Mental Mettle and Musings: finding comfort in the familiar

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | February 14, 2022

Art by Sofia Ruiz (’22)

Students often find themselves mocked by the adults in their lives for enjoying the things that bring them comfort, such as music they listen to when preparing for exams, books they reread every winter break, or movies they play in the background of stressful tasks. If the content has been watched before, and is thus familiar, it can provide comfort. I personally love eating my mom’s home-cooked okra at any hour of the day. While society often perceives students as close-minded for turning to such comfort, a recent discovery has demonstrated the merits of the known and familiar.

In a study affiliated with St. Michael’s Hospital and University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, researchers studied the correlation between familiar, well-known music and cognitive function in patients in the early stages of cognitive decline. They discovered that as a result of the music, participants improved their performance on the memory portion of a cognitive assessment; additionally, the music increased brain activity in areas associated with autobiographical memory, which dementia negatively impacts. Lead researcher Michael Thaut stated, “Music is an access key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex. Keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life.” There is proven merit to familiar stimuli; this behavior does not make students close-minded. This interesting phenomenon can be explained by our brain activity.

In our brains, new experiences are synonymous with the unknown; while the word signals an exciting endeavor ahead to some, but fear to others, our brains respond in similar ways. In studies where participants are connected to electrodes that periodically shock the skin, researchers found that the mere chance of unpredictability, which in this case is the chance of receiving a shock, increased participant stress. In a specific study conducted at the University College London Institute of Neurology, participants showed more stress when there was a 50 percent chance of extremely mild electrocution than when there was a 100 percent chance of receiving the shock. This finding shows that the uncertainty increases stress, not the shock itself. Researchers from Yale suggest that heightened activity in the amygdala, the fear response center of the brain in the central limbic system, accompanies this uncertainty.

When our brain enters this constant race to attempt to predict the next stimulus, our entire body is on high alert; this phenomenon extends to seemingly less threatening stimuli, such as an upcoming test or college interview, when our brains do not know what to expect.

While our response to uncertainty does not differ, what we perceive as uncertainty does and can differ. Some people with a high intolerance for uncertainty, such as those who experience heightened amounts of stress before everyday tasks, suffer from anxiety. For many people, simply learning to not worry about the things not in their control is easier said than done. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people identify their own thought and behavior patterns, can help people let go of the consequences of unpredictable events and of every single unknown. Exposure therapy to different unpredictable situations, combined with techniques to cope with the discomfort with uncertainty, can also alleviate these feelings.

Comfort books, movies, and television shows are predictable; nothing changes between the time we have last consumed this media, so our brain relishes the certainty. While it is true that this comfort is necessary, we should aim to reduce the stimuli themselves that create feelings of uncertainty, and continue to broaden our horizons. 

Categories: Column, Science

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