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DUCKWORTH: I love this. We should get this produced. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.

DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: Is there any significant reason we should pay attention to our dreams? 

DUBNER: And then the cake turns out to be made of shards of glass. 

Also: what is the connection between music and memory?

DUBNER: “Conjunction Junction. What’s your function?”

DUCKWORTH: “Junction, that’s my function.”

DUBNER: “Hooking up words, and phrases, and clauses.” 

*      *      *

DUBNER: Angela, how much attention should I, or anyone, pay to their dreams? I know there’s a long literature in psychology about the meaningfulness of dreams and dream interpretation. But I’ve also read that the content of dreams is often overvalued — that the content itself can be essentially meaningless, and it’s a waste of time to interpret them, per se. So, where does the truth lie? 

DUCKWORTH: Dreams really do have this long and rich history in psychology — most notably beginning with Freud, of course, in his classic work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which he wrote just at the dawn of the 20th century. For Freud, dreams were a matter of wish fulfillment. This is a way that we play out our unconscious impulses. You know, we really want to have sex with our mother. And we can’t say that in polite society, and we can’t even consciously grapple with this unconscious impulse. But nevertheless, it’s there, and it comes out in our dreams. And that’s why psychoanalysts spent so much time talking to people about their dreams. 

DUBNER: Is there data on the share of, let’s say, men who have dreamed about having sex with their mothers? Because I have not. And honestly, that’s one thing that always made me suspicious whenever I read Freud on dreams. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Freud, Freud was obsessed with — you know, I should have had the Electra complex. So, I should have been hankering for my dad, and you should have been hankering for your mom. 

DUBNER: And I also needed to kill my father while having sex with my mother. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, he got a little carried away. 

DUBNER: And eating some birthday cake at the same time, or something.

DUCKWORTH: It’s as if he had watched one bad movie and then just extrapolated to all of human nature from it. And he wasn’t wrong about everything, but I think he was off-track with that. I know that there have been some studies documenting the content of dreams. And it’s a tiny sliver, if at all, that people have this particular fantasy. People do think about sex during dreams and they do have sexual fantasies that play out in dreams. But I think that particular narrative has been shown to be pretty rare. 

DUBNER: And, to be fair, I believe that when Freud wrote about dreams, he differentiated between manifest and latent content. Correct?

DUCKWORTH: The manifest content meaning, “that’s what actually happened.” But then the latent content was the symbolic meaning of it? 

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s my understanding at least. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. And Freud was into this in general. Like, is that a cigar or is it a symbol of a phallus? He always was wondering whether things that you could interpret literally — like a slip of the tongue — was actually indicative of something much deeper. And of course, he often said yes. The problem, by the way, with Freud is that these are non-falsifiable claims. How would you ever argue against it. Like, “Oh, you really secretly want to run off with your dad.” It’s like, “No, I don’t.” Well, that’s you having a repressed impulse.” So that was Freud, and that was more than 100 years ago. And there has been some progress. I was recently talking about dreams with my now colleague, but formerly, my Ph.D advisor, Marty Seligman. He actually has done some work on this as a scientist, but we were just talking about the fact that there hasn’t been as much work on dreams as you would expect there to be. Because it’s just such an interesting human phenomenon — that we have this alternate reality that we experience when we go to sleep that we sometimes remember, often we don’t. Like, what the heck is going on with them? But there isn’t a whole lot of research on dreams. 

DUBNER: How much would you say that our understanding of what dreams are for — or what function they serve within the mind and body — how much has that understanding changed over the past 100 years or so? 

DUCKWORTH: The idea that dreams are a way of working out certain issues — that is still a theory of dreams. It can be things that we have emotional feelings about — especially negative ones like, “Oh, I’m really anxious about this interview that I’m going to have to do,” or, “I have resentment towards my spouse.” In your sleeping hours — especially, during REM sleep — you’re working it out. Matthew Walker at Berkeley has a theory that your dreams are your way of working out things that you have a lot of emotion about and actually kind of self-administer exposure therapy. 

