For Men, Listening to AC/DC and Playing Board Games Is a Bad Combo

Flickr / Hernan Piera

For years, scientists have been unable to decide, once and for all, whether listening to music can help people concentrate. There are too many types of music and too many ways of focusing to make a blanket statement, they argue. There is, however, one very specific scenario in which scientists give music an emphatically hard no: A room full of men attempting to win at board games while listening to AC/DC.

This oddly specific scenario is one of many that a group of scientists, led by Daisy Fancourt, Ph.D., of Imperial College London, tested when they investigated whether it is a good idea for surgeons to listen to music while they’re in the operating theater. Publishing their results in the Christmas edition of The Medical Journal of Australia, the scientists offered up this rare piece of medical guidance: “Men are advised not to listen to rock music when either operating or playing board games.”

Here’s how they formed this hot take: The researchers put some headphones on their 352 subjects and had them listen to one of three types of sounds: Mozart’s famously soothing Andante from Sonata for two pianos (K 448), the ambient sound of a regular operating theatre, or the song “Thunderstruck” by legendary Australian rock band AC/DC. (The latter song is from the album The Razor’s Edge, which they describe as “aptly named,” given their subject matter.) After receiving a brief lecture on multiorgan resection techniques, the participants, still wearing their headphones, were introduced to their patient: Cavity Sam, the open-torsoed character at the heart of the classic board game Operation. Instructing the participants to remove three of his organs, the researchers then assessed how long their subjects took, how many mistakes they made, and how distracting they rated their given soundtracks.

The experimental setup.

One thing was very clear from the results: All of the men who had listened to “Thunderstruck” took much longer to complete their surgery on Cavity Sam and made many more mistakes. It didn’t even matter whether they liked AC/DC or not; the pounding, 134-beats-per-minute banger was consistently distracting in this group.

The same, however, could not be said for women. They seemed to do equally as well in surgery listening to any of the three sounds. Mozart didn’t seem to have much of an effect on either men or women, although people who said they enjoyed it did find it beneficial.

They think that “Thunderstruck,” with its blazing tempo and harsh guitars, is a song that could be described as dichotic music — that is, one that causes auditory stress. Previous studies, they note, have shown that dichotic tunes slow down doctors performing laparoscopic surgeries. These findings are troubling, the researchers write, because a lot of surgeons, many of them men, do listen to music in the operating theater — and it’s safe to assume that at least some of them are particular fans of the Young brothers.

Of course, they note, their model assumes that playing Operation is a fairly sound analogy to the operating room setting, which is a whimsical stretch befitting an article featured in the often-silly Christmas issues of a science journal. Still, the research and methods themselves are sound, so any man that finds himself in a tense board game scenario can confidently take their advice and shut the Oz rock off.

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