In a previous blog that I wrote seven years ago, I looked at the concept of ‘music addiction’. As Philip Dorrell pointed out in his 2005 book What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery, music (like drugs) acts on our emotions and feelings. Regular readers of my blog will know that I describe myself as a ‘music obsessive’ and have written many articles about my own passion for listening to and collecting music (a few examples here, here, and here). One of the proudest moments of my life was getting a populist article on ‘music addiction’ published in Record Collector, my favourite magazine (see screenshot below and ‘Further reading’ for the full reference).
A 2011 study published by Dr. Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues in Nature Neuroscience reported that on a neurochemical level, the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine that is important for the pleasures associated with rewards such as food, psychoactive drugs and money. This led to many headlines in newspapers along the lines of ‘people who say that they are addicted to music are not lying’. The team also reported that just the anticipation of pleasurable music led to increased dopamine release. Therefore, this helps explain why individuals (like myself) continually repeat songs or albums all the time as we want to re-experience those sensations repeatedly.
My previous article examined the concept of ‘musomania’ (i.e., an obsession with music). I noted that there had been very little in the way of academic or clinical literature on the topic although since writing my original article I have come across a couple of more recently published studies looking at the concept (one which published shortly after my original blog on the topic).
Dr. Nicolas Schmuziger and his colleagues published a paper in a 2012 issue of Audiology Research entitled ‘Is there addiction to loud music? Findings in a group of non-professional pop/rock musicians’. They hypothesized that listening to loud music may be an addictive behavior and that it could result in hearing damage (which is one of the reasons they published their findings in an audiology journal – also, they probably would have found it harder to publish their study in an addiction journal). They hypothesized that individuals who were members of non-professional pop/rock bands who had regular exposure to loud music would be more likely to show an addictive-like behavior for loud music compared to individuals who were not.
In their study, the researchers recruited 50 non-professional musicians and matched them with 50 control participants. Both groups completed a questionnaire called the Northeastern Music Listening Survey (NEMLS) comprising two basic scales. The first scale was an adaptation of the Michigan Alcohol Screening Test (MAST) to study the addictive-like behavior towards loud music. The NEMLS was developed by Dr. Mary Florentine and her colleagues to assess Maladaptive Music Listening (MML). It is a 24 item scale that (in relation to listening to music) examining five distinct areas: “(i) recognition and admission of the problem by self and others; (ii) legal, work and social problems; (iii) seeking involvement with treatment programs; (iv) marital-family difficulties; and (v) medical pathology”. In addition to socio-demographic questions (on age, gender, and level of education), a second component of the NEMLS included “four items assessing three out of seven clinical diagnostic criteria for substance dependence as outlined by the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association…The other four criteria were already embedded within the MAST”.
Findings showed that nine (out of 50) met the DSM-IV criteria for ‘music dependence’ compared to just one individual in the control group. Seven of the nine musicians endorsing DSM criteria also had a positive score on the NEMLS. The researchers concluded that traits of addictive-like behavior to loud music were detected more often in members of nonprofessional pop/rock bands than in matched controls. The authors themselves pointed out that they did not explore the reasons why their participants “with repeated exposure to high-sound levels of electro-amplified music may be more likely to show traits of maladaptive behavior to loud music than the control subjects, and whether they develop such behavior before or after joining a pop/rock band”. They also concluded that only a few participants in their sample may have maladaptive music listening.
A more recent paper by Dr. Christine Ahrends entitled ‘Does excessive music practicing have addiction potential?’ was published in the journal Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain. She noted that:
“A theory that has previously been put forward but has not yet been empirically examined is the idea of “musical addictivity” (Panksepp, 1995)… Panksepp assumes an involvement of the opioid system for the emergence of “chills” when listening to music and concludes from there that listening to emotionally arousing music can be addictive through the release of opioids. On those grounds, Panksepp compares the phenomenon of music-induced chills (defining the main bodily response as a feeling of coldness) with that of drug addiction and its related withdrawal symptoms (like the so-called “cold turkey”). Although this comparison has major limitations, the general hypothesis might provide a new perspective on certain types of music-related behavior”.
Put simply, it has been argued that music has the capacity to activate the reward centres in the human brain and this can lead to behavioural addiction. Dr. Ahrends noted that recent studies supported the idea of addictive music consumption (citing the studies by Schmuziger and colleagues, and the study by Florentine and colleagues, both mentioned above) but not for music practicing. She wrote that:
“Anecdotal evidence has shown that some musicians either continue to practice through practice-induced pain or have psychosomatic disorders at deprivation, thus transforming a former goal-directed behavior into a maladaptive one”.
Based on the small empirical literature and anecdotal evidence, Dr. Ahrends hypothesized that music practice has the potential to be addictive and carried out an exploratory empirical study. To assess music practice addiction, she adapted the Exercise Dependence Scale Revised (EDS-R) (very similar to my own Exercise Addiction Inventory) and investigated the extent to whether musicians fulfilled the criteria to be classified as being “at risk for dependence” in relation to their music practice. A total of 25 musicians were recruited from German conservatories. Based on the scale scores three of the participants were classified as “at risk for dependence,” 20 of the participants were classified as “nondependent-symptomatic,” and two were classified as “nondependent-asymptomatic.” Based on these results, Dr. Ahrends claimed the findings provided tentative support for music practice addiction. She went on to argue that the concept of music practice addiction is a promising concept for further research and “may have implications for the understanding of mental health problems in musicians”.