DUBNER: When I read about one function that dreams are meant to accomplish, it is this, sort of, flushing the toxins. But it reminds me of Stephen King. I once spent a little bit of time with him, and that was the reason he said that he writes, to get rid of those toxins — to deal with fears and anxieties. And I thought it was a pretty rare thing to want to expose yourself to them constantly while waking. I’ve always assumed the reason so many of us dream about things that make us scared or anxious is because we don’t want to deal with them while conscious. 

DUCKWORTH: The question is, when we are, quote-unquote, “dealing” with these anxiety-triggering thoughts, what are we doing? Like, what does it mean to deal with them when we’re asleep? And Matthew Walker’s idea is that you create a movie in your head — like, you’re experiencing a kind of hallucination of this dreaded event, like the job interview that goes terribly. And he has a theory that noradrenaline is not released when you are experiencing it in sleep. It would be if it were actually happening for real and you were awake. And the pairing of the episode with the absence of noradrenaline, that’s actually what exposure therapy is. Exposure therapy is all about being exposed to something that is making you fearful without bad things happening. So, his idea is that it’s therapeutic. But Freud had a whole idea of catharsis that was a little different from this. Freud’s view might be that working it out in your dream, your wish is fulfilled. And that’s why you’re better off having had the dream, right? That’s the healing power of it. 

DUBNER: How much universality is there in dreams? Because for there to be a science of dreams, there needs to be some kind of common symbolism or something. If you and I both have a dream where we are eating our own birthday cake and then the cake turns out to be made of shards of glass —. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that’s terrible, Stephen, I can’t believe you just said that. 

DUBNER: Sorry. The birthday cake turns out to be made of puppies and cotton candy— 

DUCKWORTH: That’s worse. 

DUBNER: Oh, sorry, we’re eating puppies. Okay, it turns out to be the best cake ever — 

DUCKWORTH: Yes, thank you. 

DUBNER: Does that mean the same thing to both of us? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know that we need to have a common vocabulary in dreamland for there to be a science of dreams. Jung, by the way — a psychoanalyst in the Freudian tradition, although he eventually broke from Freud — did believe that there would be these archetypes. There would be these iconic forms. And, in one way or another, they’d come out. 

DUBNER: You’re naked in public, for instance. 

DUCKWORTH: Actually, I don’t know if Jung named that, but I personally don’t think we need to have any uniformity to the narratives for there to be a function of dreams and also a science of dreams. 

DUBNER: I think we all believe that dreaming can be an act of great creativity because it’s your subconscious doing things that for some reason your conscious being won’t allow or encourage. We hear about how Paul McCartney apparently wrote part of at least two songs — “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” — in his dreams. We know that with Julius Caesar, his wife, apparently had a dream about his impending death the night before he was assassinated. She dreamed that she was holding his dead body in her arms. And when she woke up, she begged him to not go to that meeting with the Senate. And he agreed. But then, Brutus, whom he trusted, said, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay. Come on.” And then he was assassinated. So, the notion that we should pay attention to our dreams is plainly rooted in all of our collective history. I just wish I knew which kind of attention to pay to which dreams, and which functions those dreams are serving. That’s all I’m asking for.

DUCKWORTH: Is that so much to ask? I will, however — but only if you do the same — share with you a recurring dream. 

DUBNER: Oh yes, please. 

DUCKWORTH: So, when I was a little girl, I dreamt a lot about spider webs. And there would be these tiny, little, gray spiders that would be skittering all over. There wasn’t really, like, a narrative, but it was just terrifying to me. 

DUBNER: So, the extent of your nightmare was that there were some spiders?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We’re going to need a screenwriter to make this sexier. But yeah, that was it. Just spiders.

DUBNER: Do you have any idea what that represented? What you were scared of? 

