Normally within the first few minutes of meeting someone, the question arises: What do you do for work?
When I reply that I spend my days doing psychology research, the reactions are priceless.
The funniest response is a worried look.
I also get people asking if they are currently in an experiment (which of course is one of those questions that can’t be answered in a convincing way).
I’m also pretty familiar with a blank stare, or a confused and expectant pause, as people wait to hear an explanation.
So I continue by saying that I do research to help a brilliant musician compose music that’s based on scientifically tested principles.
Our music is composed in a very specific way, so that it can help people alter their own nervous system and improve their psychological well-being.
This idea of “functional music” — music with a purpose beyond entertainment — still seems vague to most people.
So I give examples.
This last week, I found an example that I think is really interesting, and hopefully you’ll find it elucidating.
As you might expect, airline companies are really interested in the idea of having music on airplanes that’s specifically designed to help people relax and sleep.
When I heard about our team at Pzizz meeting with airline executives, I knew this was a match made in… the sky.
I decided to do some digging, to see if there was anything else I could add to our presentation.
I say ‘anything else’ because we already know that music helps people sleep and relax. And we know that that Pzizz does this better then other relaxation soundtracks.
So I started by looking into the psychological research on the experience of flying.
As you might expect, one of the major barriers to a good flight experience is the fear of flying.
It turns out, fear of flying is a big enough problem that it has been studied thoroughly.
It’s considered a phobia, the same way fear of snakes is a phobia. Both flying and snakes are potentially dangerous, but in reality they are very low level threats when you compare them to activities we do every day, like driving.
So why is there so much more anxiety around flying than driving?
One reason is habituation, meaning people are just more used to driving (I’ll get to the other reason soon).
Phobias are often treated with progressive desensitization therapy.
This means a phobic person is gradually exposed to the thing they are afraid of over time. Each time they habituate (get used to) the level of exposure, the exposure is increased.
Have you spotted the practical problem?
In order to do progressive desensitization with someone who is afraid of flying, you would need to repeatedly expose them to flight.
For most people though, taking a plane flight every day isn’t exactly an affordable, realistic option (especially if you’re already having to pay a clinical psychologist…).
So how do psychologists solve this problem?
That’s right, by simulating the flight situation.
Virtual reality is convincing enough that if you put someone who is afraid of flying into a simulated airplane flight, they begin to panic.
By progressively exposing someone to simulated flight, a psychologist can drastically reduce their clients anxiety-response to flying (1).
Okay… so why are we talking about virtual reality and phobias? The answer is coming, I promise.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a single piece of research testing music as a treatment for flight anxiety, so I decided to keep digging.
Like most psychologists, I wanted to understand the causes of the problem.
So I went back to looking at why people are afraid of flying.
The obvious answer is that flying is scary because it’s dangerous to be that high in the sky.
The immediate and obvious answer is, as is so often true, only partially correct.
It’s commonly known that flying is one of the safest ways to travel long distances.
So why do people feel so nervous when they get on planes?
Strange as it may seem, we did not evolve to assess risk based on the statistical probability of injury.
This is why we can be terrified of something that is not dangerous but not afraid while barreling down the highway in a metal box at about 55 mph faster than the speed at which we evolved to move.
We didn’t evolve to fear moving at fast speeds, because that was not a serious risk during our time as primates and hunter gatherers.
So what did we learn to fear?
Most people have an instinctual (evolved) fear of heights.
This can be seen very early in childhood, when babies refuse to crawl onto a perfectly stable surface if that surface happens to be glass suspended high above the ground.
What’s more, learning does not seem to fully explain the fear of flying. What this means is that even people with no negative associations specific to flying (no bad flying experiences), can still be debilitatingly afraid of getting on a plane. These same people will feel tremendous relief when they exit the plane and get right into a cab which is sure to be far more dangerous.
So the fear of flying is most likely not completely learned, but is rather based on more instinctual fears.
Some psychologists believe that the fear of flying is actually an amalgamation of other fears, like this fear of heights, which is evidenced by the strong association between these two fears (2).
Mid-point summary: So far we know that the fear of flying is a problem, that it can be functionally simulated in virtual reality, that it can be treated over time, and that the fear is not based on rational assessment of risk, but rather on associated fears that are deeply ingrained in us, like the fear of heights.
So I began to look for research on treating the fear of heights.
I was in for a delightful surprise.
Researcher’s put people in a virtual environment that simulated the experience of standing on a platform that was gradually rising until the person felt they were standing at a great height.
Half of the people tested listened to relaxing music, and these people said afterward that they felt much less anxious during the ordeal.