In relation to this latter study, I would argue that this isn’t a case of ‘music practice addiction’ (if it exists at all) but if it exists, it is actually akin to ‘study addiction’ (a pre-cursor to ‘workaholism’) that I and my colleagues have published a number of papers on over the past few years (see ‘Further reading). The notion of ‘study addiction’ is highly controversial so it’s unsurprising that ‘music practice addiction’ would similarly be seen as controversial by most scholars working in the behavioural addiction field.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ahrends, C. (2017). Does excessive music practicing have addiction potential? Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, 27(3), 191-202.
Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2015). Study addiction – A new area of psychological study: Conceptualization, assessment, and preliminary empirical findings. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4, 75–84.
Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D. & Pallesen, S. (2016). Study addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study examining temporal stability and predictors of its changes. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 5, 357–362.
Atroszko, P.A., Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationship between study addiction and work addiction: A cross-cultural longitudinal study. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 5, 708–714.
Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html
Dorrell, P. (2005).What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery. Located at: http://whatismusic.info/.
Florentine, M., Hunter, W., Robinson, M., Ballou, M., & Buus, S. (1998). On the behavioral characteristics of loud-music listening. Ear and Hearing, 19(6), 420-428.
Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.
The Local (2007). Man gets sick benefits for heavy metal addiction. June 19. Located at: http://www.thelocal.se/7650/20070619/
Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870
Panksepp, J. (1995). The emotional sources of “chills” induced by music. Music Perception, 13, 171–207.
Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.
Schmuziger, N., Patscheke, J., Stieglitz, R., & Probst, R. (2012). Is there addiction to loud music? Findings in a group of non-professional pop/rock musicians. Audiology Research, 2(e1), 57-63.
Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.
Throughout my career I’ve carried out quite a lot of research into the marketing and advertising of gambling and the way in which some gambling operators use psychology to exploit our senses to maximize profit. Connected to this, I’ve also published a number of papers that have examined the role of sound (and particularly music) can influence the way in which individuals gamble (see my previous blog on this and ‘Further reading’ below).
The reason I mention this was that I recently came across an online article by Fast Company entitled ‘The 10 most addictive sounds in the world’ based on some market research carried out by Martin Lindstrom, the Danish ‘neuromarketeer’, author of the book Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (I do love a good pun). Lindstrom is known for using neuroscientific techniques to help commercial operators better understand their clientele. One of his collaborations was with Elias Arts (a sound and music design company) who joined forces to examine the world’s most ‘addictive sounds’ in what an article in The Village Voice dubbed a “neuromarketing experiment”.
Obviously, my interest was piqued when I saw the use of the word ‘addictive’ but their working definition of ‘addictive’ had nothing to do with individuals being addicted to sounds but simply referred to an individual’s response to specific sounds. (Even with this explanation, I still can’t see why the word ‘addictive’ was used but its’ use probably guarantees more people – like myself – will want to read about the study). Lindstrom told the media that:
“We have all those top 10s of everything, but most top 10s are based on the visual sense. What we realized in another study is the most prominent sense we have [when we see a commercial] is not the sense of sight or smell, but the sense of sound”.
As far as I can tell, the study Lindstrom carried out has not been formally published in a peer reviewed journal (although he has published academic papers). The study was described in the international media as involving 50 participants and the research team monitored their brainwave, pupil, and facial muscle activity while listening to 50 different everyday sounds (both man-made ‘branded’ sounds and those ‘non-branded’ sounds that occur naturally). Lindstrom concluded that the most ‘addictive sounds’ weren’t necessarily the non-branded sounds of nature because some of the commercial man-made branded sounds (described as “beeps, jingles and ditties”) were more ‘addictive’ than a number of familiar sounds found in everyday life.
Overall, sound of a baby giggling was ranked as the most ‘addictive sound’ (although I’ve not seen the specific methodology employed to ascertain how being the top ‘addictive sound’ was actually assessed. Apparently Lindstrom examined the “dimension of the responses” and the “contrast and balance of all three [brainwave, pupil and muscle] factors” – although he did admit that such factors can lead to both positive and negative reactions). The second and third spots were Intel’s computer startup chime and the sound of a vibrating mobile phone. Other top non-branded sounds were the sound of a sizzling steak and the lighting of a cigarette being inhaled. Lindstrom claimed that the participants “weren’t responding to the structures of the sounds, but what they mean in a greater social context”. In relation to what makes a sound ‘addictive’, Lindstrom did at least make one reference to a classic sign of addiction (i.e., craving):
“It’s not the sound itself, but the consequence of the sound. A laughing (or crying) baby elicits a maternal protection mechanism, a buzzing cell phone prompts a pick-up, a sizzling steak means a solid meal is on the way. For advertisers and consumers, the research indicates a whole new battleground of multi-sensory advertising. Sometimes the sound from one category generates a craving in another category. For example, given the links between tobacco and beverages, the sound of a cigarette being lit could be used in an ad for alcohol. Although sound is more intuitive for people, the field is still quite young. It will be a long time before it will be so prominent”.