DUCKWORTH: Because I had this dream repeatedly, I did later in life look it up. Like, “What does it mean to have a dream about spiders?” And wow, there are so many ridiculous, speculative accounts. Like, “Spiders are a symbol of deceit because a web of lies.” Or like, “You must feel trapped.” There’s an interpretation that when you dream about a spider it’s somehow a mother figure. Spiders are supposed to symbolize feminine power. But I think these might actually be romantic interpretations of something which I’m guessing is more likely — which is that in the little house that we had at 423 Jamaica Drive, I’m guessing I saw a spider, and I’m guessing I had the innate reflexive response that human beings do, which is to fear spiders. And I probably went to bed and dreamt about it. And maybe that was that. So, that’s mine. Let’s transition to you.

DUBNER: I did have a recurring dream. I want to say it was every night for a few years. It probably wasn’t. But it was extremely routine, and it was exactly the same from night to night. This is going to take a little while. Are you sitting down? 

DUCKWORTH: This is a much more elaborate dream than my spider dream. 

DUBNER: A wee bit. 

DUCKWORTH: All right. Go. Yeah. 

DUBNER: I’ll tell you a relevant, perhaps, trigger, which is that my father had died not long before. So, I was about 10 or 11 years old. And I had a favorite football player whose name was Franco Harris, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

DUCKWORTH: I met him!

DUBNER: Oh, you did! 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I didn’t know who he was, and he started talking about football. 

DUBNER: He’s a lovely man and was a great football player. Franco Harris, at the time, was a superstar. And in my dream, my father was dead, and I had heard that Franco Harris from the Pittsburgh Steelers was, for some reason, going to be giving a talk at the V.F.W. Hall in Schenectady or Albany — which I knew about because my father was in the V.F.W., Veterans of Foreign Wars. And so, I would somehow get myself to this V.F.W. dinner where Franco Harris was speaking, and somehow persuade him to come back to my house — like, 40 miles away. in the middle of nowhere — and I would promise him a meal, which was spaghetti and meatballs. He was half-Italian, half-Black, and I thought spaghetti and meatballs would be good, because my mom cooked for quantity, not quality, but spaghetti and meatballs was, I would say, her best meal. And since he was half-Italian, I thought it was good. So, we ate, and then I persuaded him to come out in the backyard and play football with me. 

DUCKWORTH: This is a lovely dream, Stephen. 

DUBNER: So, we’re playing football and it’s as if it’s a real game, like we’re the Steelers. But it’s really not, because it’s just him and me, but it still feels like there’s a big crowd there, feels like there’s another team, and it’s got the tempo and pace of a game where we’re behind and it’s late in the game we’re trying to win. And he was a running back, which means that on most plays, the quarterback would hand off the ball to him, and then he would run through the line of scrimmage to try to get as far as he could. So, I was a little embarrassed about bringing him back to my house, because we were poor, and the house was ramshackle. And even the yard where we went out to play was basically where we would stake the cow, and the cow would leave these big hoofprints, and then it would get cold, and they’d freeze. So, it wasn’t even level. That’s where we’re playing. And in the dream, he’s carrying the ball, and he steps into one of these frozen cow-hoofprints, and twists his ankle, and goes down really hard. We are at the five-yard line. We just need to get a touchdown to win. He stands up, limping, takes the ball, he gives it to me and says, “Hey, kid, you’re going to have to take it from here.” And the dream ends. Every night.

DUCKWORTH: This is like an after-school special. I love this. We should get this produced. 

DUBNER: So, I later interpreted it as my father saying, “Hey, look — it would be nice if every little boy, every little girl, had someone to guide them through the yada, yada, whatever. But if you don’t, figure it out.” And so, that was my childhood recurring dream. No spiders, I’m afraid.

DUCKWORTH: Have you ever told Franco Harris this? Because you should. 

DUBNER: So, years, and years, and years later, I saw Franco Harris on the cover of a magazine called Black Enterprise Magazine. He had become a successful businessperson, and I hadn’t thought about him for years. And all these memories, this dream, came flooding back. And so, I sought him out, and I wanted to know what had become of this person who was my childhood hero. And I ended up writing a book about him. It was called Confessions of a Hero Worshiper. And it was about the notion of heroes. So, I got to hang out with him, talk about this notion. 

