Of Mice and Mozart


In the mid 1990s, an American high school student conducted an experiment that became a popular science classic. He bought 72 genetically-similar white mice from a laboratory, and measured their times as they repeatedly ran through a maze that he built in his bedroom. One third of the mice then listened to Mozart for 10 hours a day for a month, while another third listened to heavy metal music, and the control group listened to no music at all.

You may already know where this is going. The Mozart mice improved dramatically over the month, dropping their average time from about 10 minutes to 106 seconds. The control group cut their time from 10 minutes to five. The average time for the mice listening to metal, however, increased from 10 minutes to half an hour, forcing the student to spend 6 hours a day running his experiment!

What this all means to you depends on your perspective. The “Mozart Effect” has been hyped by a number of scientists and journalists in the grand quest to construct an environment ideal for human concentration and creativity. Some people like to listen to white noise, trance music, or any album that feels as familiar as their own heartbeat (Full disclosure: I listen to Norwegian metal when I need to concentrate, because I like the energy, and because I can’t be distracted by lyrics I don’t understand).

If you prefer quiet when you work, you might object, “But the mice also improved with silence!” And you would be right. You might also point out that running through a maze is not the same as putting together a business plan or writing a short story, activities which require sustained attention and creative energy.

For every article you read promising that solitude is the key to creativity, there’s another one outlining the benefits of collaboration and random social interactions. Research like this is very important in the design of spaces for collaborative and individual work.

I want you to think about this the next time you visit the library. Your work requires you to spend time alone, thinking and writing quietly, but also meeting in groups and building upon other peoples’ ideas. This is why the library has multiple floors, with various configurations of computers, chairs, tables, study rooms, and materials. The learning commons on the plaza level is meant to be a social space, while the other areas are for quiet work, including the entire second floor. This was not our idea — in fact, it was yours! We just made it official.

We in the library are thinking a great deal about how to accommodate those who need conversation and those who need quiet. We are responding to the concerns of both groups. You may notice some changes over the next few weeks, as we comprehensively assess how our space is used. Want to help?  Send me ideas at jdrewry@aucegypt.edu