In a story for ABC News, other academics were asked for their thoughts on Lindstrom’s study. One American ‘auditory neuroscientist, Professor Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (actually Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University) said that:
“Although the sounds identified by the study are extremely meaningful, with the exception of the giggling baby, most are not inherently addictive. They’re identifiable. They brain responds to repetition. Our brains are good at picking out patterns that repeat. We’ve evolved to do that. If I chose an arbitrary sound, as long as it was clear and distinctive, and then played it 50 times a day for the next five years (as many of the branded sounds have been), it would become attention-grabbing. I don’t think [the sounds on the list are] so much addictive because of their acoustic properties, but because of their ubiquity. There is neurophysiological evidence showing that brain is hardwired to notice certain kinds of sounds. For example, the abrupt, jarring sound of a slamming door could prompt cells in a person’s brain stem to fire even before that person was conscious of it. For early humans, that kind of sound could have meant it’s time to run for the hills. [Also] studies have demonstrated the existence of a so-called ‘cocktail party effect’. At a party, if you hear your name in the background, even if you’re not paying attention, that’s something that will draw your attention involuntarily. Your brain is so exposed to your name and it’s tremendously important to you, so it encodes that so you respond to it”
According to Lindstrom’s research, the most ‘addictive sounds’ in the world (although they are arguably US-centric to say the least) are: (1) baby giggle, (2) Intel chime, (3) vibrating phone, (4) ATM/cash register, (5) National Geographic theme tune, (6) MTV theme tune, (7) T-Mobile ringtone, (8) McDonald’s jingle, (9) ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (tune), and (10) State Farm jingle.
The Fast Company article also noted that:
“Sound is immensely powerful. And yet 83% of all the advertising communication we’re exposed to daily (bearing in mind that we will see two million TV commercials in a single lifetime) focuses, almost exclusively, on the sense of sight. That leaves just 17% for the remaining four senses. Think about how much we rely on sound. It confirms a connection when dialing or texting on cell phones and alerts us to emergencies. When the sound was removed from slot machines in Las Vegas, revenue fell by 24%. Experiments undertaken in restaurants show that when slow music (slower than the rhythm of a heartbeat) is played, we eat slower–and we eat more!”.
These types of findings suggest that ‘audio branding’ is likely to be an increasing topic of academic research given that every company wants an edge in selling their product. While I am totally unconvinced that the word ‘addictive’ should be used in this type of research, that’s not to say that sound doesn’t have an influence in the development of addictive behaviour more generally. It looks like a case of watch (or should that be listen?) to this space.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Bark Soho (2016). 3 of the most addictive sounds in the world. October 16. Located at: http://www.barksoho.co.uk/blog/3-of-the-most-addictive-sounds-in-the-world/
Dixon, L., Trigg, R. & Griffiths, M. (2007). An empirical investigation of music and gambling behaviour. International Gambling Studies, 7, (3), 315-326.
Edroso, R. (2010). “Most addictive” sounds mostly jingles, machine noises. The Village Voice, February 22. located at: https://www.villagevoice.com/2010/02/22/most-addictive-sounds-mostly-jingles-machine-noises/
Fast Company (2010). The 10 most addictive sounds in the world. February 22. Located at: https://www.fastcompany.com/1555211/10-most-addictive-sounds-world
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed), Gambling: Who wins? Who loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.
Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2005). The psychology of music in gambling environments: an observational research note. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13.
Heussner, K.M. (2010). The world’s 10 most addictive sounds. ABC News, February 24. Located at: https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/worlds-10-addictive-sounds/story?id=9923506
Lindstrom, M. (2008). Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. New York: Doubleday
Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics re-visited. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 151-179.
Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). The role of structural characteristics in gambling. In G. Smith, D. Hodgins & R. Williams (Eds.), Research and Measurement Issues in Gambling Studies. pp.211-243. New York: Elsevier.
Spenwyn, J., Barrett, D.K.R. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of lights and music in gambling behavior: An empirical pilot study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 107-118.
Last week I was invited to give a keynote talk at an Italian conference on community psychology in Padova. The reason I mention this is because it was at this conference I met another academic – Dr. Tom Ter Bogt – that has a job that I would love to have. Dr. Ter Bogt is a Professor in Popular Music and Youth Culture at the Department of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences of Utrecht University. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have an obsessive love of music and have written about the psychology many of my musical heroes in previous blogs.
It all started when Dr. Ter Bogt innocently asked me what I thought of Noel Gallagher’s latest album (Chasing Yesterday). When I told him that I thought it was great, it sparked a long conversation where we discussed our eclectic love of music taking in a shared appreciation of Oasis, The Beatles, Throbbing Gristle, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Johnny Cash, and Chic (to name but a few). I also learned that he used to be a club DJ and that he had authored a best selling book on the history of pop music in his home country. In further email conversations, he also shared with me that his most played artists were Television and the Comsat Angels (something I would never have predicted based on out initial conversation but something that I found endearing).
In the nicest way possible, I am envious of Dr. Ter Bogt’s job. He has managed to become a professor through his love of music, and now carries out scientific research on the topic. Our respective research backgrounds – while very different – occasionally intersect. For instance, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues published a paper in a 2002 issue of Contemporary Drug Problems on ‘Dancestasy’ (dance and MDMA use) in Dutch youth culture and I have published papers on both dance as an addiction, and young people’s use of ecstasy as a ‘risky but rewarding behaviour’ (see ‘Further reading below).
