7 Scientific Studies About How Animals React to Music

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Music is pretty universally enjoyed ... when it comes to people. Animals, on the other hand, have diverse reactions to tunes. For every Ronan the head-bopping sea lion, there are plenty of creatures that can't keep the beat. Here are seven scientific discoveries about how some animals react to music, either created by humans or themselves. 

1. DOGS IN KENNELS MIGHT BE LESS STRESSED WHILE LISTENING TO CLASSICAL MUSIC.

In a 2012 study [PDF] published in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior, researchers from Colorado State University monitored the behavior of 117 kenneled dogs, including their activity levels, vocalization, and body shaking. The researchers played a few different types of music to the dogs, including classical, heavy metal, and an altered type of classical music. They also observed the dogs' behavior when no music was playing at all. They found that the dogs slept the most while listening to all kinds of classical music, indicating that it helped them relax. The dogs had the opposite reaction to the metal music, which provoked increased body shaking—a sign of nervousness.

The researchers noted the similarities between dogs and people when it comes to classical music. “These results are consistent with human studies, which have suggested that music can reduce agitation, promote sleep, improve mood, and lower stress and anxiety,” they wrote. They also point out that heavy metal music has anxiety-inducing effects on some people as well.

2. CATS DON'T CARE ABOUT HUMAN MUSIC, BUT SCIENTISTS ARE ABLE TO CREATE MUSIC THAT THEY DO ENJOY. 

Cats either don't care for, or are pretty indifferent to, human music. Thankfully, Charles Snowdon, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, David Teie, a composer at the University of Maryland, and Megan Savage, formerly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now a Ph.D. student at SUNY-Binghamton, have developed music that contains frequencies and tempos similar to the ones cats use to communicate. We tested some of the songs on one of our editor's cats earlier this year; you can listen to samples of the songs here.

Snowdon and Savage went to 47 households with cats and played them music, including two classical songs and two songs developed for felines. When the researchers played the latter, the cat was more likely to move towards the speaker, or even rub up against it, according to their study, which was published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science earlier this year. Interestingly, young and old cats reacted to the cat songs the most positively. Middle-aged cats showed more indifference.

3. IT'S ALSO POSSIBLE TO MAKE MONKEY MUSIC.

Cats weren't the first animals Snowdon, Savage, and Teie made species-specific music for. In 2009, they developed songs that mirrored the pitch of monkey calls. For their study, which was published in the journal Biology Letters, the scientists played the music for tamarin monkeys. Songs that were inspired by the calming calls the animals make caused the monkeys to relax; they even ate more while listening to those songs. But when the researchers played music that contained sounds similar to ones the monkeys make when they’re expressing fear, the monkeys became agitated. (You can listen to the songs here.) The monkeys were mostly indifferent to human music—their behavior didn't noticeably change when they were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Tool, or Samuel Barber. But, interestingly, when they heard “Of Wolf and Man” by Metallica, they grew calmer.

4. COWS PRODUCE MORE MILK WHEN THEY'RE LISTENING TO RELAXING MUSIC. 

In 2001, researchers at the University of Leicester played various songs to 1000-strong herds of Friesian dairy cows. Over a period of nine weeks, the researchers alternated between fast music, slow music, and silence for 12 hours each day. They found that calming music—like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony"—actually resulted in the cows producing 3 percent more milk—0.73 liters per cow per day. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Adrian North, told the BBC, “Calming music can improve milk yield, probably because it reduces stress.” The cows were not so into “Space Cowboy” by Jamiroquai or “Size of a Cow” by Wonderstuff.

5. ELEPHANTS MIGHT BE BETTER AT PLAYING MUSIC THAN HUMANS ARE.

Elephants are already known for their ability to paint with their trunks, but it turns out that they might be musically inclined as well. (Just check out this viral video of elephants swaying their trunks to violin music!) In northern Thailand, a conservationist named Richard Lair put together the Thai Elephant Orchestra, in which 16 elephants play specially developed instruments like steel drums and even harmonicas. Neuroscientists who have studied the music of the Thai Elephant Orchestra have determined that the animals are able to keep a very stable tempo on a large drum—even more stable than a human can.