DUCKWORTH: Hm. Well, what do you make of all this, Stephen? Did we answer this question about dreams and what they’re good for? I think that the ratio of speculation to science is still heavily speculation.

DUBNER: I have to say, I’m frustrated by the gap between what we know and what we would like to know about what dreams are, what they represent, whether they represent something that’s really important or something that’s a little bit more trivial. And it does make me want to ask you, how do you psychologists know what you say you know about dreams? Is it really at all empirical? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, there’s no way that you can scan somebody’s brain or do any other kind of test to know what they’re dreaming about. And I think that’s one big limitation. The research on it relies on a post-hoc self-report. Like, you can’t talk to the person while they’re dreaming. But anything that’s post-hoc immediately and without even being able to control it, we start to make up causal narratives. Like, was that just your narrative reflex creating that? Maybe you just had some images. So, that’s hard to know. 

DUBNER: And as you’ve taught us all here, via Danny Kahneman, I guess, we do have this appetite for coherence. Right? 

DUCKWORTH: This is one of my major take homes from Danny Kahneman. I know everyone thinks about Thinking Fast and Slow, and judgment decision-making, and biases, and heuristics. But I think one of his core insights is that human beings have certain fundamental limitations and inclinations. One of them is this need to create causal narratives and for there to be coherence. And we hate having the opposite of that, which is a sense of dissonance, things not adding up. So, we’re always trying to square things and make them make sense to us. It’s almost like you’ve got a shoe box and there’s a bunch of photos in there — and, spontaneously, we create a story out of them. Like, this happened and then that caused that to happen, and then that’s why the next thing happened. We do that while we’re waking and while we’re asleep. We’re constructing narratives that may be true and maybe not. Maybe I didn’t even have that spider dream when I was little. Maybe it wasn’t quite like I remember. 

DUBNER: So, sometimes a cow-hoof print is just a cow-hoof print, in other words. 

DUCKWORTH: Sometimes. But we will interpret it as more than that. 

DUBNER: Last night, I had a very memorable dream. 

DUCKWORTH: Do tell. Go.

DUBNER: We were making this podcast, and it ended.

DUCKWORTH: And then we woke up. 

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss why music from our adolescence has such a strong psychological and emotional impact. 

DUCKWORTH: Don’t say anything bad about Air Supply or I’m going to kick you in the shins. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: Stephen, we have an email from a Kelly Zimmerman. Can I read it to you? 

DUBNER: Please. 

DUCKWORTH: “I recently went down a rabbit hole,” Kelly writes, “listening to country music songs that I haven’t heard in over 20 years. I’m 44 and these were songs I listened to in high school. I was amazed how I immediately, and almost innately, recalled the lyrics, the intonation, and the music in these songs. My question is this: Why does this occur with such little effort while I struggle to recall items for the groceries or meals I ate at a restaurant last week? And how can we harness this superpower to our benefit?” 

DUBNER: Boy, do I love that question. I have often thought that music has some qualities that are unique. I’ve read a fair bit about it, but most of this is just based on my having been a musician for a bunch of years. During and after college, I spent my entire waking days writing music, rehearsing, recording, performing. So, I had a very intense relationship with music. And I did feel that our relationship to music was a superpower. As Kelly noted, music seems to act upon the memory in a way that other things just don’t, at least for me. But there’s got to be a lot of heterogeneity. So, some people, like me, and maybe like Kelly, you’ll hear a piece of music and you never forget it, really. But also, when you hear it again, it conjures an emotional state or some kind of memory. Other people don’t remember music that way, but they may remember other things that way. It could be a conversation. It could be a painting. I get emotional sometimes if I watch a movie, or a play, or if I see people that I really love. But somehow, music seems to have transcendent qualities that I don’t experience in other things. And I’ve always thought about the why. I don’t think I have great answers, but maybe between you and me, we can come up with some responses to Kelly. 

DUCKWORTH: I want to begin by saying, by the way, Stephen — and I know this is going to make me a lot of enemies. 