As an avid music fan I was interested to read Dr. Ter Bogt’s typology of music listeners in a 2010 paper in the journal Psychology of Music. In this study, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues constructed a typology of music listeners based on the of importance attributed to music and four types of music use (among a sample of nearly a thousand Dutch participants): (i) mood enhancement (e.g., “Music helps me to relax and stop thinking about things”), (ii) coping with problems (e.g., “I always play music when I feel sad”), (iii) defining personal identity (e.g., “Lyrics of my music often express how I feel”), and (iv) social identity (e.g., “I can’t be friends with someone who dislikes my music”).
Using latent class analysis, the study’s participants were classed into three listener groups – High-Involved Listeners (HILs; 19.7% of the sample), Medium-Involved Listeners (MILs; 74.2%), and Low-Involved Listeners (LILs; 6.1%). HILs listened to music most often for mood enhancement, coping with distress, identity construction and social identity formation. MILs and LILs formed predictably attached less importance to music in their lives. HILs liked a wide range of musical genres (e.g., pop, rock, urban, dance, etc.) and experienced the most positive affects when listening to music. Interestingly, both HILs and MILs (when compared to LILs) reported more negative affects (such as anger and sadness) when listening to music. The study also reported that even LILs listened to music frequently and used it as a mood enhancer.
In a 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescence, Dr. Ter Bogt and his colleagues examined the association between music preferences and adolescent substance use. In a nationally representative sample of 7324 Dutch adolescents (aged 12–16 years), the study collected data concerning music preferences, substance use behaviors, and the perceived number of peers using substances. Adolescent music preferences for eight different music genres clustered into four distinct styles labeled as pop (chart music, Dutch pop), adult (classical music, jazz), urban (rap/hip-hop, soul/R&B) and hard (punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house). Adolescent substance use among the participants comprised smoking, drinking, and cannabis use. The results showed that music preference and substance use was either wholly or partially mediated by perceived peer use.
Using the same dataset, a study published in a 2009 issue of Substance Use and Misuse reported that when all other factors were controlled for, higher levels of substance use was more likely among those who liked punk/hardcore, techno/hard-house, and reggae while lower levels of substance use was more likely among those who preferred pop and classical music. According to Ter Bogt and his colleagues, prior empirical research had demonstrated that liking heavy metal and rap predicted substance use. The Dutch data in this study found that “a preference for rap/hip-hop only indicated elevated smoking among girls, whereas heavy metal was associated with less smoking among boys and less drinking among girls”. Consequently, it was concluded that the music genres associated with increased substance use “may vary historically and cross-culturally, but, in general, preferences for nonmainstream music are associated positively with substance use, and preferences for mainstream pop and types of music preferred by adults (classical music) mark less substance use among adolescents”. The authors also noted that the data were correlational therefore the direction of causation of the music–substance use link cannot be drawn.
In a more recent (2013) study published in the journal Pediatrics, Dr. Ter Bogt and colleagues examined the relationship between early adolescents’ musical preferences and minor delinquency. Following 309 adolescents (149 boys, 160 girls) from the age of 12 years over a four-year period, the study found that that early fans of different types of rock (e.g., rock, heavy metal, gothic, punk), African American music (rhythm and blues, hip-hop), and electronic dance music (trance, techno/hard-house) showed elevated minor delinquency both concurrently and longitudinally. Conversely, preferring conventional pop (chart pop) or highbrow music (classic music, jazz) was negatively related to minor delinquency. The study concluded that “early music preferences emerged as more powerful indicators of later delinquency rather than early delinquency, indicating that music choice is a strong marker of later problem behavior”.
On a personal level, I know how important music is in my on life and as a source of my own identity. The many studies carried out by Dr. Ter Bogt and his research colleagues further our understanding of music across the lifespan (particularly its role in adolescence) and I look forward to reading their future work.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Delsing, M. J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Engels, R. C., & Meeus, W. H. (2008). Adolescents’ music preferences and personality characteristics. European Journal of Personality, 22(2), 109-130.
Larkin, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Dangerous sports and recreational drug-use: Rationalising and contextualising risk. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 215-232.
Maraz, A., Király, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Why do you dance? Development of the Dance Motivation Inventory (DMI). PLoS ONE, 10(3): e0122866. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122866
Maraz, A., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics Z. (2015). An empirical investigation of dance addiction. PloS ONE, 10(5): e0125988. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0125988.
Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2009). The soundtrack of substance use: music preference and adolescent smoking and drinking. Substance Use and Misuse, 44(4), 514-531.
Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T. F., Raaijmakers, Q. A., Gabhainn, S. N., Monshouwer, K., & Vollebergh, W. A. (2010). Is it the music? Peer substance use as a mediator of the link between music preferences and adolescent substance use. Journal of Adolescence, 33, 387-394.
Mulder, J., Ter Bogt, T., Raaijmakers, Q., & Vollebergh, W. (2007). Music taste groups and problem behavior. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(3), 313-324.
Selfhout, M. H., Branje, S. J., ter Bogt, T. F., & Meeus, W. H. (2009). The role of music preferences in early adolescents’ friendship formation and stability. Journal of Adolescence, 32(1), 95-107.
Ter Bogt, T., Engels, R., Hibbel, B., Van Wel, F., & Verhagen, S. (2002). ‘Dancestasy’: Dance and MDMA use in Dutch youth culture. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29, 157–181.
Ter Bogt, T. F., Keijsers, L., & Meeus, W. H. (2013). Early adolescent music preferences and minor delinquency. Pediatrics, 131(2), e380-e389.
