Can Music Make Us Smarter and Help Us Heal Faster?

Music may put us in a better mood or help us relax, but how far does our mind’s connection to music go? Can it make us smarter or even help us heal faster after surgery?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #188

We have all likely used music to help us relax, to distract us, or even to help pump us up at the gym. But how far does our mind’s connection to music go? Can it make us smarter or even heal faster after surgery?

The Mozart Effect

Popular lore tells us to listen to Mozart to help focus while studying. According to the so-called Mozart Effect, listening to Requiem or Eine kleine Nachtmusik will improve your memory and increase your IQ. But is this advice backed by research?

In 1993, a study published in Nature by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky noted that those who listened to Mozart showed a larger improvement in their spatial reasoning skills compared to those who listened to relaxation instructions or silence. Although the improvement was only observed for fifteen minutes after hearing the music and it was only noted for tests of spatial reasoning, popular culture quickly exaggerated the results, touting a link between Mozart and an overall increase in IQ.

Our belief in the Mozart effect has inspired an entire market for books and videos, both for adults and for children. The governor of Georgia even mandated in 1998 that every child born in the state be given a CD with classical music. The response from the scientific research this initial result has inspired, however, has been less clearly positive.  

At best, follow up studies have been inconclusive. Some applying the same technique as the original study have not found the same positive correlation. Others, like one published in 2013 from Harvard, found no improvement in cognitive abilities for children at all. A few claim links to improvement in other cognitive abilities, like creative problem solving. Most that do confirm an improvement in spatial reasoning find the effect is linked to any music the listener enjoys, an effect called ‘enjoyment arousal’.

So, it may be less important what you are listening to, whether it be classical, country, rock, or punk, but more relevant that you actually like it. Research using PET scans, which can map which areas of the brain that are active during a certain activity or at a given time, may explain this link. A variety of studies have found the same locations in the brain triggered by activity related to musical interpretation and appreciation (including tone, pitch, rhythm, and melody) are also the regions tapped for approaching spatial tasks (like building shapes in a pattern). Thus, listening to music may prime the brain for taking on problems requiring spatial reasoning.

Almost all studies agree, however, that if the effect exists, it is at most a very short term benefit. So perhaps rushing out to get the Mozart box collection will not help, if long term IQ benefits are what you’re after.

The Healing Power of Music

In an attempt to further explore our complex relationship with music, British scientists from the University of London and Brunel University, performed a meta-analysis of all published randomized trials that investigated the link between music and recovery post-surgery (excluding those involving the central nervous system, head, and neck). Their resulting sample of nearly 7,000 patients found that those that listened to music during a surgical operation fared better afterward compared to those who had routine care, listened to white noise, were given headphones with no music, or were left undisturbed. Those provided with music were less anxious, had less pain, and required less medication, even if they were under general anesthetic during the operation.   

The results of the study further showed that the effect was only slightly stronger when the patient picked the music (perhaps another link between music and ‘enjoyment arousal’) or when the patient listened to music before the procedure as well as during. The researchers plan to conduct their next study at the Royal London Hospital and to focus on women having Caesarean sections.

Given the very inconclusive results (and thus almost near debunking) of the Mozart Effect, the link between music and post-surgical healing may be similarly complicated. Personally, I still look forward to more studies that attempt to figure it out. In the mean time, it certainly can’t hurt to listen to some tunes before you head into your next operation.

What songs would you pick? I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor? Another One Bites the Dust by Queen? Depending on how precise you want your surgeon to be, just make sure you don’t start tapping your feet.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Everyday Einstein. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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