Why does music impact us so deeply? There's never been a real answer. But Leonid Perlovsky, a research physicist and investigator of human cognitive functioning, has a new theory—music helps our brains integrate distasteful contradictions.
According to Perlovsky, writing at The Conversation, music’s effect on the brain is connected to the theory of cognitive dissonance. “Cognitive dissonance is the idea that people experience unpleasant feelings when they either possess contradictory knowledge, or are confronted with new information that opposes existing beliefs,” he writes. Say you think you’re a great cook, but you catch your friends secretly spitting their dinner into their napkins. That shock and emotional pain you feel—that’s cognitive dissonance.
In order to deal with the feelings that emerge from contradictory knowledge, we tend to alter our beliefs or feelings on the troubling subject. So perhaps, as you clear the still-full plates from the table, you tell yourself that you really can cook but your friends probably wouldn’t know a good paella if it hit them in the mouth.
Yet, as Perlovsky points out, one “manifestation of cognitive dissonance is the rejection of new knowledge.” So, “if people are willing to deceive themselves or ignore new information, how has human culture evolved?” Music may play a big part, he theorizes.
Perlovsky’s research, he asserts, shows how music can help us move beyond the experience of cognitive dissonance and hold on to even unhappy new information. He cites one study performed on four-year-old boys who each individually played with five Pokemon toys and then were asked to rank the figures based on personal preference. The experimenter then told each boy not to play with their second-favorite choice and left the room.
When she came back, the boys still wouldn’t play with that second-favorite toy. “When confronted with conflicting information (“I like this toy, but I shouldn’t play with it”), each boy apparently rejected his initial preference for it,” writes Perlovsky. But when the same experiment was performed, but this time with music playing in the experimenter’s absence, the “toy retained its original value. The contradictory knowledge didn’t lead the boys to simply discard the toy.”
“The idea is that music – which can convey an array of nuanced emotions – helps us reconcile our own conflicted emotions when making choices,” Perlovsky writes. And, he highlights, this is good for our entire species, since “the more diverse, differentiated emotions we possess, the more well-founded our decisions become.”