Ter Bogt, T.F., Mulder, J., Raaijmakers, Q.A., & Gabhainn, S.N. (2010). Moved by music: A typology of music listeners. Psychology of Music, 39, 147-163.
Regular readers of my blog will know that when it comes to certain films and television shows (and their accompanying DVD box sets) I can be somewhat obsessive and fanatical (for instance see, my blog on my love of all things concerning Hannibal Lecter). I’m one of those individuals that will watch some films again and again looking for further insight and deeper meanings (such as Memento, The Usual Suspects, Donnie Darko, Inception, Shutter Island, Seven, and The Shining). One of the films I have watched many times is Cameron Crowe’s psychological thriller Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise, Kurt Russell, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz), a remake of the Spanish film Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes).
One of the reason I like the film is that it prominently features the concept of lucid dreaming. I’d never heard of lucid dreaming until 1988. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter at the time and one of my best friends (Robert Rooksby) was doing his PhD on lucid dreaming. As the Wikipedia entry on lucid dreaming notes:
“A lucid dream is any dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming. In relation to this phenomenon, Greek philosopher Aristotle observed: ‘often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream’…The person most widely acknowledged as having coined the term is Dutch psychiatrist and writer Frederik (Willem) van Eeden…In a lucid dream, the dreamer has greater chances to exert some degree of control over their participation within the dream or be able to manipulate their imaginary experiences in the dream environment…Lucid dreams can be realistic and vivid. It is shown that there are higher amounts of beta-1 frequency band (13–19 Hz) brain wave activity experienced by lucid dreamers, hence there is an increased amount of activity in the parietal lobes making lucid dreaming a conscious process”.
Much like the films of David Lynch (one of my favourite film directors), Vanilla Sky is a film forces you to think about what is going on and is one of those films that you can come to your own conclusions as to what it all means. As a psychologist, I love films that play with the mind and Vanilla Sky is one of those films, particularly as psychology in the form of dreams, subjective reality, and the unconscious lie at the heart of the film. The director Cameron Crowe added many obscure clues and hidden references throughout the film to help viewers further explain the film and to add more layers. There are dozens of dedicated websites that have compiled lists of theories, messages and/or hidden clues. In the film’s production notes, Crowe later admitted: “We constructed the movie, visually and story-wise, to reveal more and more the closer you look at it. As deep as you want to go with it, my desire was for the movie to meet you there”. That alone is enough of a hook to get me watching repeatedly.
Another aspect of the film that I love is the perfect use of music. Almost every lyric of every song used throughout the movie interweaves seamlessly between the actors, the in-scene narrative, and the developing story line. The songs are expertly chosen. This is no surprise given that Crowe was formerly a music journalist and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. Like me, Crowe is a huge fan of The Beatles, and referred to the “clues” in Vanilla Sky as his own version of the ‘Paul McCartney is Dead’ rumour that swept the world in 1969 (i.e., the notorious Beatles hoax when fans worldwide became convinced through song lyrics, sonic tricks, and album art that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by a look-alike). As Crowe commented: “Divorcing it from whether Paul was really dead or not, that was a really great parlour game: searching for clues, the excitement of different layers, some of them chilling, some of them really funny. It was a great model for us [on Vanilla Sky]”. One of the homages to The Beatles in the film concerns their song Revolution 9. The film contains countless references to the number (or time) 9:09 (on Aames’ wristwatch, a child’s shirt, the prison chalkboard, and multiple references to cats who, has myth has it, have nine lives).
I’m assuming that anyone that has read this far has seen the film (but if you haven’t – spoiler alert – some of what I’m about to write will likely reduce the enjoyment of watching the film for the first time). The thrust of the plot is as follows:
“From a prison cell where he has been charged for murder, David Aames (Tom Cruise, in a prosthetic mask, tells his life story to court psychologist Dr. Curtis McCabe (Kurt Russell). In flashback, David [who is acrophobic with an irrational fear of heights] is shown to be the wealthy owner of a large publishing firm in New York City which he inherited from his father, leaving its regular duties to his father’s trusted associates. As David enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, he is introduced to Sofia Serrano (Penélope Cruz) by his best friend and author Brian Shelby [who is writing a book on Aames] at a party. David and Sofia spend a night together talking, and fall in love. When David’s former lover, Julianna “Julie” Gianni (Cameron Diaz) hears of Sofia, she attempts to kill herself and David in a car crash. Julie dies but David survives, his face grotesquely disfigured, leading him to wear a mask to hide the injuries. With no hope to use plastic surgery to repair the damage, David cannot come to grips with the idea of wearing the mask for the rest of his life. One night on a night out with Sofia…David gets hopelessly drunk, and [is left by Sophia] to wallow in the street outside” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky)
It is generally accepted that everything from this point in the film is a dream (although others say the whole film is a dream). Rather than live out the rest of his life in a disfigured state, Aames has his body cryogenically frozen by a company called Life Extension after attempting suicide. He lives the rest of his life as a lucid dream from the moment he was found on the pavement after his drunken night out (“under the ‘vanilla sky’ from a Monet painting”). However, during cryogenic sleep, the lucid dream goes horribly wrong and starts to incorporate elements from his subconscious. After 150 years in suspended sleep, the company that placed Aames into cryogenic suspension calls in ‘Tech Support’ and Aames is offered a choice to either be reinserted into a corrected lucid dream, or to wake up by taking a leap of faith – literally – from the top of a high roof (that forces him to challenge his fear of heights).
