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Re: : GG: The Solitude Trilogy
I'm sorry I just didn't have the time to write an answer last week, when
the topic was hot.
In fact, the positive effect of additional sources of stimulation on the
performance of many tasks has been thoroughly studied since World War II by
experimental psychologists (the minority of crazy chaps who prefer to
seclude in dark laboratories doing research, instead of making money by
pretending to listen to their patient's problems!).
It appears that external "noise", especially if not too structured - the
vacuum cleaner is a perfect example, but most canned music would also do -
and well-known (that is, foreseable), has the power to enhance arousal,
facilitating the performance of tasks requiring an high level of
attention. The effect is presumably due to a generalized increase of the
arousal level of the brain areas involved.
This positive effect has however some well-known limitations:
first, the level of the intervening stimulation must not be excessive,
otherwise a disruption of attention would occurr;
second, the kind of information brought in by the intervening message
should not interfere with the main occupation(that's the reason why
listening to opera while writing can be disruptive - that is, if one
understands the language! Most consumer music doesn't qualify in this
respect, since the meaning of the verbal message is usually very low).
This is the reason why one cannot listen to a book on tape while writing an
essay, nor probably listen to music while composing;
third, the intervening message should not be too interesting to the
listener, that is, it should not attract too much attention.
In a sense, the stronger effect is therefore produced by "meaningless"
intervening stimulation, for example the kind of background noise one is
exposed to in a café or snack-bar - how Gouldian!! - or while listening to
most radio programs (especially if the tuning is not very stable).
However, a strong stimulating effect can also be demonstrated when certain
intellectually exacting tasks are performed while listening, for example,
to complex and interesting music. This is the common experience of many of
us: listening to Bach's music can greatly enhance our efficiency in
performing complex tasks, such for example writing a paper. But, for this
to happen, it is usually important that we already know the particular
music we are listening to, that in a sense the music is "expected": the
Second Viennese School is certainly not suitable, at least for most of us!
This is the reason why some other contributors to the list wrote that they
find useful to keep the same CD running on and on - I do it myself. In
fact, to avoid being distracted instead of stimulated, one has to be very
careful in the choice of the music and of it's level.
It should however be strongly pointed out that, strictly speaking, in
these situations we are not "listening" to music, but merely using it.
Finally, particular music pieces can have a strong emotional effect (often
related to personal experiences, and therefore based on individual biases),
thus facilitating the performance of tasks necessitating a specific mood.
To Anne Marble it is Brahms, to me, depending on the situation, Strauss
"Vier Letze Lieder", of Beethoven's Bagatelle op. 126, or finally most of
Bach's solo music for harpsichord/piano, violin or cello.
Hope I've not been too pedantically academic!
Marco D. Poli
Istituto di Psicologia
Facolta' di Medicina
Universita' di Milano
via T. Pini 1
20134 Milano, ITALY
phone: + 39 02 21210200
fax: + 39 02 26413376