

As my readers will have noticed, I don’t publish as much any more. That’t not to say my commitment to this blog has lessened (I have big plans for it!) Having gone through a period of stress, I realised just how damaging it is to creativity. I blame my reduced creative output on my increased adrenal output. It is well known that the “rest and digest” (parasympathetic), not the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) system is associated with complex cognition and creative problem solving.

Where else would my brain then lead me other than to research the neuroscience of creativity?

neuroscience of creativity

1. Listening to happy music

Gene Rowe et al used a sort of a verbal IQ test and had the subjects listen to either happy music, sad music or read a bunch of neutral facts. The participants’ mood was predictably affected by the music. Indeed, the test performance was correlated with the mood level.

I am not sure whether this will get me to delete the Amy Winehouse tracks off my Spotify account, but as far as my n=1 observations go, there is indeed a relationship between one’s ability to function at a given time and a playlist.

There will some people who will want to discredit this study, but I want to note that there is nothing in this study to say that getting out of a bad mood with happy music will lead to creativity.

Indeed, I would say that listening to happy music when you’re sad can be awful. I would say that something energetic rather than cheerful is in order. I guess I will be working on a playlist in the next while.

Interestingly, a test used to assess the ability to focus yielded the opposite results when it came to music: results were improved with sad music and worsened by happy music. The proposed explanation is that happy music broadens our perception and makes us consider alternative solutions which is so important for creativity.

The interesting lesson here is that being creative means being distractible, not focused.

My encounters with people with bipolar affective disorder and schizophrenia come to mind: there is often no keeping them on topic when they aren’t well. The people who suffer with these are also known for their creativity.

I’ve been taught that distraction is a menace. Studying to be a doctor involves a lot of hours in silence, pouring over books, where the only distractions are laziness and loss of the will to carry on. Menace. The job, incidentally, is nothing but distraction. In a hospital, it is impossible to even walk down a corridor without getting five different requests from patients and staff. And it’s no excuse that you’re in the middle of something. In a world obsessed with focus and productivity, it seems anything that seems to be a distraction is disallowed. Maybe, sometimes it pays to chase our distractions.

what makes your brain more creative

2. Walking

I am surprised by the robustness of the finding, though not the finding itself: walking is associated with boosting happiness and creativity. Marily Oppezzo got participants to carry out a creative task while sitting in a chair, standing, walking inside or outside, or being pushed in a wheelchair. Walking won.

I would imagine that sports would also help with being creative. N. N. Taleb also mentioned that he walks a lot and went so far as to say that he gets x amount of pages per y amount of walking (something like 1000 words per mile?) My two cents are that sometimes I feel compelled to go walking. It’s the endorphins, the fresh air, the change of scenery. In fact, whatever it is, it works.

3. Variety

The more varied the participants’ typical activities, the higher they score on tests of creative thinking. People who are in a routine aren’t usually associated with creativity. It has become en vogue to say that everything is a habit, that the best writers have a strong discipline, that Anthony Trollope got up and wrote for 3 hours every morning… There is a difference between emphasising the importance pushing yourself to create and saying that the pushing itself produces creation.

It’s pretty obvious that creativity is the secret sauce, not the bread and butter of actually creating something.

Finding a new connection between two pieces of information (i.e. being creative) will only occur if the two areas of the brain that hold those two pieces of information are active at the same time. The more variety there is in the activation pattern of one’s brain, the higher the chance of a new connection forming.

making your mind more creative

4. REM Sleep

‹REM sleep is that part of the sleep cycles when we see dreams. It seems to be particularly important for memory formation and creation of associations, the direct input of creativity.

Denise Cai got a bunch of sleep-deprived participants to do IQ-like tests focusing on associations and analogies. The participants did some questions, but the real test started after the break. The break was different for the participants who were split into 3 groups: 1) those who got to sleep and enter REM. sleep, 2) those who got to sleep but not enter REM sleep and 3) those whom didn’t get to sleep. When all the participants returned to answer more test questions, the REM sleep group did significantly better than the other two.