6. BIRD BRAINS REACT TO MUSIC IN A MANNER SIMILAR TO HUMAN BRAINS. 

Birds are probably the most well-known singers of the animal kingdom. A few years ago, researchers at Emory University set out to learn whether birds are actually making music, like humans do. To find out, they examined the brains of both male and female white-tailed sparrows as they listened to the sounds of male birds.

When humans listen to music, our amygdalae often light up in response. It turned out that female white-tailed sparrows had similar brain responses to the bird sounds. The part of their brain that’s similar to the amygdala lit up while listening to the male’s song. The male birds, on the other hand, had brain reactions similar to when humans listen to music they don’t like. Sarah Earp, the study's lead researcher, explained, “We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like.”

7. FISH KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COMPOSERS.

In 2013, a study was published in the journal Behavioral Processes that revealed that goldfish could be trained to distinguish between composers. Researchers at Keio University used pieces of music by two composers in the study: Igor Stravinsky and Johann Sebastian Bach. The goal was to train the goldfish to gnaw on a ball filled with food when the correct composer’s music was playing. One group of fish got Stravinsky and a separate group got Bach. When the fish heard music, they went to gnaw on the ball and were rewarded with food. Once the fish were correlating a composer’s music with the reward, the researchers tried playing the other composer’s music. The goldfish didn’t gnaw on the ball at that point, indicating that they knew enough about the pitch and timbre of their composer to not associate the novel music with food.

All images courtesy of iStock

11 Science-Backed Tips for Winning an Argument

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For many people, arguing is something to avoid. But arguments can be used for good—they can inform, sharpen thinking, and challenge old ideas in important ways. The expert tips below will help you argue more incisively, which, in turn, will probably make you more likely to win the discussion. (Of course, winning means different things to different people—so not all of these concepts are about making someone else think you’re right.)

1. DETERMINE THE NATURE OF THE ARGUMENT.

According to Mark Porrovecchio, a professor of rhetoric and a debate coach at Oregon State University, understanding the nature of a disagreement will help you determine how best to handle it. “Argument styles vary according to context [and] genre,” he tells Mental Floss. “What might work when arguing with a significant other could backfire when debating with a colleague. The goal is to be mindful of the type of situation you are in … and to be willing to adjust your approach based on a host of situational factors.”

You should adjust your tone—and even the content of your argument—depending on the person with whom you are having it and the place it’s happening. The conversation in a private setting may be a different from one in a public space. This particular tactic, Porrovecchio says, is as old as debate itself: Both the Sophists and Aristotle used it.

2. KNOW YOUR OPPONENT'S PERSONALITY TYPE …

Sometimes you won’t know what your opponent values or what their background is—but sometimes, you will. Use that information.

Most people are either reactive or analytical, says Prince Ghuman, a professor at Hult International Business School and coauthor of the book Allure: the Neuroscience of Consumerism. “Some people tend to be more reactive, so you can convince them using techniques that appeal to them—emotion and empathy," he tells Mental Floss. "Others seem to be more deliberate—you’ll need to provide an analytical support for your argument."

3. … AND MORAL IDENTITY.

In political and ideological arguments, different sides often have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. According to the moral foundations theory, a framework proposed by a group of social psychologists, most people see society through six different binaries: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression. A politically liberal person, for example, might be more affected by an argument that stresses compassion and fairness, whereas conservatives might find loyalty and authority to be more important. Each person will have a unique idea of which concept in each pair carries more weight, and in an argument, knowing what the other side values can help frame your talking points.

“One reason it’s so hard to reach across the ideological divide is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethics of their own side, rather than that of their opponents,” journalist Olga Khazan explained in an Atlantic video. Framing your argument to appeal to your opponents' moral code rather than your own can help you win.

4. USE EMOTION—BUT DON'T REST YOUR ENTIRE ARGUMENT ON IT.

Not only is arguing sans emotion almost impossible if you're a human being, it’s also not a great way to succeed. “Every argument, even many seemingly factual arguments, contains an emotional element,” Porrovecchio says.

