Need a creativity boost? Try listening to happy background music

First published in the New Scientist, 06.09.17

Need inspiration? Happy background music can help get the creative juices flowing.

Simone Ritter, at Radboud University in the Netherlands, and Sam Ferguson, at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have been studying the effect of silence and different types of music on how we think.

“People in lots of contexts use music to help them work,” says Ferguson. A better understanding of how different types of music affect creativity is likely to be useful for many people, he says.

They put 155 volunteers into five groups. Four of these were each given a type of music to listen to while undergoing a series of tests, while the fifth group did the tests in silence.

The tests were designed to gauge two types of thinking: divergent thinking, which describes the process of generating new ideas, and convergent thinking, which is how we find the best solutions for a problem.

Ritter and Ferguson found that people were more creative when listening to music they thought was positive, coming up with more unique ideas than the people who worked in silence.

“We also tested other musical excerpts that were sad, anxious and calm, and didn’t see this effect,” says Ferguson.  “It seems that the type of music present is important, rather than just any music.”

However, happy music – in this instance, Antonio Vivaldi’s Spring – only boosted divergent thinking. No type of music helped convergent thinking, suggesting that it’s better to solve problems in silence.

Dose of dopamine?

Ritter and Ferguson write that their findings could be used to enhance creative thinking in places like educational institutions or laboratories. They think that happy music may work because it is more stimulating, so boosts divergent thinking by arousing the brain.

But Irma Järvelä, at the University of Helsinki in Finland, says happy music may boost creativity by triggering the release of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in pleasure and satisfaction. “Dopamine also increases creative thinking and goal-directed working,” says Järvelä.

The researchers think happy music may not have helped convergent thinking because this kind of thinking relies more on logic and less on arousal. But the experiment was organised so that everyone did the divergent tests before the convergent tests, meaning it could simply be that Vivaldi’s piece has less of an effect the second time you hear it.

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

This article first appeared in New Scientist, 26.06.2017

Living near noisy roads could make it harder to get pregnant

Living near a noisy road seems to affect couples who are trying get pregnant, increasing the likelihood that it will take them between six to 12 months.

That’s according to an analysis of 65,000 women living in Denmark. Jeppe Schultz Christensen of the Danish Cancer Society Research Center in Copenhagen and his team made this discovery by analysing data from the Danish National Birth Cohort, a project that ran from 1996 to 2002. They selected women who had tried to get pregnant during the project if traffic noise data was available for where they lived.

Previous research has suggested that 80 per cent of women who are actively trying to get pregnant usually do so within six menstrual cycles. But Christensen’s team found that for every 10 decibels of extra traffic noise around a woman’s home, there was a 5 to 8 per cent increased chance of it taking six months or longer.

This link persisted even when factors like poverty levels and nitrogen oxide pollution were taken into account. However, their statistical analysis showed that this association did not hold for women who took more than 12 months – perhaps because these couples may have had other factors affecting their fertility. “Road traffic noise may affect reproductive health,” says Christensen.

Him or her?

It is unclear whether traffic noise may be affecting women or their partners. Previous research has found a link between sleep disturbance and decreased fertility in women, as well as lower quality of semen in men. A 2013 study showed that consistent exposure to aircraft traffic noise activates a system in the brain that is known to disrupt the rhythm of ovulation.

Rachel Smith of Imperial College London says the link between traffic noise and health is worrying. Because traffic noise is common, even a small effect on health could feasibly have a large impact across a population, she says.

Europe’s roads are getting noisier. In the UK alone, an extra 2 million cars hit the road between 2011 and 2015. Christensen says traffic noise and fertility need to be investigated further before drawing up any recommendations for couples hoping to get pregnant, but Smith suggests that anyone who is worried could try to choose bedrooms away from the road, and close windows at night.

Marie Pedersen at the University of Copenhagen says traffic issues should be tackled by society as a whole, through better town planning and alternative transport. “It is a matter for urban planners and politicians,” she says.

Journal reference: Environment International, DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.05.011

Read more: Dying for some quiet: The truth about noise pollution; Noise kills and blights lives in Europe

Eyes show that stress reduces climate concern

This article was first published on Climate News Network, 14.05.17.

LONDON, 14 May, 2017   People who are stressed pay less attention to climate change images and struggle to be receptive to messages about its impact, a study has found.

Researchers from Switzerland used eye tracking to measure how much attention a group of test subjects paid to images illustrating climate change. The goal of the study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, was to find out how everyday stress affects the attention that people pay to global warming, even when generally they  have a pro-environment stance.

“The results of our study suggest that individuals might be more receptive if they are in a relaxed and unpreoccupied state,” says Silja Sollberger, a researcher at the University of Zurich’s department of psychology.

Based on their answers to a questionnaire, 71 men were split into two groups with either high or low environmental interest. They were then randomly put into stressful or control conditions and shown images related to climate change, alongside other negative images.

Eye movements

By measuring the eye movements of the test subjects, the scientists, from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, found that all the men, regardless of their environmental stance, paid less attention to negative imagery when stressed. This was true even for those men who were interested in climate change and considered themselves pro-environment.

The behaviour of the test subjects suggests that governments and non-profit organisations running climate change awareness campaigns should think carefully about where and when they broadcast their message.

“It might be more successful to place climate change posters in recreational places rather than targeting commuters at a busy train station”

“Climate campaigns might benefit from considering the mental state of target individuals at the time they are being approached,” says Sollberger.

“For example, it might be more successful to place climate change posters or to ask people for donations in recreational places – like parks, zoos and cinemas – and on weekends, rather than targeting commuters at a busy train station or employees during their lunch break.”

Climate change education

These findings are important, as budgets to raise awareness of climate change and educate people about its consequences are notoriously low.

Unesco, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, has just $2 million a year to spend on climate change education, while the EU has a €63 million budget for climate action between 2014 and 2020. This compares with around $115 million a year spent by the fossil fuel industry on lobbying against climate change initiatives.

In their paper, the researchers admit that their selection of participant groups had an unintentional consequence. Men assigned to the unstressful conditions had on average higher incomes than those who were assigned to the stressed group. They wrote that low incomes contribute to chronic stress, which might exacerbate the effects of artificial stress placed on the candidates.

However, the researchers explain that the effects of stress on climate change interest observed in the study apply only to individuals. They say it is not possible to draw conclusions from their work about climate change attention in societies plagued by stress factors such as war or poverty.

Sollberger says that previous research has shown little difference between poor and rich countries in people’s attention to climate change. In fact, people living in poorer countries experience the impact of climate change much more strongly than those living elsewhere, which has a positive influence on their interest in the topic.

“Residents of poorer countries generally tend to be just as concerned about the environment, or more so, than residents of wealthier countries,” says Sollberger. – Climate News Network

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