Love of instrumental music is linked to intelligence, researchers say

From deejays to Debussy, it's all brain food.

Photo credit: LOIC VENANCE / AFP / Getty Images
  • A new study supports earlier suspicions of a link between intelligence and non-vocal music.
  • This may have to do with a taste for novel experiences way back on the savannah.
  • Purely instrumental music may simply be more fresh for brainiacs.

The Savanna‐IQ Interaction Hypothesis, based on the Savannah Principle, proposes that intelligent people are more likely to be attracted to novel stimuli than other individuals are. A 2011 study — "Why More Intelligent Individuals Like Classical Music," by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa — proposed that since music evolved from vocal sounds, purely instrumental music would, by comparison, be one such novel stimulus. Ergo, smarter people are more likely to enjoy instrumental music.

We may logically expand that category beyond Kanazawa's boundaries to encompass other, non-classical, but nonetheless purely instrumental forms of music, such as ambient/chill-out electronica, dance music, jazz, and so on. With that caveat, a study recently published in Evolutionary Behavioral Science, "Intelligence, Music Preferences, and Uses of Music From the Perspective of Evolutionary Psychology," adds fresh support for Kanazawa's take on musical taste.

Tuning up

"I first became interested in this topic while working on a project looking into the relationship between personality traits and musical preferences," says the study author, psychology and primate conservation student Elena Račevska of Oxford Brookes University, according to PsyPost. "We decided to further test his hypothesis using a different set of predictors — namely, a different type of intelligence test (i.e. a nonverbal measure), and the uses of music questionnaires."

Račevska gathered data from 467 Croatian high school students, measuring "a number of variables likely to have an effect in this relationship, such as taking part in extra-curricular music education, its type and duration."

The study confirmed Račevska's earlier insight: "We found intelligence to be a significant predictor of the preference for instrumental music." (Side note: Intelligent students were not likewise disproportionately drawn to singing.)

Račevska also found that the manner in which subjects used music, as well as its personality, affected their preference. Five such personality factors were identified: reflective, popular, conservative, intense, and sophisticated. Those who listened to music more cognitively — consciously analyzing its composition and performance — especially enjoyed instrumental music. They same people were also attracted to reflexive, intense, and sophisticated music.

Image source: PopTika / Shutterstock

What future research might explore

Račevska admits, "Intelligence is only one of the constructs connected to musical preferences, there are many others, such as personality traits, gender, age, degree of education, and family income." There's also the issue of complexity since, "complexity of vocalization is preferred by many species, which could mean that it is evolutionarily familiar."

"It would also be wonderful to conduct a longitudinal study of how musical preferences change throughout developmental stages of the human life," Račevska says, "and how they interact with numerous social and personal variables, such as societal pressures and peer relationships."

Finally, she notes, one's culture is likely to be an additional factor influencing musical preference, and "a cross-cultural study could examine and control for influences of culturally specific ways of experiencing music, and other music-related behaviors."

Image source: Marcela Laskoski / Unsplash

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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