This also explains why sleep deprivation results in a functional but lacklustre existence. When we sleep for 8 hours a night as opposed to 6, we get disproportionately more REM sleep. This is because REM periods get longer as you spend more time asleep. So when we cut down on sleep from 8 to 6 hours, we may only lose 2/8= 25% of our entire sleep, but we lose a much bigger percentage of our REM sleep.

A few remarks on the anatomy of the eureka moment

Mark Beeman’s studies focus on moments of insight when trying to solve complex problems. He used fMRI and EEG to reveal that a particular region in the anterior superior temporal gyrus became active shortly before a person reported having an insight. Interestingly, this region is associated with associating distant verbal relations or finding connections between information that is only loosely related.

Pulling it all together

All of the above studies are using crude proxies to creativity. Figuring out what French, cork and list have in common isn’t really creativity (it’s wine, by the way). On a personal level, I feel many of the above tips are useful. Let me know what has worked for you in the comments!

P.S. WordPress tells me I have over 1,000 followers. Thanks so much guys: I really enjoy the company 🙂

12 tips for thinking more clearly and making better decisions

This is one of those articles that I wrote for myself: for those mornings when the only things you want to do are browse Facebook and watch BBC1, or at least you think you do. Then you remember that you’ve about 20 problems to solve that day and get that feeling in your stomach like both your adrenal glands just emptied their contents into your bloodstream.

1. Enter into deep work mode

Wall off some distraction free time. The phone goes on airplane mode. Close all the tabs you don’t need.

Let’s be honest, if you are reading this, you are probably dealing with quite challenging and cognitively demanding.

These things require extreme levels of focus and uninterrupted immersion for an effective resolution.

As such, the goal is to enter into a state of flow. It is a paradoxical mix of mindfulness and being very goal-directed at the same time. Flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

how to think more clearly deep work

2. Do a brain dump

If you are at a loss, the thoughts are messy and you don’t know where to start, an unstructured flow of consciousness style “brain dump” is required. It straightens out circular ruminations and allows the writer to identify what is really wrong. There is something liberating about getting things down on paper. You can always throw it out. Nobody has to see it. It is only for you to see.

In the best possible way, it lowers expectations and gives you the licence to be really honest.

I am putting my money where my mouth is with this tip: a lot of this blog is really me writing for me. I often reread what I have written because it answers questions that bother me (and catch a few typos on the way!) It turns out that the same questions bother a lot of people, hence our little community.

3. Draw a spider diagram

Difficulties in solving problems often arise from the fact that problems are interdependent, they are not isolated. Drawing a spider diagram (a mind map) is a very good way to figure out what’s going on.

how to think clearly

As a one-time medical student in the rather fundamentalist anatomy department, I had to learn everything about the brachial plexus (pictured above).  The structure was just the starting point of what I needed to know. The the origins at the spine and the muscle activation were at least as complex on top of that. I drew a spider diagram.

When my father was splitting from his second wife and I arrived home to find my stuff packed away in boxes by the latter, well, I also drew a spider diagram. Because I needed to understand what’s going, what everyone is thinking and where to move (not just literally) from there.

This approach to thinking is resonant with the structure of our brain with its nodes and links.

4. Make a to-solve list (not a to do list) and tell a story

Lists are great, says the ENTP. Even checklists. They really are great because they give us a sense of control. I have studied motivation in great detail as I deal with students doing their final school exams to get into college. They keep asking me about motivation. These 17 year olds have the most fine-tuned BS filter on the planet, so I really need to try hard. I finally found a solution for them, which is: a sense of control.

Feeling in control is the key to being motivated.

There is a mountain of evidence about this. However, a small study done on nursing home residents really illustrates it best. Some people who go into nursing homes don’t do well and fade away in less than 6 months. Others seem more alive than any of us. What’s the difference? Well, as one of the lively 85 year olds explained: “I trade my chocolate desert for a piece of fruit from one of the other guys at every dinner”. Why? Doesn’t he like chocolate? The answer lies in the fact that now he has control: in an environment where you are told when to sleep, where to sit and when to take your tablets, it is crucial to eke out a sense of control by being in charge of something small like that.