DUBNER: You hate music. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, I don’t hate it, but I am so indifferent to it. At the same time, I know what you mean by the emotional power of music. Like, you’re watching a commercial for auto insurance, or something, and the music is making you feel sad, or happy, or wistful, or energetic. And it doesn’t take more than a few strains of music to make you feel that way. And that is really crazy-cool. And at the same time, I think in the last year, the number of times that I have gone out of my way to click on one button to make music play is probably fewer than five. 

DUBNER: So, you feel like you were making an argument that would hurt my position somehow. But I feel like you’re just making the argument that, yes, heterogeneity exists. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. Fair point. 

DUBNER: I absolutely respect and, indeed, revere the fact that there is this kind of heterogeneity. But I do think that the kind of connection that Kelly and I are talking about to music is, plainly, fairly common because music is a pretty popular thing. I have a couple of thoughts about why it is so memorable. But before we get into my homemade theories, what about the brain and music? Because you are the former, would-be neuroscientist, after all. And there must be a fair amount known about how the brain processes, stores, and recalls music, yes?

DUCKWORTH: There must be. Stephen, I got my neurobiology degree in 1992. 

DUBNER: Did they not have music then? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, and I studied Alzheimer’s disease and neurofibrillary-tangle formation. However, I do know that there is research, for example, by Emily Pronin on the mechanics. I mean, it’s such a given that music has an effect on us. Emily Pronin has shown that fast-tempo music can actually get us into a very high positive-affect state. We’re feeling energetic and excited. And then, a really slow, moody piece can actually do the opposite. And then, the question is, why? And are we matching our heart rate to the tempo of the song? So, the question is not whether music influences us, but why and how? 

DUBNER: So, I know that there is a lot of discussion about the evolutionary progression of language and its relationship to — if not music, per se — then melody, at least. Some of our oldest literature was obviously oral for a long, long, long time before it was written down. And much of it had a poetic or musical component to it. Scientists have talked about the fact that animals don’t have the spoken language that we do, but they essentially have music that serves as language. So, it makes sense that music is a deep, deep, deep part of humanness, and a part of human evolution, and so on. If I think about the why in a modern context — why, for instance, Kelly can recall these things — I do think there are some really concrete things to think about. Let’s say it is music with lyrics — which is what she’s talking about — country music. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of instrumental country music, as far as I know. So, lyrics are pretty predictable, because they are repetitive. 

DUCKWORTH: They rhyme, sometimes. 

DUBNER: They rhyme. They have rhythm. You can almost fill in the blank, much more than normal prose. But even if you don’t have lyrics, the instrumental components of music can be pretty memorable. So, okay, you — a non music-lover — I’ll give you a couple notes and you’ll tell me if you know the song. 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what it’s called, but I can keep going with the nah nah, nah nah nah. What is that? Like — then it starts with the voice in it. Is it Mick Jagger? 

DUBNER: Yeah. Okay, good. And it’s something that he can’t get any of. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh. Satisfaction. 

DUBNER: That was pretty good for someone who hates music. 

DUCKWORTH: “I can’t get no!” 

DUBNER: Okay, and then there’s also the fact that music is — almost all music — is inherently repetitive. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. There’s always that refrain. 

DUBNER: Right. So, there are classical structures — like a sonata form. 

DUCKWORTH: What’s that? 

DUBNER: It has three main sections. There’s exposition, and then development, and then recapitulation. And I don’t want to say it’s all about encouraging memory, but it all conspires. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait. Are those the three elements of a song? 

DUBNER: Those would be the sections of a sonata form, which is one form of classical music. But, if we’re talking about pop music, you know —. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, let’s talk about pop music. That’s more my vibe. 

DUBNER: So, pop music basically goes verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, fade. 

DUCKWORTH: And what does “chorus” mean? 

DUBNER: Chorus is, like, the hook. The main thing of a song. Like, name a pop song that you’re familiar with. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, like, the one with Taylor Swift. “I’m in my bedroom.”  You know what I mean? That one? 

DUBNER: Oh, shucks. I don’t know Taylor Swift. I’m sorry.

