Poker, music and ear buds Part II

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Before diving into my main topic this month I’d like to offer kudos to my favorite local cardroom, Silks at the Tampa Bay Downs. Poker room manager Pat Murphy read my column on Automatic External Defibrillators, bought one for his poker room and mounted it in a prominent location visible across the room. Thanks, Pat. Now players have a fighting chance to survive a heart-stopping bad beat.

Last month I proposed a theory that listening to music might just make you a better poker player because music, especially music you really love, tends to wake up the intuitive side of the brain.

The opposite side of the brain, the analytical side, is usually pretty good at processing lots of incomplete bits of information and coming up with a pattern. When you concentrate hard on hand ranges, betting patterns and stack sizes, you’re using raw analytical processing power, not intuition, to come to your conclusions.

Occasionally, though, it’s the intuitive side of the brain that has the advantage. When you’re truly in the zone, every gesture, every bet and every vocal nuance stimulates your brain almost subconsciously and combines to form an image that’s so clear, your opponents might as well be playing with their cards face up. When you’re able to see the big picture, those “Aha!” moments of enlightenment are nearly always the product of intuition, not analysis.

Calm relaxation makes it easier for you to be in touch with that intuitive side. Music, especially music that moves you emotionally, causes your brain to squirt out chemicals that are pleasurable and calming and may be just the stimulus you need to open up that intuitive side and allow you to see the broad overall view.

So crank up Nine Inch Nails, pop in the ear buds and start betting. Right?
Not so fast! Besides the obvious problem of missing a verbal declaration or a dealer instruction, there’s a health-related downside that deserves equal time. Ear buds can harm your hearing.

Well, that’s not exactly what the Journal of the American Medical Association said in a recent article but it came pretty close. From 1988-94, it measured hearing levels in teenagers. In 2005 and 2006 the hearing tests were repeated in a new group of teenagers. The results: The new group had hearing loss that was 31 percent worse than the earlier group. A whopping one in five teenagers had a hearing loss of up to 25 decibels, a level that’s more commonly seen in the aged.

The study didn’t try to figure out why the hearing of today’s teenagers is so much worse than 20 years ago, but they pointed out the rise in use of MP3 players and ear buds correlates pretty well with the hearing problems. And, it turns out the tiny ear buds seen so commonly today at poker tables are more likely to cause damage than the older muff-style headphones.

Let’s put some numbers on this problem. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says 30 minutes at 110 decibels is the maximum level allowable in the workplace. That’s like a chain saw.

We know exposure to any sound more than 85 decibels will cause damage over time. Many MP3 players can hit 115 and an iPod is capable of producing as much as 130. At Wichita State University, random students with ear buds were often listening at the 110-plus level. Even at only 70 percent volume (about 92 decibels), hearing damage can occur in about 100 minutes.

The best solution is to turn down the volume. Use the 60-percent/60-minute rule as a guideline. To keep safe, listen for no more than 60 minutes per day at 60 percent the maximum volume. If you crank it up, it doesn’t matter if it’s Bieber or Beethoven, those delicate hairs inside your ears that translate vibration into sound will be damaged. Switch to muff-style headphones or drop the volume down further and you can listen safely for much longer.

So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to listen to your favorite tunes while playing cards, especially if it helps you focus. Just use moderation and protect your hearing.
Some years ago my wife began to suspect my hearing might be slipping a little so I reluctantly got tested. I returned home triumphantly to announce I had good news and bad news. The good news was my hearing was just fine. The bad news was I was just ignoring her.

After a slight adjustment with a frying pan, I now hear perfectly.

— 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-health questions to ftoscano@redbamboomedispa.com