“Conquering his final fear, David jumps off the building, his life flashing before his eyes, and whites out immediately before hitting the ground. A female voice commands him to ‘open your eyes’ (a recurring theme in the movie), and the film ends with David opening his eyes” (Wikipedia entry on Vanilla Sky).
Many different websites examining the film claim there are five interpretations of the film’s ending (and this is supported by Crowe himself). The five interpretations (taken verbatim from the Wikipedia entry on the film) are:
- “Tech support is telling the truth: 150 years have passed since Aames killed himself and subsequent events form a lucid dream.
- The entire film is a dream, evidenced by the sticker on Aames’ car that reads “2/30/01” (February 30 does not occur in the Gregorian Calendar).
- The events following the crash form a dream that occurs while Aames is in a coma.
- The entire film is the plot of the book that Brian [Shelby, his best friend] is writing.
- The entire film after the crash is a hallucination caused by the drugs that were administered during Aames’ reconstructive surgery”.
(I’m most persuaded by the first interpretation). What I also love about the film is that Crowe added lots of little details that take a few viewings of the film before they are usually spotted. All of these help in both trying to interpret the film, as well as becoming a game where repeated watching becomes more rewarding. For instance:
- In the first scene in which Julianna appears, the tune ringing on her cell phone is Row Row Row Your Boat that features the lyric “life is but a dream”.
- At his birthday party, Aames is asked how it’s going to which he responds “Livin’ the dream, baby…livin’ the dream”.
- At the same party, Aames’ best friend Brian Shelby comes into the second apartment wears a t-shirt with the words “fantasy” in sparkly sequins.
- In one of the prison scenes, the word ‘DREAM’ is spelt out backwards on a chalkboard.
- In the prison cell, the book, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections (by Carl Jung) is on the table while Aames is talking to his psychiatrist Dr. McCabe. The book concerns Jung’s personal dreams and how they helped uncover his “shadow” and removed his persona (his ‘mask’). In fact one critique of the film by Carlo Cavagna described the whole film as “overtly Jungian”. More specifically, he asserted that Vanilla Sky is “fundamentally about the relationship between the ego and the unconscious, and practically a primer on the most fundamental concepts found in any Jungian glossary…For Jung, the unconscious includes desires repressed by our education and socialization, but there is more ‘psychic material that lies below the threshold of consciousness’. The unconscious is the foundation on which the conscious mind is based”.
- On Aames’ prison uniform the name tag says “Frozen Guy”.
- His patient number on his Life Extension cryogenic tank says “PL515NT 4R51MS” (which if the numbers are replaced with their corresponding letters of the alphabet, it almost spells “Pleasant Dreams”).
- As Aames is getting his prison photograph taken, the slate spells ‘When did the dream become a nightmare?’ (in simple code).
- Sofia calls Aames a “pleasure delayer” twice in the film (but says it so subtly that it’s hard to hear properly).
- When Aames and Sophia are lying in bed after making love, Sophia asks “Is this is a dream?” and Aames replied “absolutely”.
- At one point in the film, Dr. McCabe tells Aames that he’d had a nightmare the day before. Aames replies that “It’s all a nightmare”.
I said earlier in the article that I thought the songs were perfectly chosen. Many fans of the film have noted that the lyrics repeatedly appear to match the emotion of the scene where it is played. As the Uncool website notes:
“For example, the song that plays over David leaving Sophia’s in the morning is Jeff Buckley’s, ‘Last Goodbye’…that morning was there last one true goodbye. Yes, they see each other after this, but after the car wreck when both of their lives are forever changed. ‘Last Goodbye’ also contains the lyrics: ‘Kiss me, please kiss me, but kiss me out of desire, babe not consolation’ which follows David’s plight rather well (as the next time he sees her is after the accident and he wants her affections but not sympathy for his disfigurement)…Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ album (featured in the closing montage) also has some lyrical significance. One of the best lines from the song ‘The River’ is: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Also, two R.E.M. songs are featured. Don’t forget what R.E.M. stands for. Rapid eye movement. As in a state of sleep. It’s when you dream”.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to work out that I simply love the level of detail that went into making the film. I am not a great fan of psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) interpretation, but in Vanilla Sky, the mask that Aames wore became his ‘persona’ and the term was used by Carl Jung to describe the face that we as individuals present to society and (in some cases) to ourselves. Carlo Cavagna argues that:
“[Aames] attraction to [Sophie] is irresistible because she is his anima, his archetypal dream lover, the personification of the feminine nature in his own unconscious. Jung posited that all men carry an ideal image of woman in their heads and unconsciously project that image onto “the person of the beloved…David’s disfigured face, which he sometimes hides with his mask, represents his shadow. For Jung, the shadow is the inferior part of the personality, the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements that, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous “splinter personality” in the unconscious. Despite the negative connotations of the word ‘shadow’, Jung meant it to encompass all those qualities that are suppressed, both positive and negative. ‘The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly’… [Aames] reality is subjective, and his shadow is breaking through into consciousness. This is the source of the film’s main conflict. In discussing dream therapy and the difficulty of processing and assimilating the unconscious, Jung wrote that several negative outcomes are possible – eccentricity, infantilism, paranoia, schizophrenia, or regression (the restoration of the persona). The revelation and assimilation of David’s unconscious is essentially the story of Vanilla Sky”.