DUCKWORTH: Gosh, it’s been a little while, but there was a long period where I went to all the concerts.

DUBNER: For yourself or for your daughters? 

DUCKWORTH: Well, it’s unclear. But let’s just say that I was not unenthusiastic. 

DUBNER: So, you don’t hate music as much as you were leading me on to think that you hate music? 

DUCKWORTH: I guess I shouldn’t discount my love of Taylor Swift. 

DUBNER: Okay, so for, “Satisfaction,” your favorite Rolling Stones song — “I can’t get no, duh nah nah, I can’t get no” — that’s the chorus. The verses are, like — “When I’m driving in my car, and a man comes on the radio and he’s telling me more and more about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination, duh duh duh” — that, the verse.

DUCKWORTH: Okay. Go on. 

DUBNER: What I’m saying is that music — whether it’s classical or pop — is, essentially, engineered to create memory by its repetition. So, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Kelly, when she hears something that she hasn’t heard, even in 24 years, or whatever, does remember it in a deep way, because it was kind of made to do that. 

DUCKWORTH: I was just thinking about the alphabet. Like, you could teach kids A, B, C, but so many of us literally sing the song in our heads when we’re trying to remember the order. And then, also, we’ve made them rhyme. The song lands on, like: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, l, M, N, O, P

DUBNER: It could have gone L, M, N, O. And nobody would know their alphabet. 

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. 

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, as an educator. You don’t teach little children how to read, and therefore you don’t teach them the alphabet, but I’m sure you remember Schoolhouse Rock, “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. “I’m just a bill sittin’ on Capitol Hill.” And also “Conjunction Junction.” “Conjunction Junction. What’s your function?” 

DUBNER: “Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” So, obviously, there’s a strong relationship between music and memory in early education. What about when you get into the super smart people that you teach? Do you feel like there’s any value in music, melody, tone, rhythm, etcetera, in education at this level, or no? 

DUCKWORTH: Other people who know a lot — like Henry Roediger, the learning scientist — they think that music is a super powerful mnemonic device. And it has all to do with the rhythm, and the rhyme, and alliteration. Now, that’s if you’re trying to remember things. Honestly, Stephen, I think in today’s day-and-age, young people, or really any of us, we’re not in the business of memorizing, because there’s Google. So, since I don’t have to ask my students to commit large stores of information to memory, I’m not using music in that way. I will say that in the pandemic-remote-teaching era that I’ve just emerged from, to help my students, I asked them, “What can I do to make my three-hour Zoom class better?” And they asked me for music breaks. 

DUBNER: And did you tell them, “I’m sorry, I hate music”?

DUCKWORTH: I did tell them, “I’m sorry, I hate music.” However, we had a T.A. named Maya who loved music. She was the DJ. And these students fill the chat with, like, “Oh my God, I love the song.” It was incredibly positive. 

DUBNER: Did it make you feel like a freak? Like such an outlier? Like, “Wow everybody loves this.”

DUCKWORTH: Well, here’s the thing, while I was listening to them on the break — because it’s a break. Camera’s off. I encourage them to stretch. I’m sure they didn’t do that. But anyway, I would lie down on my carpet, and stretch out, and take a 10-minute rest. And while I was listening to this music, I said to myself, and later to my students, “Wow, this is amazing.” It is beautiful and emotional. And I got to learn a lot about rap and all these forms of music that I hadn’t any knowledge about before. So, it was really enjoyable. Now, here’s the thing. I didn’t continue listening to music afterwards, but I can see a universe in which I start to listen to music more often, actually. 

DUBNER: I’ll tell you what. You start listening to music a little bit more, and I’ll subscribe to Us Weekly. And then, we can get together, and we can play your favorite music and read Us Weekly. I think that would be a really lovely way to spend an afternoon. 

DUCKWORTH: I need to negotiate one clause in the agreement that you’re about to hammer out. When was your birth year? 

DUBNER: 1963. 

DUCKWORTH: All right, well, there’s a little wrinkle here, Stephen, which is that —. 

