Why do we spend one quarter of our waking lives doing something that has zero survival value?


Are you musical?

If I asked you how many musicians there are in the world, what would be your answer? A million? Ten million? Fifty million? All good guesses, but none even come close. The answer is actually 7.5 billion. That's right, we're virtually all musical.

Not all rock gods or opera divas, perhaps, but most people find humming or whistling along to their favourite tune or singing Happy Birthday pretty effortless. In fact, fundamental musical skills such as pitch and rhythm perception, as well as the ability to synchronise with a beat, are effectively universal. Knowing this, one can even tap into these basic abilities by creating playlists built to enhance physical engagement with the music.

Music can be found in daily life and important social contexts in every known human culture that has ever existed, including the most isolated tribal groups in the farthest corners of the world. As Fredric Lieberman, co-author of Spirit Into Sound: The Magic of Music, puts it, "No human society, present or past, has lacked music. Music is therefore one of the very few human universals, which puts it on the same level as food and sex." Potent stuff, indeed!

The power of music to connect

One theory concerning the origin of music posits that it emerged as a way of connecting people. And by connecting with others, we derive a wealth of experiences critical to our health and life expectancy, such as happiness, joy, fun and reward. Not to mention more practical benefits, such as increased physical strength through synchronised action (rowing in time to a drum beat, for instance). Musical activity, whether we listen, play, dance or drum can thus be a powerful driver of social functions lying at the very heart of societal integration and cohesion.

In particular, musical activity is known to promote social connectivity by providing social contact, enhancing co-pathy, demanding coordination of action, requiring a high level of cooperation among individuals, and promoting social cohesion. This last point is especially interesting in light of recent research carried out at the University of Oxford, UK showing that simply listening to music can improve unconscious attitudes towards other cultures.

Empathy is key

In this study, participants listened to either Indian or West African popular music, then completed an Implicit Association Test which measured participants' implicit preference for Indian versus West African people. The researchers found that listeners with high trait empathy were more likely to display an implicit preference for the ethnic group to whose music they were exposed. As the authors note, "At a time of increasing nationalism and isolationism, the findings of our study provide encouraging evidence for music’s capacity to increase cultural understanding."

The fact that participants who had a more empathic personality were more susceptible to the effects of music on their attitudes, while those who scored lower in empathy were less affected, mirrors research showing that inducing empathy in people increases not only their desire to give to charity but also their actual charitable behaviour. In other words, increased levels of empathy, whether as the result of a general predisposition or a temporary manipulation, makes us care more about other people, and allows us to put ourselves in their shoes more easily. And what better way of creating a circular process than by increasing empathy by means of music-induced nostalgia, perhaps using streaming technology to more efficiently do so? Especially since we spend such an epic amount of our waking lives engaged with music in the first place. 

Music in our lives

Which brings us to the headline. Research suggests that the average person will spend around 15% of their entire life listening to music, compared to just 0.5% having sex. To bring that into perspective even more clearly, we'll spend, on average, 25% of our waking hours engaged in an activity that has zero apparent survival value. At first glance, this may seem like comparing apples and oranges, since music listening and sex are rather different kinds of activities. Right? Wrong.

Listening to music in fact engages many of the same neurophysiological mechanisms as does sexual activity, most notably in terms of neurological reward. For example, both music and sex activate the brain's dopamine reward system, a reward mechanism that ensures we'll repeat a pleasurable activity over and over again. This is the same system that is activated by other highly-rewarding behaviours, such as eating and taking drugs.

This makes sense, of course, when it comes to sex and eating since they're both essential to our survival as a species. Yet this is not so clear when it comes to music listening. Despite its importance to many people, and the many positive effects it has on our personal health and social wellbeing, removing music from the human equation would not signal the demise of our species in the same way that abstaining from sex or food would. Yet everywhere we turn, there’s music. We can’t get enough of it. So, despite their similarities, how do sex and music differ that makes us engage in the latter 40-times more frequently than the former?

Music, a social phenomenon

Well, apart from the physiological limitations on frequency and duration of sexual activity (as well as certain social conventions!), perhaps the biggest difference is that while sex usually unites two people, music can unite entire nations. We as a species have a fundamental desire for social contact. In fact, so powerful is our need for social connection that removing it, for example through social isolation, can have serious consequences on our morbidity and mortality. Musical activity provides a vehicle for our social needs. Whether listening to music, creating it, or performing it, the shared experience helps us forge meaningful relationships with other individuals and (considerably) larger groups.

We all have a need to belong, to feel attached to a group. Social cohesion promotes confidence in reciprocal care, and increases confidence that opportunities for social connection will arise again in the future. What's more, belonging to a group can arouse so-called aesthetic emotions such as transcendence and spirituality, and can be experienced as something beautiful. And music is the perfect vehicle through which to accomplish these connections.

In light of this, perhaps music does have some survival value after all.

What do you think of this post? Let me know in the comments below :) If you're interested in learning more about the science of sound and music, you might enjoy The Experience Factor.

Geoff Luck7 Comments