According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell, author of Success Equations: A Path to Living an Emotionally Wealthy Life, you should include feelings when you make your case, but don’t go too far with an emotional point—especially in professional settings. When it comes to personal disagreements, uncomfortable feelings can sometimes be necessary, and while kindness is important, so is honesty.

“Sometimes emotional arguments that bring about sadness can help people get to the core of where the hurt and frustration is," Campbell says. "As long as the person you're arguing with has empathy and can put caring over being right, then emotional arguments can be effective.”

Ideally, you should try to keep it balanced. “An argument that relies solely on emotion should be treated with suspicion,” Porrovecchio says. Feelings without information or details to back them up fall flat if the other person can’t relate.

5. MAKE YOUR CASE WITH EMPATHY.

“Connect to the listener by conveying your story through one person’s example. Personify, rather than generalize,” Ghuman suggests. He cites research [PDF] by psychologists at the University of Oregon that shows people will donate more money to an individual in need than a group of people. That’s because most of us can empathize with one person but find it harder to relate to groups in the same way. When arguing, use this tactic to your advantage by finding (or imagining) a specific person who might be helped by what you are arguing for.

For instance, if you are arguing that Peggy shouldn’t be fined for parking her car in a tow zone because she was trying to rescue a dog in the street, it would make more sense to describe who she is specifically. Rather than call her “Peggy, a dog owner,” describing her as “Peggy, who has adopted a mutt, a pitbull, and an elderly chihuahua,” would render her more sympathetic. Empathetic details shouldn't be used as replacements for factual information, though; they should be additions to the facts.

6. USE STORYTELLING.

Storytelling works hand-in-hand with empathy and puts data to support your argument in context. Pull all your information together—using empathy, facts, and emotions—to create a compelling story, and your argument will be tougher to beat. When your point seems part of a narrative arc, each aspect of what you're arguing is harder to pick on.

Need a template? Porovecchio recommends the TED format. “I think TED Talks have gained popular cachet because they often manage to balance a degree of detail and fact with a personable, narrative-driven delivery style,” he says.

7. INFLUENCE YOUR ADVERSARY WITH PHYSICAL CUES.

People unconsciously mimic others in social situations, a behavior that psychologists believe is associated with emotional connection. Consciously imitating the posture and movement of your opponent is also a well-known way to bring someone over to your side. Try leaning back if your opponent does so, or cross your arms or legs the way they do. Looking them in the eye when you are listening to them speak is another to reduce their confidence in their own argument—and you’ll look stronger, too. You can even lower your voice a notch to sound more dominant, according to this study.

8. REMAIN CALM.

Whether you are using or responding to an analytic or emotional argument, keep it as relaxed as possible. “The best thing to do when in an argument is to stay calm and talk slowly—you can't yell and talk slowly at the same time,” Campbell says. “Forcing yourself to talk slowly helps to keep the emotions under control and your thoughts rational.” If that sounds like a challenge, it is: “This takes a lot of discipline, but it's a simple thing to focus on.”

9. PRACTICE YOUR DELIVERY.

Like most other skills, spending time arguing will make you better at it. Debate in high school, college, or in a professional-development context “should be viewed as a way to practice the skills of arguing,” Porrovecchio says. “You work to improve your technique, your content, your delivery; then use what you have learned in real world situations.” Porrovecchio says he’s seen his students become not just better debaters over time, but also “better public speakers and critical thinkers.”

10. REFRAME THE DEBATE.

Not all arguments have to be about being right, which some people define as winning. You might consider it a win if your opinion is valued and considered by the person you are disagreeing with—even if you don't change their mind. “Instead of the word argument, replace it with conversation. If you're just having a conversation, then winning is off the table, and a productive discussion can occur,” Campbell says.

11. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, WALK AWAY.

Sometimes it gets ugly, or the argument seems to be going in circles. If you’re not getting anywhere in a discussion, “ask your opponent directly: ‘Is there anything I can do to change your mind?’ If they say that nothing will change their mind, believe them, and walk away,” Ghuman says. Sometimes an argument is a draw—and that’s OK. You’ve won if you’ve learned something, Ghuman adds: “Healthy argument can expand your perspective and open your mind.”

