Is listening to music good for creativity?

We put a sample of the latest neuroscience news under the microscope...
20 March 2019

Interview with 

Helen Keyes, Anglia Ruskin University; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University


Brain schematic


Joining Katie Haylor to digest the latest neuroscience news were Anglia Ruskin's perceptual psychologist Helen Keyes and Cambridge University's cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle. First up, Helen looked into why listening to music whilst trying to get creative might not be the best idea...

Helen - These authors were interested in looking at whether background music would enhance creativity, perhaps because it would increase your mood, or perhaps because it would engage some sort of abstract thinking. Alternatively, they wondered whether the presence of any sort of distraction in the background would just disrupt your cognitive task performance and impair your creativity.

So in order to test this they run three separate experiments. Firstly they played people music that had foreign lyrics so for example English participants would listen to Spanish music, so there was no semantic interference here, the participants didn't understand the meaning of the words. And they gave participants a task - it was a word association task that’s used widely to measure your creativity. So for example, if you were given the words dress, dial, and flower you would have to come with the associated word which is sun - sundress, sundial, and sunflower, so this is considered to be an insight-based process, it's a creative process.

So in this first condition where people were listening to music with foreign lyrics, no meaning interference here, no semantic interference, people performed far better on this word association creativity task in the silent condition, compared to the music condition.

So then the authors went on to say well maybe it's the presence of a voice that's causing this disruption so they tried participants just with instrumental music in the background and, unfortunately, they found again that the presence of instrumental music impaired people's creativity, they performed worse on this insight-based creativity task.

The last experiment they ran then they looked at music that increase people's mood, so happy pop music and they measured that it did actually increase people's mood, to test the idea that music increases your engagement with a task because it increases your mood. And again, unfortunately, they found that playing the music impaired people's creativity yet again.

Katie - Is there a gradient of distraction? Is music without lyrics less distracting than music with?

Helen - They didn't do a direct comparison, but certainly their data would suggest that. But what's even more interesting is they ran a little extra study at the end looking at whether it was just noise itself that's causing the problem. And here they compared library background noise, which would be considered steady state noise, things aren't changing, it's very constant. They compared that with silence and with a music condition; music would be considered a changing state noise and they found that it was actually the music itself, the fact that it was a changing state noise that was causing the impairment to creativity, so the library noise didn't impair creativity at all.

Katie - It's kind of obvious what you would take from this study right? If you are planning to be creative you might want to turn off the headphones?

Helen - Well yeah. There's a slight caveat to this study so they only tested creativity using a very verbal task, or maybe a sub verbal task where you’d be rehearsing words, looking for words in your head. So it is possible that background music could enhance creativity for a more spatial based task, for example drawing. We don't know. There is some evidence to suggest that that might be the case so that could be helpful for some people, but in terms of studying a flat no, absolutely not, you should not be listening to any background music - it won't help.

Katie - Do you know anything about the people they tested this on? I'm just wondering how much individual variation there is, because I have some friends who swore by music through revising and some who didn't.

Helen - Yeah. Those friends were just wrong, I'm afraid!


Duncan Astle looked at a study addressing whether working memory is influenced by the emotional material that we might come across everyday...

Duncan - So working memory is the ability to hold in mind and manipulate small amounts of information for brief periods of time. So, for example, if I gave you directions to the fish and chip shop you would hold those in mind whilst you navigate the way to the fish and chip shop. Now along the way you might have a slightly traumatic event, you might meet someone for instance whose very angry. That’s an emotional encounter and they were interested in whether that kind of emotional material can influence or impact upon your everyday cognition, in this case, working memory.

So to do that they used a meta-analysis -  that's a way of pooling across lots of different studies to get a very large sum plus size. In almost 5000 individuals the authors were able to show in healthy individuals, emotional material has a relatively small impact on working memory. Small but it's detectable when you put a sample of 5000 people.

Katie - What did they mean by emotional material? Were they looking at angry people in the street?

Duncan - Not in the street but they were in the majority of studies looking at angry faces. Faces are a really good way of experimental psychologists presenting ecologically valid emotional materials, so you can present different emotions versus a neutral face.

Importantly, in almost 700 of these people they also had neuroimaging data, and they found that brain areas like the prefrontal cortex, which is often involved in working memory maintenance and the amygdala which is often involved in emotional processing, activity in these areas was modulated during the working memory tasks by whether or not there was emotional stimuli present.

They also had data from just over 2000 individuals who had a history of mental health difficulties, and they found that in those individuals there was a significantly bigger impact of the emotional material on their working memory performance.

Katie -  Is this what you would expect?

Duncan - I don't know whether it is or isn't what you would expect. The interpretation that the authors give is that this might be what they call a trans-diagnostic symptom, so that's a kind of jargony term for a general symptom that might be common to lots of different mental health conditions. So if you are, for example, more susceptible to emotional material that you encounter during the day, then that might make you more vulnerable to mental health difficulty in the long run.

Now maybe that is or isn't what you would expect, but it's interesting that it might be trans-diagnostic, that it might span multiple different disorder categories. That's because if you want to try and develop an intervention, if you can target a trans-diagnostic symptom that is more likely to yield widespread benefits for lots of people.

Katie - Do the authors determine which way round the relationship goes? Is it the emotional disturbance having an effect on the memory or is it the memory that could be predisposing people?

Duncan - The data suggests that it's the emotional material that impacting upon the memory. But an interesting twist to that question is to think which comes first? Is it that people who are more prone to emotional material being presented to them are more likely to go on to develop mental health difficulties or is it something about experiencing a mental health difficulty that makes you more susceptible to the emotional material?

Now the authors seem to think that it's the first of those, that it's a symptom that can give rise to subsequent difficulties because these symptoms tend to present prior to episodes. But the direction of that relationship is difficult to disentangle.

Katie - So this is working memory, relatively short-term right? If I was to remember the directions to the fish and chip shop. Is there anything to suggest that mental health difficulties can impair long-term memory?

Duncan - There's good evidence that people who have experienced mental health difficulties, it’s not that their long-term memory is worse but it's biased. So it's biased towards more negative experiences and it tends to be less flexible. So if you think about the kind of generation task that Helen used earlier, where people have to generate the word that might fill the gap, you  can use something similar to ask them to generate memories when you give them a cue word. And you find that people who have experienced mental health conditions, for example depression, they tend to be more biased towards negative emotions and they tend to be less flexible about switching between different memories. So we think that there can be some strong relationships between long-term memories and mental-health difficulty.

Katie - Helen...

Helen - The study found out emotional material impacts on working memory. Is it any type of emotional material so could it be inducement of positive emotions or sadness or any type of emotion, or is it specifically threat emotions that intrude?

Duncan - In this study, they just classified them as negative and positive affective emotions. You're asking a really great question which is does the type of emotion, it is important? Now one of the constraints of studying it in the lab is that you have to kind of simplify things and stick to these emotional faces.

Now when you look at more real-life reports you can see that it may be that there is some more selective relationship between the type of emotion, say for example threat, that might be linked to something more like anxiety versus something more like sadness related emotions that may be linked to something more like depression. So there may be some more specificity if you start to dig down, but it's hard to tease those things apart in the laboratory.


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