Boom! I found a study showing that music helps with the fear of heights, and since the fear of heights is a big part of the fear of flying, I knew that this would be interesting to help people ease their phobia.
So what was special about this study on the relaxing effects of music on virtual reality based height anxiety?
Well, this study did not limit itself to only one form of futuristic technology.
Besides the VR goggles, the researcher’s also used software that designs music based on specific inputs. This tailor made music was the very same piece that they tested and found to have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.
An important note:
Every time I find a study that successfully used music to change somes physiological or psychological state for the better, I try to learn everything I can about that piece of music.
Now this is actually much more challenging then you might think.
Psychologist rarely are also trained music theorists. So when studying music, they tend to just use music that other scientists have used in the past, or to take a wild guess at which music might work best, or they let the participants chose.
This is called poor operationalization.
What that means is, psychologists are not doing a good job of functionally defining the types of music they are using.
Now this isn’t completely true, over the past few years I’ve managed to find some very useful information about why pieces of music, or specific elements of music, have certain effects (to which we’ve applied to our own music with great success).
Okay, back to the study.
So where did the researcher’s get these specific parameters for the music?
Well as I mentioned, previous researchers haven’t done a great job of specifying the kind of music they want to use. Instead, many studies on the relaxing effects of music have simply used the same piece of music again and again.
This piece of music is Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. Now there is a problem with using this song, which is that it can also be perceived as sad or melancholy.
So the researcher decided to describe this piece of music in terms of its structural elements, and then input these parameters into music making software.
Also included were several parameters from another study, in which researcher’s played a wide variety of songs to participants who were asked to judge whether the music was relaxing. Then the researcher’s played the most relaxing pieces to music students who analyzed the structure of the songs, looking for similarities. Again however, the information from this study is pretty vague.
Luckily, the scientists studying music’s effect on anxiety in virtual reality height exposure knew exactly how to operationalize, so included within their study was a very specific list of the structural guidelines they inputted into their music making program.
The point of operationalization is to allow other scientists to reproduce the results.
The definitions in a study should be so precise and clear, that anyone with enough skill and training can create the same situation (which in this case was a piece of music) and test the results for themselves.
This is great for us, because reproducing the anxiolytic effect is exactly what we want.
The guidelines were very technical, and only fully understandable to someone who know a thing or two about music theory, so I’ll just give a general description.
The tones were generally low, because this was a pattern in music that was consistently found to be relaxing.
The bpm (beats per minute) was set at fifty. This tempo was chosen because it has been shown that you can entrain heart rate to music. This means that your heart rate responds to rhythms, and can even match rhythms.
A slower rhythm can cause a slower heart rate. Slower heart rate is of course associated with relaxation. A bpm of fifty is lower than most people’s heart rates (with the exception of endurance athlete).
The instruments, percussion, accent, complexity, tonality, and the structure of the musical phrases were all specifically chosen to avoid excitement, agitation, and distraction.
Most of this was familiar to me, since I read the studies that were the basis for these parameters.
So I was thrilled to see that the parameters include guidelines for the way the melody should progress.
This was new and useful information.
Basically the structure of melody, and the harmonies used, were designed so that the song almost repeats but never quite does so. Thus, it was familiar and never too distracting, but also never repetitive or predictable.
There is actually a way of writing out this structure, and reliably producing music that is comforting and yet never boring.
As you can imagine, it’s hard enough to produce beautiful music, and harder still to produce beautiful and relaxing music, and very, very difficult to produce beautiful, relaxing music that meets specific criteria.
This is a serious challenge for any composer.
And yet, after a few months of experimenting in the studio, our Director of Music and Sound Design prevailed, and was able to make an incredibly soothing piece of music based on these tested rules (named “Waterfalling”).
It’s easy to play computer generated music to participants who are being paid to listen to it. It’s a whole other thing to create music that is scientifically based and yet is still something that a person would voluntarily play and actually enjoy.
Want to experience it yourself? Download Pzizz and try the dreamscape “Waterfalling.”
I hope this has given you a sense of how I spend some of my days, and how digging through obscure and strange pieces of scientific literature can lead to the discovery of very valuable and useful information.
In this case we discovered that a major cause of the fear of flying is actually a fear of heights, and that it can be treated using virtual reality simulations.
We also found that music can help reduce anxiety during these treatment sessions. This was not too surprising, since music has been shown to help reduce stress in almost every situation and with almost every population.
When we investigated how the scientists designed this anti-anxiety music, we found that they had created a specific set of criteria for creating relaxing music.
We then applied these criteria to our production process, and came up with a piece of music that really does appear to help people relax.