Stuck for An Idea? Try Listening to Some Happy Music.

A study finds that happen music enhances divergent thinking, and thus, creativity.


Creative thinking has long fascinated us. In the Middle Ages, creativity was believed to have a divine source, appearing only in people with an open line of communication with God. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that creatives were given credit for their work. Modern studies have shown that this kind of thinking is simply something the normal human mind is capable of, though there are some studies that suggests that we’re actually becoming less creative than we used to be. In any event, everybody seems to want to enhance creative thinking, and the psychologists behind the new study were interested in seeing what role music could play since there’s been a fair amount of research into music’s impact on the brain. 

A study just published in PLOS One suggests that happy music can be the key that unlocks divergent thinking, the kind of thinking that results in creative solutions and ideas. Psychologists studied 155 people in their late teens and 20s and found a clear correlation between how they thought and what they were listening to.

For the new study, Simone Ritter from Radboud University in Nijmegen and Sam Ferguson at the University of Technology in Sydney assessed their subjects for two types of thinking:

  • Convergent thinking — This type of thinking, as its name suggests, involves putting together a set of choices to assess their relative value and select the best option. It’s a way of concentrating on something where you already have the information you need and simply need to arrive at the best conclusion.
  • Divergent thinking — This type of thinking goes wide in search of new possibilities. The mind opens up, or diverges, from the basic task, free to dream up completely new ideas or develop a fresh synthesis of, or angle on, existing ones.
  • To demonstrate why we’d want to enhance divergent thinking, the study’s authors cite an example: The problem not having enough resources to repair high-tech incubators in developing countries with high neonatal death rates. Convergent thinking, or digging deeper, might involve improving the technology to make the incubators more reliable, or train more local people to repair them. Divergent thinking might lead to the designing of new incubators based on car parts with which locals are already familiar.

    The researchers had their subjects attempt to solve a series of puzzles that required one of the two types of thinking to solve.

    The Puzzles

    There were three types of tests for convergent thinking:

  • Idea selection task — in which subjects were asked to select the three most creative objects from 10 kitchen inventions they were shown.
  • Remote associates task — in which subjects were asked ten times to come up with a fourth word after hearing a seemingly unrelated three-word combination.
  • Creative insight task — in which participants were presented with two physical puzzles. The first posed the “two-string” problem in which two strings hanging from the ceiling need to be tied together, even though they’re spaced too far apart to be grabbed at the same time. (The solution is to swing one like a pendulum to bring its end closer to the other.). The other was the “Duncker candle problem,” in which a candle must be stuck to a wall and lit without dripping wax on the floor using only matches and box of thumbtacks. (Tack the box to the wall, put the candle in the box, and light it with a match.)
  • For divergent thinking, subjects were given an Alternate Uses Task that instructed them to find many uses as they could for a common household brick.

    The Music

    As subjects worked, pieces of classical music were played in the background. Each was selected for its emotional effect as determined by previous study.

    (RITTER/FERGUSON)

    The Findings

    First off, none of the music had any discernible effect on the performance of convergent tasks. Divergent thinking, though, was another story altogether.

    Using a an Overall Divergent Thinking scale (ODT), where high scores are better, subjects listening to happy music had a rating of 93.87. Working in silence? A paltry ODT rating of 76. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the win.

    (RITTER/FERGUSON)

    The research didn’t get into why this happens, though its authors suggest that divergent thinking may provide the only way out of a sticky problem, “When getting stuck in a rut, it can be helpful to, instead of digging deeper, dig elsewhere.”

    Related Articles

    Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

    It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

    From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
    Surprising Science
    • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
    • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
    • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
    Keep reading Show less

    Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

    Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

    Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
    Surprising Science
    • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
    • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
    • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

    Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

    Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

    The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

    Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

    Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

    The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

    While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

    One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

    "A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

    Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

    The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

    Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


    How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

    Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

    Image: NASA
    Surprising Science
    • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
    • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
    • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

    The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

    To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

    In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

    An "unthinkable" engineering project

    "If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

    One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

    The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

    Source: Wolovick et al.

    An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

    But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

    Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

    "There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

    "The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

    A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

    "As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."