How do you structure a list? There are two great ways:

  • list of problems to solve
  • a chronological story-plan

A plain to-do list just makes you feel like you are doing chores. A list of problems to solve automatically gives both purpose and perspective.

As for the story plan, there is something about our brains that makes us dead set of prioritising stories over any other kind of information. It is therefore important to tap into that. A fair portion of NLP is snake oil, but their emphasis on story-telling is right on. Things seem far less daunting if you write them down on a piece of paper as bite-sized steps. For example, recently, I have been moving between countries. It’s an overwhelming amount of paper work, a complex process with many catch-22’s to machete through like you need a lease to set up utility bills, and a utility bill to set up a bank account and a bank account to set up a lease. By writing it down, it is easier to see solutions and the impossible soon becomes possible. There are 2 reasons for this:

  • we find it difficult to store long sequences in our heads, so a written down prop is key (this is mentioned a lot in Thinking Fast and Slow and GTD)
  • by going through the steps required to build out the story, we think of the entire contexts – the things we would have otherwise forgotten about

think more clearly write things down

5. Snap out of being on rails by getting perspective

It’s precisely when we are “on rails”, when we have some kind of contagious emotion unfolding in us, when we want to “just get this done”, that we need to pause and switch to something else. Ideally, we would go straight to taking 10 minutes to be mindful, but for most of us mortals that just seems impossible. Instead, it is a good idea to think of something completely different.

Let’s say there is an enraging email that you can’t wait to respond to so as to make it go away. Mindfulness? Now? No!…

To ease yourself out of the hijacked state, think of something completely different, preferably something even more challenging, that makes the original issue seem like nonsense.

Recently, I was dealing with an unruly real estate agent who just wouldn’t listen and kept sending me emails with unreasonable demands. I thought to myself: there are lots of people who don’t have this problem – because they simply cannot afford to live on their own. It’s not even that it made me feel grateful and empowered, that’s not the point, but it gave me perspective and an ability to deal with the tyrant in a way that accomplished my aims rather than just telling them “for the n-time, will you…”

6. Take 10 minutes to meditate

It is when we are busiest that we need to take the time to be mindful.

I recall Ray Dalio talking about it. Yes, the guy is filthy rich, but I can just imagine him losing a billion bucks (it happens in that business) and going into his office to do his TM routine. What else would he do? Shout at the researchers for not seeing into the future? The traders for not getting out of the trade earlier? There is no point. It is much better to get centred again and then do what is actually going to help the situation.

7. Have a cup of matcha, or any good green tea

I’ve always loved green tea. However, after my trip to Japan, it became clear to me that there is something quite magical about certain varieties of green tea. I am a big fan of Ippodo and specifically Ummon-no-mukashi.

Like salbutamol opens the bronchioles, this stuff clears the head.

For those who aren’t keen on concentrated green goo, a cup of Hosen Sencha will do wonders too. The way the Japanese drink tea is more or less an exercise in mindfulness, so I would make use of that aspect too. It is part of my morning routine. It is especially something that people who can’t drink coffee should consider. Unlike coffee, matcha doesn’t give you a jolt of energy and then a come down, but a steady state of clarity.

thinking more clearly mindfulness meditation

8. Listen to some upbeat classical music you’re not very familiar with

Listening to something you know well calls in all kinds of associations and other hardcoded Pavlovian nonsense we don’t always need.

Thankfully, there is so much classical music out there, we’re unlikely to ever be stuck. Some may prefer house music. Sometimes house music has lyrics or distracting sexy sounds. My personal recommendation would be listening to Béla Bartók or anything played by Lang Lang, a virtuoso pianist. You may also like some great apps for mindful focus.

9. Jump in for a very short burst of exercise

Even two minutes of HIIT or a quick few sets of sun salutations are likely to be quite refreshing. In an upcoming post, a neurologist will explain that

our adrenal medulla – the seat of the flight-or-fight response, the ultimate thinking and creativity saboteur, is controlled more by the motor cortex than it is by the conscious decision making centres.

10. Don’t even attempt it if you are tired

Sleep is massively undervalued in today’s society. Sleep deprivation has incredibly significant effects. Not that much sleep deprivation at all will give you the insulin resistance of a type 2 diabetic.