DUBNER: I’ll listen to whatever music you want, it can be music from your —. 

DUCKWORTH: My generation? 

DUBNER: Yeah. 

DUCKWORTH: I was only born seven years later. But the reason I ask is that I think Kelly’s question was about why it is that she can remember her high-school songs. You got excited about music in general, but she specifically wanted to know about that. And when she sent us that email, I thought about “Faith,” which was, I think, the number one song in 1988 — George Michael. I was listening to Asia, you know, “It was the heat of the moment.” Anything by Bryan Adams, Air Supply, Chicago.

DUBNER: God, I’m so sorry you lived through that. 

DUCKWORTH: I love that stuff! 

DUBNER: No. That’s not good. 

DUCKWORTH: Don’t say anything bad about Air Supply, or I’m going to kick you in the shins. 

DUBNER: Really? You’re going to defend Air Supply, in public? 

DUCKWORTH: What is wrong with Air Supply? I love Air Supply! There’s nothing bad about Air Supply!

DUBNER: Now I know why you don’t listen to music. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, come on. What do you have against Air Supply? Wait, seriously, is that, like, a snob thing? Are people down on Air Supply? 

DUBNER: Yeah, they are. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, they’re wrong. But here’s the thing: Paul Rozin, the psychologist — better known for his research on disgust, but also just the most curious psychologist there is — he wondered whether there was a sensitive period for the songs that we remember. Because, when I say, “Oh my gosh, Air Supply, Chicago, George Michael,” for my husband it’s, like, Joy Division, New Order. He’s even dragging me to a New Order concert. I don’t know how old these people are. I think they must be octogenarians. But we’re going. Now, why is it that he’s dragging me to a concert for music that he heard in his teens and early 20s? There’s an argument that there is a sensitive period and that we don’t imprint on music that we hear in our 30s or 40s, or even our childhood. I think it’s a really provocative thesis. And Paul did a little bit of research on it. Other scientists have done even more research on it. And there’s this graph in one of these papers I’ll never forget — because it’s a perfect inverted U. You never get data like this. And the graph suggests that at age 24, that is the peak for when we will be forming our musical tastes. But really it’s kind of anywhere from 18 to 25, or something. So, I don’t want to sign this agreement unless I know that we’re going to be kind of kismet on the songs that we’re going to listen to. 

DUBNER: We will listen to the music from your sensitive period, as long as I have control over some volume knob and can occasionally rewind or fast forward. But let me ask you this. What would be the mechanism for that sort of magnetic attraction to music during the, quote, “sensitive period”? Does it have something to do with how the brain is growing at that point? Does it have something to do with how our critical sense is developing? Does it have something to do with maybe the fact that after you’re 25, you probably spend less time hanging out listening to music and more time working? 

DUCKWORTH: I don’t think it’s known. But there are some neuroscientists who believe that adolescence is a sensitive period, in general, for learning. So, one could make the broader argument that we’re very plastic during our teenage years and early 20s. And more specifically, there is an argument that what adolescence is, is the transition from childhood to adulthood. And a big developmental challenge is to figure out how you’re going to fit into society and survive. And therefore, you should be especially sensitive to: what do people do? What’s popular? What’s out-of-fashion? How do I ingratiate myself to the high-status people in society? And that makes a lot of sense to me as the mother of two teenage daughters. 

DUBNER: It’s interesting how the sensitive theory fits into the Sapolsky theory. Robert Sapolsky is, um, I guess he’s a neuroscientist by training, but also a primatologist. 

DUCKWORTH: Stanford. Right? 