10 Riveting Facts About Mars

Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
Mars's dust storms can be global. In these images taken a month apart in 2001, the dust storm near the southern polar ice cap (left) soon enveloped the entire planet (right).
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

Few celestial objects have fascinated humankind throughout history more than the Red Planet. For over a century, we've longed to know more about Mars and the beings that we speculated lived there. When NASA dispelled the notion of creatures scurrying along the rusty plains, it raised a more tantalizing prospect: that we might one day be the creatures that call Mars home.

Mental Floss spoke to Kirby Runyon, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and Tanya Harrison, the director of research for Arizona State University's NewSpace Initiative, to learn more about the place your kids might live one day.

1. A MARTIAN YEAR LASTS JUST UNDER TWO EARTH YEARS.

It takes 687 Earth days for the Red Planet make its way around the Sun. A Mars day—called a sol—lasts 24.6 hours, which would be a nuisance for the circadian rhythms of astronauts (but not as bad as a day on Venus, which lasts 5832 hours).

2. IT'S NOT AS HOT AS IT MIGHT LOOK.

Mars looks desert-hot—New Mexico with hazy skies, red because of its iron oxide soil—but is actually very cold, with a blistering hot sol being 70°F, and a cold sol a brisk -225°F. Its dust storms can be huge; in 2018, one storm grew so large that it encompassed the entire planet for more than a month. (You can see a similarly huge dust storm in the image above.)

3. MARS IS MUCH SMALLER THAN EARTH ...

Compared to Earth, Mars is a tiny Styrofoam ball, with a diameter just over half of ours and one-tenth of our mass. Its gravity will be an absolute nightmare for future colonists, at .38 that of their native planet. (That means a person weighing 100 pounds here would weigh just 38 pounds on Mars.)

4. ... AND ITS ATMOSPHERE IS MOSTLY CARBON DIOXIDE.

You won't want to get a breath of fresh air on Mars unless you're trying to suffocate: Its atmosphere is 95.32 percent carbon dioxide, with a little nitrogen and argon thrown in. (Earth's atmosphere, by contrast, is mostly nitrogen and oxygen.) When you do try to take that single, hopeless breath, the tears on your eyeballs, saliva in your mouth, and water in your lungs will immediately evaporate. You won't die right away, but you'll probably want to.

5. IT HAS TWO MOONS, BOTH WITH BETTER NAMES THAN OURS.

They're called Phobos and Deimos, which translate to Fear and Dread, respectively. They're shaped like potatoes and don't exactly fill the evening sky: Standing on the Martian surface, Phobos would appear to be about one-third the size of Earth's moon; Deimos would look like a bright star.

Future human Martians will have to enjoy Phobos while they can. The tidal forces of Mars are tearing Phobos apart; in 50 million years, the big potato will disintegrate.

In the meantime, Phobos is one of the stepping stones NASA plans to take on its journey to Mars. No part of human exploration of the Red Planet is easy, and before we land on Mars (and then have to figure out how to launch back into space and somehow get back to Earth), it's vastly easier to land on Phobos, do a little reconnaissance, and then take off and return home. As a bonus, on the journey to Phobos [PDF], astronauts can bring along hardware necessary for eventual Martian settlement, making the ride a lot easier for the next astronauts.

6. MARS IS HOME TO THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM.

The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, is 29,029 feet tall. Olympus Mons on Mars is over 72,000 feet in height, making it the tallest mountain by far on any planet in the solar system.

Olympus Mons isn't the only extraordinary Mars feature: Mountaineers might also want to check out NASA's trail map for hiking the famous Face on Mars. If canyons are more your speed, you'll want to visit Valles Marineris. It is the size of North America and, at its bottom, four miles deep. (In the solar system, only Earth's Atlantic Ocean is deeper.) Once Earth's ice caps finish melting, you can always visit the ones on Mars. (If you have a telescope, you can easily see them; they are the planet's most distinctive features visible from your backyard.)