All the most intelligent people I know sleep at least 8 hours a night and don’t even attempt anything cognitively taxing unless they are refreshed.

This is obviously challenging for people with young children, for example, but if you can work to put yourself in a situation where you can be refreshed, it will really pay off.

11. Have a shower

Special troops are told to prioritise staying clean even in extreme circumstances. It raises morale. There is something life-affirming about water and cleanliness. The chemical changes, such as an oxytocin increase, is likely to have a positive effect on one’s emotional state.

12. Talk to a human being

We are social animals: that is just how we’ve evolved. Not all problems need to be attacked by the entire tribe, but calling in help is required sometimes because other will help us navigate through our weaknesses, see new perspective and just feel like a human being again.

think clearer mindfulness meditation deep work

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

A weekly trail mix of thought-provoking essays and research.

1. The madness of mindfulness

From The Financial Times

Lately, there’s been more and more of a backlash against mindfulness. It’s only natural given the rate it is growing at and the unscrupulous many who try to earn some cash riding this wave and promising mindfulness as the true path to the moon and the stars.

An understandably overwhelmed mother standing amidst Lego pieces gets a push notification on her phone that it is time to be mindful. This seems to have been the straw that broke the camels back. She goes on a rant about the appful pursuit of happiness. Caustically, she remarks on the passive aggressive nature of the simplicity of the mindfulness proposition and the real-life difficulties of its application. Of course, the article isn’t about mindfulness, it is about the cult of commoditised mindfulness and its many apps. It is quite overwhelming indeed – if you are the kind easily gets swayed by trends.

2. Time will show – and only time

From N.N. Taleb

N.N. Taleb, the closest thing we have to a popular philosopher today, brings some seemingly obvious, yet profound, insights:

…Actors gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect. The Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know…

Being reviewed or assessed by others matters if and only if one is subjected to the judgment by future –not just present — others

Academia can become a ritualistic publishing game

3. Music works the same way as heroin

From Nature Scientific Reports

Music’s universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin. The research shows that endogenous opioids are critical to experiencing both positive and negative emotions in music, and that music uses the same reward pathways as food, drug and sexual pleasure. Our findings add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music.

4. The internet and our brains are more similar than we think

From Neural Computation

The Internet relies on not being overloaded in order to work. The solution involves controlling information flow such that routes are neither clogged nor underutilised. To accomplish this, the Internet employs an algorithm called “additive increase, multiplicative decrease” (AIMD) in which your computer sends a packet of data and then listens for an acknowledgement from the receiver. If the packet is promptly acknowledged, the network is not overloaded and your data can be transmitted through the network at a higher rate. With each successive successful packet, your computer knows it’s safe to increase its speed by one unit, which is the additive increase part. This process is quite similar to our brain’s long term potentiation, i.e. memory formation. But if an acknowledgement is delayed or lost your computer knows that there is congestion and slows down by a large amount, such as by half, which is the multiplicative decrease part. This is called long-term depression (nothing to do with clinical depression).

5. The “bouba-kiki”effect: words sound sharp or soft on a subconscious level

From Psychological Science

The “bouba-kiki” effect, originally reported over 85 years ago and replicated many times since, shows that people consistently pair the soft-sounding nonsense word “bouba” with soft-looking, round shapes and they typically pair the sharp-sounding nonsense word “kiki” with spiky-looking, angular shapes.One may argue this is good old onomatopoeia, however, the researchers did a series of curious visual experiments showing people the nonsense word in a congruent (bouba-circle) or non-congruent (bouba-angular) shape. The images were shown in one eye, while the other eye was shown flashy distracting images. The congruent pair was noticed first, indicating that participants perceived and processed the relationship between word and shape before they were consciously aware of the stimuli.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Top 5 music apps for mindful focus

There are a lot of apps that try to leverage mindfulness, music and nature sounds so as to improve focus, productivity, help with healthy sleep as well as alleviate anxiety and help to overcome depression. Here are my picks:

1. brain.fm

Brain.fm is music designed for the brain to enhance focus, relaxation, meditation, naps and sleep within 10 – 15 minutes of use.

