The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.
The cognitive dissonance we experience as we work our way through this tension often comes with a high level of emotional and cognitive discomfort. It’s painful–frightening even–to question the ‘truth’ and reality of our knowledge and beliefs. All too often, in an effort to rid ourselves of this highly unpleasant sense of unease, we disengage with one of the two elements procuding the dissonance; disregarding one idea or point of view to focus exclusively on the one that feels familiar and safe to us. In disengaging, we lose out on the vast possibilities of the tension. Not only is this a lost opportunity for us to grow as teams and individuals, it often holds a heavy social and human cost as we hold on to harmful and negative stereotypes and assumptions about who other people are and what their beliefs may be.
Just a few days ago, I read an intriguing theory from physicist and investigator of human cognitive functioning, Leonid Perlovsky, that suggests adding music to our Integrative Thinking toolbox as a coping strategy to stay in the uncomfortable, if highly productive, space of cognitive dissonance long enough to work through the tensions and derive the benefits. Music, according to Perlovsky, is an “evolutionary adaptation, one that helps us navigate a world rife with contradictions.”
The idea is that music – which can convey an array of nuanced emotions – helps us reconcile our own conflicted emotions when making choices. And the more diverse, differentiated emotions we possess, the more well-founded our decisions become. Whether it’s choosing to play with a toy or deciding to propose to a boyfriend or girlfriend, our research shows that music can enhance our cognitive abilities.
Thus, because we constantly grapple with cognitive dissonances, we created music, in part, to help us tolerate – and overcome – them.
This is the universal purpose of music.
Perlovsky backs up his theory by sharing some of the experiments he and his team have conducted on the subject. One of the experiments that he shares will be of particular interest to educators and integrative thinkers:
we gave a group of fifteen-year-old students a typical multiple choice exam, and asked them to record the difficulty of each question, along with how much time it took them to answer each one.
It turned out that more difficult questions were answered faster (and grades suffered), because students didn’t want to prolong unpleasant dissonance of choosing between difficult options. However when Mozart’s music played in the background, they spent more time on the difficult questions. Their scores improved.