7. THE IDEA OF MARTIANS GOES BACK OVER A CENTURY.

That's partially because of popular fiction (War of the Worlds, the 1897 novel by H.G. Wells, sees a Martian invasion force invade England) and partially because of Percival Lowell, the famed astronomer who wrote prolifically on the canals he thought he was observing through his telescope, and why they might be necessary for the survival of the Martian people. (Mars was drying up.)

Though it's easy to dismiss such conclusions today, at the time Lowell not only popularized space science like few others, but left behind the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—one of the oldest observatories in America and the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

8. IF THERE ARE MARTIANS, THEY ARE MICROBES.

Today, scientists work tirelessly to unlock the complex geologic history of Mars, to determine whether life exists there today, or did long ago. "We think that Mars was most globally conducive to life around 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago," Runyon tells Mental Floss. "In the Mars geologic history, that's the end of the Noachian and toward the beginning of the Hesperian epochs." There may once have been a hemispheric ocean on Mars. Later, the world might have alternated between being wet and dry, with an ocean giving way to massive crater lakes. Where there's water, there's a good chance of life.

"If we found life on Mars—either extinct or current—that's really interesting," says Runyon, "but more interesting than that, is whether this life arose independently on Mars, separate from Earth." It is conceivable that meteorite impacts on Earth blasted life-bearing rocks into space and eventually to the Martian surface: "A second life emergence on Mars is not just a geological question. It's a biogeochemical question. We know that Mars is habitable, but we haven't answered the question of whether it had, or has, life."

9. NASA SPENDS A LOT OF TIME OUT THERE.

Mars hasn't hurt for missions in recent years, though scientists now warn of an exploration desert beyond 2020. But that doesn't mean we humans don't have eyes on the planet. Presently in orbit around the planet are the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which images and scans the planet; MAVEN, which studies its atmosphere; Mars Express, the European Space Agency's first Mars mission; MOM, the first Mars mission by the Indian Space Research Organization; the ESA's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, which is searching for methane in the Martian atmosphere; and Odyssey, which studies Mars for water and ice signatures, and acts as a communications relay for vehicles on the ground.

Rolling around on the Martian surface are Curiosity and Opportunity—NASA missions both—which study Martian geology. Though the Russians and Europeans have tried mightily to do so, NASA is the only space agency to successfully land spacecraft on the Martian surface (seven times).

In November 2018, the InSight mission will land on Mars, where it will study the planet's interior. In 2020, NASA will land the Mars 2020 rover; where Curiosity studies Mars for signs of habitability, Mars 2020 will look for inhabitants.

"It is going to collect samples that will hopefully be brought back to Earth," says Runyon. "The three landing sites selected for Mars 2020 are Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater, and Columbia Hills within Gusev Crater, which is where the dead rover Spirit is currently sitting. Each of these sites is a hydrothermal environment dating from the Noachian-Hesperian boundary. These are some of the most perfect places to look for past signs of Martian life, and can help answer the question of whether life had a second genesis on Mars."

10. MARS IS CHANGING, BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHY.

"Most people don't realize how active Mars is," Harrison tells Mental Floss. "Other planets aren't just these dead worlds that are frozen in time outside of our own. There are actually things happening there right now." Imagery from the HiRISE and Context Camera instruments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed such events as avalanches, sand dune erosion [PDF], and recurring slope lineae (flowing Martian saltwater).

Things are moving, but it's not always clear why. "There's a lot of material that has been eroded away," says Harrison. "We have entire provinces of the planet that look like they've been completely buried and then exhumed. And that's a lot of material. The big question is, where did it all go? And what process eroded it all away?" Curiosity might help answer the question, but to really understand the processes and history of the fourth rock from the Sun, we're going to need to send geologists in spacesuits. "You can't replace human intuition with a rover," Harrison says. "Looking at a picture on your computer is not the same as standing there and looking around at the context, stratigraphic columns, being able to pick up the rocks and manipulate them, take a hammer to things. So once humans land on the surface, it'll be kind of like the difference between what we knew about Mars from Viking and Mars Global Surveyor and then the revolution between Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Our view of what we think happened on Mars is going to completely change, and we'll find out that a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong."

A version of this story ran in 2017.

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