'Disturbing' music may influence us to take fewer financial risks, Israeli researchers find

Want to make safer investments? Pay attention to the music playing in the background.

  • A recent study examined the different ways fast/arousing and slow/calming music affects the ways people make financial decisions.
  • The results show that people made safer investments while listening to fast/arousing music, a finding that might be explained by the fact that people tend to be more risk averse when their working memory becomes overloaded.
  • Although everyone experiences music differently, it's worth keeping in mind that subtle situational factors can influence the ways we make important decisions.

Listening to music can change the way you engage with everyday activities. Some research shows, for instance, that people drive faster and break more traffic laws while listening to fast, exciting music. Other studies suggest that listening to fast, loud classical music can reduce reading comprehension, while relaxing music often leads to better scores on intelligence tests.

But can background music affect how you make financial decisions? If so, which type of music do you think would lead you to make safer investments: upbeat electronic or slower, relaxing music?

A recent study explored these questions by examining how people invested fake coins while listening to low-tempo music, high-tempo music or no music at all. The results of the study, published in the preprint journal SSRN on January 30, show that:

  • People made safer investments while listening to fast-tempo, arousing music.
  • People made safer investments while listening to music they perceived as disturbing, as opposed to helpful.

For the study, researchers asked 63 participants to listen to a suite of instrumental songs from various genres, and to rate how calming or arousing they considered each genre and song. After tallying the responses, the researchers chose the two pieces of music that participants rated most calming or arousing: a Deadmau5 mix of electronic music, and a relaxation mix from a new-age musician named Karunesh.

The participants were split into two groups — each of which listened to either the Deadmau5 mix or the Karunesh mix — and asked to complete two financial investment scenarios. The first scenario was a lottery in which participants could choose to invest in a risk-free asset with a guaranteed return or a high-risk, high-reward asset. In the second scenario, participants had to choose how they'd diversify their funds between three assets, each of which offered a 50-50 chance of getting one of two rates of return:

  • Security A: [8 percent, 12 percent]
  • Security B: [4 percent, 24 percent]
  • Security C: [5 percent, 5 percent]

In both scenarios, people who listened to the fast-tempo Deadmau5 mix made safer financial decisions. Interestingly, people also made safer investments when they subjectively felt that the music "disturbed" them, as opposed to helped them.

Why? The researchers suggested this might be explained, in part, by past findings showing that fast-tempo music can overload our working memory, which has been shown to make us less likely to take risks.

Still, the researchers note their study was limited by several factors, including the fact that it was conducted in a group setting and participants weren't allowed to select their own background music. What's more, it's worth noting that past studies have found music tempo to have "no effect on risky gambling or amount of money gambled in virtual roulette," though the researchers suggest the present study examines different processes.

Of course, everyone perceives music differently and subjectively, and what may "disturb" one person might have entirely different effects on someone else. With that in mind, the new study doesn't necessarily suggest you should put on Deadmau5 when rearranging your stock portfolio, but rather that it's a good idea to be aware of how subtle factors like background music can have surprisingly profound effects on the way we make everyday decisions.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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