Although there are many critics who hated the film, I love it on many different levels (including the underlying psychology).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Cavagna, C. (2001, December). Vanilla Sky. Located at: http://www.aboutfilm.com/movies/v/vanillasky.htm
Jung, C.G. (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vantage.
Kummer, R. (2010). “What is happiness to you?” Vanilla Sky (2001) Film Analysis. Located at: http://rkummer.hubpages.com/hub/What-is-happiness-to-you-Vanilla-Sky-2001-Film-Analysis
Rooksby, R. and Terwee, Sybe J.S. (1990). Freud, van Eeden and lucid dreaming. Lucidity Letter, 9(2), 18–28. Located at: http://www.sawka.com/spiritwatch/freudvan.htm
Turner, R. (2014). Vanilla Sky movie review: Beyond lucid dreams. Located at: http://www.world-of-lucid-dreaming.com/vanilla-sky-review.html
The Uncool (2015). Vanilla Sky secrets. Located at: http://www.theuncool.com/films/vanilla-sky/vanilla-sky-secrets
Wikipedia (2015). Vanilla Sky. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Vanilla_Sky
Because I am both a psychologist and self-confessed music obsessive, one of the questions I am often asked by my friends is ‘Who is the most psychologically influenced band?’ Based on my own musical tastes, I would have to say Tears for Fears (one of many bands named after something psychological – other contenders based on name alone include Pavlov’s Dog, Therapy?, Primal Scream, Madness, and The Mindbenders, to name a few).
Tears For Fears (TFF) were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and (if my memory serves me) I saw them support The Thompson Twins just as their third single (‘Mad World’) became their first British hit single. TFF were formed in 1981 by Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith after they left the Bath-based band Graduate (mostly remembered for their single ‘Elvis Should Play Ska’ from their debut – and only – LP Acting My Age). They briefly called the band ‘History of Headaches’ but eventually settled on TFF.
TFF’s name was inspired by primal therapy (as was the band Primal Scream). Even from a young age I was well aware of primal therapy as I was – and still am – a massive fan of The Beatles and John Lennon. Lennon underwent primal therapy in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). In fact, one of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because I had read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) just because of my love of Lennon’s work. As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:
“Primal therapy is a trauma-based psychotherapy trauma-based created by Arthur Janov, who argues that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. Janov argues that repressed pain can be sequentially brought to conscious awareness and resolved through re-experiencing the incident and fully expressing the resulting pain during therapy. Primal therapy was developed as a means of eliciting the repressed pain; the term Pain is capitalized in discussions of primal therapy when referring to any repressed emotional distress and its purported long-lasting psychological effects. Janov criticizes the talking therapies as they deal primarily with the cerebral cortex and higher-reasoning areas and do not access the source of Pain within the more basic parts of the central nervous system. Primal therapy is used to re-experience childhood pain – i.e., felt rather than conceptual memories – in an attempt to resolve the pain through complete processing and integration, becoming ‘real’. An intended objective of the therapy is to lessen or eliminate the hold early trauma exerts on adult life”.
The Primal Scream book recounts the primal therapy experiences that Janov had with 63 clients during a year-and-a-half period in the late 1960s (and who he claimed were all successfully ‘cured’ using his newly developed therapy). Unlike John Lennon, TFF never underwent primal therapy themselves (but read Janov’s work). It was actually Dr. Janov’s 1980 book Prisoners of Pain (Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering) where he claimed “tears as a replacement for fears” (and hence the band’s chosen name). In a 2004 television interview, both Smith and Orzabal said they were disillusioned when they met Janov in the mid-1980s (claiming Janov had become quite “Hollywood” and asking TFF to write a musical based on his work).
Both Smith and Orzabal claimed to have had unhappy childhoods that led them to the work of Dr. Janov (they were too poor – unlike Lennon – to actually have primal therapy and described having such therapy as “an aspiration”). Most of their songs directly or indirectly referenced primal therapy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the whole of their first album The Hurting was a concept LP. Orzabal claimed that “writing the title track was a strange piece of psychic osmosis…I had an acoustic guitar in my hand at the time and played [Curt] what he was describing: that’s how ‘The Hurting’ was written, and we knew for a long time it was the right name for our first album”.
A quick look at the album’s song titles shows how influenced they had been by primal therapy (such as the title track, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Mad World’, Ideas As Opiates’, ‘Watch Me Bleed’, ‘Memories Fade’, ‘Start Of The Breakdown’, ‘Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love’, and ‘Change’). As Paul Sinclair notes in his sleeve notes for the latest box-set reissue:
“Like all great art, ‘The Hurting’ connects. The emotion grabs hold of your heart and gives it a squeeze. The Primal Therapy and Janov influence provide a satisfying consistency, and the band are comfortable in using the ‘C’ word [concept] in reference to ‘The Hurting’…[Orzabal adds] It’s a very consistent album with its own personality. There’s a strong message running through it and some of the song titles were taken from Janov’s writing”.
A number of commentators (including Sinclair) have made the observation that the whole album is about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why I bought it as a teenager. In contrast to lyrics in The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ (“It says nothing to me about my life”), The Hurting “said something to me about my life”. Sinclair also notes:
“Deep analysis of the songs and navel gazing is not a condition of entry. The genius of ‘The Hurting’ is that on one level, it is just an album of great, melodic, hook-filled pop songs…In the end. ‘The Hurting’ was the album that the band needed to make. There was never going to be an alternative debut. The basic idea behind Janov’s Primal Therapy – the impact that the trauma of childhood had on your character as an adult – was the blood running through the veins of the record”.
