Like many people my age, I eagerly await this week’s release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. When I go to the midnight premiere on Thursday night, I will probably reflect on how much J.K. Rowling has given our generation. She gave us a hero to grow up with, stories to read and re-read, understanding on concepts such as love and friendship, and the most successful book and movie series in world history. I am grateful for many of the memories and lessons she has provided to me and many of my friends, but a few days ago, I was reminded of one of the most important things she gave us – a healthy mind.
An article recently published in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine studied the relationship between teens’ exposure to certain forms of media (music, video games, the Internet, magazines, newspapers, and books) and having depression. According to the study, teens who read books are unlikely to be depressed. On the other hand, teens who listen to music excessively are 8.3 times as likely to be depressed as young people less exposed. None of the other forms of media had a significant correlation to depression. When I saw this study, I wondered why reading Harry Potter could help the state of my mental health, whereas listening to my favorite bands could hurt it.
I do take the findings with a grain of salt. I highly doubt that people who don’t listen to music would be 8 times more likely to become depressed just by listening to a lot of music. There must be many confounding factors that play into this very significant correlation. Perhaps people who naturally love music are inherently susceptible to depression, or perhaps people who are already depressed choose to listen to music instead of read to find comfort. Nonetheless, the results are too significant to ignore. Even if confounding factors bias some of the results, I find it unlikely that there is absolutely no causal link between listening to music and being depressed, just as I find it unlikely that there is no causal link between reading a lot and not being depressed. Psychologists and neuroscientists should study this link and find a physiological reason for it. In the meantime, I will offer possible explanations and some protective measures we should take to avoid depression.
One potential factor for music causing depression could be that when listening to music, one doesn’t need to have a constantly engaged mind. When we listen to music, it does not necessarily require our whole attention. We can let our mind wander as we listen to music in the background. Conversely, when we read books, we must focus on the task at hand. If our mind starts to wander, we will lose focus of the task at hand and be unable to complete it. As I discussed in a previous post, it is important to relax once in awhile to avoid the negative consequences of excessive stress. But perhaps leaving our minds inactive for too long is harmful.
Another potential factor for music as a cause depression could be that music is usually more emotive than books. We often listen to songs that reflect the mood that we are in. During periods of our lives in which we’re already down, perhaps music serves as a way to reinforce our feelings. But with books, we usually have a limited amount we can choose from. Since books often have greater breadth and complexity in storyline than songs, it is doubtful that they convey a narrow, extreme version of the emotion we currently feel. Thus, rather than reinforcing our feelings, perhaps books serve as a distracting and calming mechanism.
French philosopher Voltaire once said “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” Though (as some of you can attest) I have absolutely no dancing ability, I have always found the quote very powerful. It suggests that if we focus on learning about the world and savoring life, we can make the world a better place. According to this latest study, perhaps we should heed Voltaire’s advice for other reasons as well. If we keep our minds occupied with reading books or dancing, we will avoid allowing our minds to be idle. Furthermore, perhaps reading will distract us of a negative emotional state. These factors together could help us avoid depression.
By no means am I suggesting that we stop listening to music. I love music very much. I think it can relax us and influence us positively. However, I do think we should be cautious about how much time we listen to music and allow our minds to idle. We should also be weary of choosing songs that reinforce our emotions when we’re feeling down. I eagerly await more research explaining why listening to music excessively is linked to depression. Meanwhile, I’ll add ‘helping me maintain mental health’ to reasons I am thankful for J.K. Rowling. And maybe I’ll re-read her books one last time.
Shaunak Varma is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group focusing on mental health. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org.