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Struggling to Reconcile Conflicting Beliefs? Listen to Some Mozart

Why is music such a constant in human history? Perhaps because it helps us build the emotional maturity we need to advance intellectually.
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Countless claims have been made regarding the music of Mozart. Studies have suggested it can relieve depression, decrease pain, and even spark an increase in certain types of intelligence. One recent paper found it even increased heart transplant survival in mice.

Two researchers have identified another benefit. They provide preliminary evidence that listening to Mozart can help us cope with cognitive dissonance—that intense feeling of discomfort that arises when we realize two of our core beliefs are at odds.

The ability to recognize and accept the unpleasant reality that our convictions sometimes conflict is a key sign of emotional maturity. Without it, our instinct is to devalue, or refuse to believe, the information that makes us uncomfortable.

One example: If climate change requires collective action, and your instinct is to prize individual liberty, you can quell any cognitive dissonance by simply refusing to believe global warming is real.

In the journal Scientific Reports, Nobuo Masataka of Japan’s Kyoto University and Leonid Perlovsky of Harvard University report the sounds of Mozart may help short-circuit that sort of self-deception.

Masataka and Perlovsky begin by recounting an Aesop’s fable that provides a fine definition of cognitive dissonance. “When a fox sees high-hanging grapes, his desire to eat grapes and inability to reach them are in conflict,” they write. “The fox overcomes this cognitive dissonance by deciding that the grapes are sour and not worth eating.”

Their experiment uses a similar scenario to identify cognitive dissonance in children. It featured 75 Japanese 4-year-old boys. After they were broken up into three groups of 25, each child was given 10 “miniature cartoon monster figures” to play with.

Each boy first played a game in which he ranked the figures from his favorite to least favorite. After 10 minutes of solo play time, the experimenter told him he had to leave for a short time to do an errand. While he was gone, the child could play with any toy except for the one he ranked as second best.

“According to previous research, this was expected to create cognitive dissonance, and eventually to result in (the children) devaluing the second-ranked toy,” the researchers write. “Exactly this result was observed; when the experimenter returned and played the ‘ranking game’ again, the toy previously ranked as second was devalued to near bottom rank.”

In other words, the the fact he was forbidden to play with his second favorite toy caused emotional upset, which he calmed by convincing himself he didn’t like it that much after all.

Two additional groups of children engaged in this same experiment, with one key difference: While playing alone with the toys for 10 minutes, Mozart’s music could be heard in the background (a piano sonata in one experiment, a piano concerto in another).

These children “did not devalue the ‘forbidden’ toy,” the researchers report. To the contrary, 15 of the 25 boys in each group actually increased their evaluation of the toy they couldn’t play with. “This indicates that music has enabled the children to reconcile the cognitive dissonance,” Masataka and Perlovsky conclude.

Precisely how the music inspired greater maturity—if that’s indeed what occurred—is unclear. But the researchers persuasively argue that taking “even a first step toward identifying a mechanism for tolerating cognitive dissonance is fundamentally important.”

The findings provide evidence supporting their overarching thesis: that music has played a key role in our evolutionary history, enhancing our emotional intelligence even as the refinement of language has strengthened our reasoning ability.

In their view, music helps us develop the emotional intelligence to honestly confront conflicting beliefs, without which true intellectual advancement is impossible.

While it’s possible that many types of music could produce this same effect, there’s a certain poetry that the researchers chose Mozart. Mozart’s music can be defined as “the play of opposites,” in the words of American composer William Bolcom; it’s simultaneously highbrow and popular, notable for both its profound depth and surface charm.

Mozart didn't just acknowledge his conflicting influences and impulses; he integrated them, creating the sweetest form of harmony.