DUBNER: Yes. At Stanford. And he has a theory — which is, honestly, not super-scientific. It was done with some survey data — but it wasn’t the kind of study that we might think would hold up under deep, deep, deep scrutiny. The research that he did was trying to figure out how and when people develop preferences for things like music, but also food and travel — these different things that make up who we are, essentially, as people. And his argument was that by roughly the age of 35, most of us don’t adopt any new preferences. Basically, if we haven’t started eating sushi by 35, most people are not going to. If you haven’t started listening to opera, or hip-hop, or Bob Dylan by the age of 35, you’re probably not going to. That might be one explanation to Kelly for why music, even from a long time ago, has such great resonance, because you’re not constantly replacing it with newer material. That’s a theory, at least. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Paul Rozin’s view — I think he would say that what happens during the friendship period is that we are adopting and creating social norms. And what happens when we enter our 30s is that we stop hanging around with our friends and we start raising kids and basically being within our nuclear family. And I will say that Paul’s overall theory of preference formation is very much around social cues. So, he thinks that for lots of things — like drinking your coffee with or without sugar, or whatever, that — you can say there’s some biological functions of certain things, but partly, the more arbitrary tastes could be like, “I watch other people in my peer group do it, and then I want to do it.” So, that would be another argument for music preference. 

DUBNER: I’m on board with that. I find that really a compelling argument. I will offer one last argument in favor of the power of music to connect with memory. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are songs that I’ve come to know in foreign languages, even if I’m not fluent in the language. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, interesting. What language? 

DUBNER: Well, I was learning Hebrew at one point, several years ago. I never became fluent. I can kind of get around in Hebrew, if I work really hard at it. But, if I think of a song I was listening to during that period, I feel fluent. 

DUCKWORTH: That sounds really good, by the way. 

DUBNER: That’s memory without any kind of guidewire. And that, to me, is one of the most astonishing things about music, is it melds these different things — emotion, melody itself, rhythm — to create this alchemical stew that I really do find, at least in my life, unique. And someday I’m going to persuade you to feel the same, Angela. 

DUCKWORTH: Well, Stephen, I know Mick Jagger said that he couldn’t get no satisfaction, but I thought that was pretty damn good. 

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here is a fact-check of today’s conversations. 

Angela says that spiders are said to represent a mother figure in dreams. In fact, in Freud’s Introductory Lectures, he cites his collaborator, German psychoanalyst Karl Abraham. Quote, “According to Abraham, a spider in dreams is a symbol of the mother, but of the phallic mother, of whom we are afraid; so that the fear of spiders expresses dread of mother-incest and horror of the female genitals.” So, according to Freud and Abraham, Angela’s dreams may not have been about the spiders in her family’s South Jersey home, but rather — surprise, surprise — about sex with her mother. 

Later, Stephen says that he doesn’t think there is much instrumental country music. While the vast majority of popular country music songs today have lyrics, that wasn’t always the case. Many records from past decades were instrumental. In 1922, fiddler Eck Robertson became the first country musician to make a commercial record. And the McGee Brothers, a string-instrument duo, were one of the longest-lasting acts at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. In the 1960s and 70s, pianist Floyd Cramer and guitarist Chet Atkins had hit records with their instrumental sounds.

Finally, Angela says that her husband Jason is, quote, “dragging her” to an upcoming New Order concert. And she notes that the band members must now be octogenarians. The members of the English rock band are actually quite a bit younger than she anticipated. The band currently consists of Bernard Sumner (age 65), Stephen Morris (age 63), and Gillian Gilbert (age 60). The founders of soft-rock duo Air Supply, are actually closer to octogenarian age — Graham Russell is 71 and Russell Hitchcock is 72. 

That’s it for the fact-check.

*   *   *

No Stupid Questions is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher; our staff includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, James Foster, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can also follow us on Twitter at NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to nsq@freakonomics.com. And if you heard Stephen or Angela reference a study, an expert, or a book that you’d like to learn more about, you can check out Freakonomics.com/NSQ, where we link to all of the major references that you heard about here today. Thanks for listening! 

DUBNER: I think the feedback will be, “Tell Dubner to sing — never.” 

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Sources

  • Sigmund Freud, psychologist and father of psychoanalysis.
  • Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
  • Carl Jung, psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and father of analytical psychology.
  • Franco Harris, former running back in the N.F.L.
  • Daniel Kahneman, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • Emily Pronin, professor of psychology at Princeton University.
  • Henry L. Roediger, professor of psychology at Washington & Lee University.
  • Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford University.

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