Poker, music and ear buds, Part I

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At my recent home poker game, one of our friends recounted a hand he had seen at a local cardroom. The details escape me, but the point of his story was a player wearing ear buds had missed a verbal declaration from the other side of the table. Confusion ensued and the music lover ended up spewing some chips because he hadn’t heard the action.

“Aha!” someone said. “That’s why you should never play wearing ear buds.” A few others mumbled in agreement as if it were accepted knowledge that ear buds interfere with good poker skills. Being somewhat of a contrary sort, I wasn’t so convinced.

Of course music blaring into your ears could cause you not to hear something being said at the table, costing you some chips. But do the benefits of hearing your favorite tunes at the table outweigh the negatives of making this occasional gaffe? After doing a little research, I found a few curious studies that point tantalizingly toward yes.

Now I’m not a psychologist or a neuroscientist, but occasionally I play one in this column. Those of you who have more knowledge on this subject than I do (and there are a lot of you), don’t beat up on me too badly if my conclusions stretch the research a little. I admit I’m much more comfortable fixing broken bones or injecting Botox. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a general summary of some pretty interesting findings and suggest you might be able to use music to improve your game.

The first study gathered a group for a written test requiring abstract or lateral thinking, sort of like trying to determine if that guy on your left is three-betting light or has a real hand. Those who watched a funny movie just before taking the test did better than those who just sat quietly and thought about the test. The conclusion: Relaxing the brain with a pleasurable activity might “free up” brainpower used to solve complex problems.
Science Magazine reported students who spent 10 minutes before an exam writing about their thoughts and feelings got better scores than those who didn’t. Can it be that activating the “feeling” side of the brain simultaneously calms the analytical side and allows it to be more open to those “Aha!” moments?

The University of Michigan had groups of students stroll for 10 minutes through busy city streets or a serene wooded forest before being taught a complex lesson. Guess which group did better on the lesson. The researchers concluded the intense concentration needed to navigate traffic interfered with the students’ ability to learn new information while the pleasurable biochemicals released during the walk in the woods may “clean out” or “refresh” the brain and make it ready to absorb new things.

This study reminded me of how great thinkers sometimes achieve a sparkling moment of inspiration while communing with nature. I remember how occasionally my college philosophy professor would take our class outside to have a discussion while surrounded by flowers and trees. Maybe he understood a relaxed brain functions better.

What does all this have to do with ear buds and poker? Here’s my favorite study out of McGill University. It identified people who truly enjoyed particular pieces of music. It didn’t really matter what type of music the subjects liked. The study included lovers of classical music, punk, jazz, tango and even bagpipes.

The researchers then examined PET scans of the brain while these subjects listened to their favorite music passages. They found the brain’s pleasure centers flooded with dopamine, the very same chemical that helps us feel the calming pleasure of eating good food or having satisfying sex. Cool! They identified a biochemical reason why I want to play air guitar every time I hear Layla.

So let’s put this all together. Music releases chemicals that cause pleasure and relaxation. When you are calm and allow your feelings and intuitions to surface, you’re able to grasp the big picture, to assemble the many pieces of information you need to solve a complex problem. Your opponent’s betting pattern, the position of his hands, his posture, the texture of the board and the stack sizes form a picture that’s easier to see if your brain is relaxed and open.

I admit these studies generate more questions than they answer. Let’s have students absorb information or take tests while they listen to music. What type of music is best for problem-solving? Is the emotional richness of Beethoven better than the mathematical precision of Bach. Is Enya’s angst superior to Devo’s techno-pop? Does the emotion have to be happy or would forlorn country ballads work just as well? Should I stop harassing my teenager for doing her homework listening to Lady Gaga?

I have no answers to these questions but I do have a second chapter. It turns out there are some real downsides to playing ear-bud poker. Next month I’ll tell you what they are.

— An avid poker player, Frank Toscano, M.D. is a board-certified emergency physician with more than 28 years of front-line experience.He’s medicaldirector for Red Bamboo Medi Spa in Clearwater, Fla. Email your poker-healthquestions to ftoscano@redbamboomedispa.com