Of course, TFF haven’t been the only band to have songs and/or an album influenced by psychologists and/or psychological theory (and of course Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were both on the cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Arguably the most well known LP inspired by Dr. Janov’s therapy was John Lennon’s first ‘proper’ 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band). Other artists have had direct inspiration from Freud (Freudiana by the Alan Parsons Project, the song ‘Psychotherapy’ by Melanie), Jung (Synchronicity by The Police) and Wilhelm Reich (Kate Bush’s single ‘Cloudbusting’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’). However, I would still contend that TFF were more psychologically influenced as primal therapy was their life philosophy (at least for a number of years).
Most people would probably argue that it was only The Hurting LP that was influenced by Dr. Janov but their later singles off their second LP Songs From The Big Chair are arguably primal therapy-related including ‘Mother’s Talk’ and ‘Shout’ (“Shout, shout, let it all out” could be the mission statement of primal therapy). However, Roland Orzabal claimed that neither were rooted in primal therapy:
“A lot of people think that ‘Shout’ is just another song about primal scream theory continuing the themes of the first album. It is actually more concerned with political protest. It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest…The song [Mothers Talk] stems from two ideas. One is something that mothers say to their children about pulling faces. They say the child will stay like that when the wind changes. The other idea is inspired by the anti-nuclear cartoon book ‘When The Wind Blows‘ by Raymond Briggs”.
However, ‘The Big Chair’ (B-side to ‘Shout’ and the inspiration for the title of the band’s second LP Songs From The Big Chair) has undeniable psychological roots. The song was inspired by the 1976 film Sybil (based on the 1973 non-fiction book by of the same name by Flora Rheta Schreiber). Sybil is about US psychiatric patient Sybil Dorsett (actually a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) who was treated for multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) by her psychoanalyst (Dr. Cornelia Wilbur). ‘The Big Chair’ was in the therapist’s office where Sybil was treated and where she felt safest when talking about her traumatic childhood. Other songs hidden away on TFF B-sides cover aspects of traumatic psychology (‘My Life In The Suicide Ranks’) as well as ‘anti-science’ songs (‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ and ‘Déjà Vu & The Sins of Science’). However, like Christian historian Nathan Albright, I too believe the second LP and later 1986 single ‘Laid So Low’ are psychologically-based:
“Nor did the interest in psychology stop [with ‘The Hurting’]. Tears For Fears’ second album, “Songs From The Big Chair,” are a self-aware “multiple personality” exploration, a conceptual connection that is often forgotten because the hit singles from the album were so successful…Clearly, the musings about power and anger and memory that inform the work of Tears For Fears, the melancholy underpinnings of songs like ‘Watch Me Bleed’ and ‘Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)’ are fairly easy to recognize, and draw greater meaning the more one knows about the band and its personal histories”.
As the years have passed, TFF’s songs have been less psychological but we are a product of our pasts and I would argue that the band’s output is still likely to be shaped by both their conscious and unconscious ideology. Smith was recently interviewed and he admitted that he still had an interest in various psychologies but that he no longer believed in primal therapy:
“Primal theory blames everything on your parents. So that teenage angst we were going through at the time. Since then, I think I’ve moved on to various different psychologies, but it’s something we’re both interested in. Since then, certainly, I’m not a huge believer in primal theory anymore, but I think that comes from having children”.
Maybe their most recent album (Everybody Loves A Happy Ending) has at last brought the band’s traumatic past to rest. Maybe the music itself became a kind of psychological therapy. As Nathan Albright concluded:
“The fact that [Tears For Fears] have a popular and critically acclaimed body of musical work is itself remarkable, but the fact that their work is heavily influenced by psychology, serving as therapy, serves as an inspiration. Rather than self-medication through drugs or alcohol, the two chose music as therapy, turning their lives into the inspiration for hauntingly beautiful songs in their debut concept album, ‘The Hurting’…And that is the most powerful legacy of Tears For Fears, in providing a way for both commercial viability as well as personal therapy. Many creative people [use] creativity as a way to wrestle with our own demons, and the fact that Tears For Fears were able to do it openly and honestly and sincerely, and successfully gives hope to the rest of us who have chosen to deal with our issues in the light, rather than engaging in false pretense”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Albright, N. (2012). Suffer the children: Tears For Fears and musical therapy. Edge Induced Cohesion, May 2. Located at: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/suffer-the-children-tears-for-fears-and-musical-therapy/
Comaretta, L. (2014). Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith: Back in The Big Chair. Consequence of Sound, November 6. Located at: http://consequenceofsound.net/2014/11/tears-for-fears-curt-smith-back-in-the-big-chair/
Janov, A. (1970). The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Books.
Janov A (1977). Towards a new consciousness. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 21, 333–339.
Janov, A. (1980). Prisoners of Pain: Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering. New York: Anchor Books.
Sinclair, P. (2013). Tears For Fears: The Hurting. (Booklet in the Deluxe Reissue of ‘The Hurting’).
Wikipedia (2015). Arthur Janov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Janov
Wikipedia (2015). Primal therapy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy
Wikipedia (2015). Tears For Fears. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tears_for_Fears