I am a big fan of house music. Brain.fm is kind of like house music without the bass drops.

In my experience, brain.fm does help to focus.

I wouldn’t call it pleasant – and it has given me a headache once or twice. The music isn’t composed by a human, instead an AI engine does the creative work. An interesting and scary thought.

Artificial intelligence is an expectedly dystopian composer. Listening to it, I get visions of abandoned Soviet steel factories at twilight – potentially infested with zombies. It does help with focus though!

Perhaps this sort of music makes the thing you’re meant to be focusing on more attractive – and that’s the real reason it helps to focus! I am sure the guys at brain.fm will figure out how to cheer that algorithm up with time.

Their research isn’t very useful at present as there is conflict of interest. All the same, they were able to show  some promising results:

best music for mindfulness meditation

In short, brain.fm claims that brains like rhythmic things, attention is rhythmic and they try to align this so as to increase focus.

Here is some background neuroscience.

The dynamic attending theory is the idea is that attention is modulated dynamically to optimise sensory processing at expected intervals set by a rhythm.

Many natural stimuli and actions are rhythmically organised, such as speech, walking – and music. The brain is able to predict the occurrence of subsequent events of interest and optimise their processing. When a rhythm is present in the environment, neuronal oscillations can synchronise to this external rhythmic stream. Again, no real conclusive research is currently available to back up their findings, but here is what they’ve been able to show:

best music for mindfulness and focus

The science part is a work in progress, but it looks good at the moment. Brain.fm is available as an app or you can try it for free on the website, however, you do have to give your email address.

2. Pause

Pause claims to pause the active mind and lower the mental workload, release stress and regain focus. It is inspired by the practice of Tai Chi, and it is all about the here and now.

You need keep moving your finger on the screen following a little circle in a lava lamp-like environment – and it provides feedback. If you’re good at following the circle, it tells you “Good”, “Continue at a slow pace”, etc. There are different difficulty levels. It also plays soothing sounds. The sounds aren’t dystopian, rather they are futuristic.

If you’ve seen the film Her, about a guy who fell love with an operating system (a very fancy Siri), it’s kind of like that – pleasant, full of light, but also a bit eery.

There are birds singing in the background. It is relaxing for sure, but it’s also kind of.. lonely or something. If you enjoy futuristic things, it’s for you. It’s 1.99 to get on the AppStore.

best mindfulness music apps

3. White Noise

White Noise is free and a pretty unassuming useful app. It’s recordings of things like the Amazon jungle, a fireplace, rain, thunder… It does exactly what it says on the tin and does it well. I know it’s not technically music, but it serves a similar purpose.

Pro tip: there are few things as calming as the sound of a fireplace. We’ve been conditioned for millennia to feel safe and connected while hearing that sound.

Another pro tip: the sound of barking induces anxiety. Again, conditioning plays its role.

Having said that, Calm does it all too and much much more. You may want to read about the best guided meditations for beginners to find out more.

4. Get work done music

Get work done music is a little indie gem of a page (you have to open it in a browser, it’s not an app per se). Again, it is missing the veneer of the apps listed at the top. It is basically a set of curated electronic dance music tracks from Soundcloud. I thought Spotify was great, but whoever chooses these tracks really knows what it takes to focus – or get into a full on trance. I would especially recommend this to anyone who likes mindful exercise.

Running, spinning or HIIT to this is a completely different experience to your normal playlist. This little app will fill you with energy better than any amount of caffeine. Unadulterated bass drops ahead.

5. Focus.fm

Focus.fm tells us it is beats for work, productivity, flow. In reality, it is sweet old house, gentle EDM with mellow bass and generally pleasant vibes.

Some tracks are painfully 1990s. I can just see a girl in a glittery tank top and platforms.

best music apps for mindfulness

It is beautifully simple, it doesn’t make any scientific claims. It didn’t really help me focus as such, but it’s a nice blast from the past.

6. The piano

OK, I know this is cheating, but really, none of these beat Frederick Chopin.

Have a mindful Monday all 😉

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