Weasels Ripped My Flesh
"This is WDOG, Big Dog Radio, blastin' out golden oldies 24 hours a day. We've got Osama on the request line callin' in from the mountains of Pakistan.
What can I spin for ya', Osama Mama?"
"I would very much like to hear by the B-52's."
"You got it Osama-lama-ding-dong! Woof, woof, woof! What's your favorite radio station?"
"It is, of course, the Big Dog, W-D-O-G. Woof, and death to America."
Man, you think you know a guy! I woulda' guessed Osama Bin Laden's favorite song to be, I don't know, something a little more contemporary, like Crazy by Gnarls Barkley or maybe something from The Pussycat Dolls, but Rock Lobster by the B-52's? Get outta' town!
Of course, that was back in 1996 when he was living with Kola Boof, his Sudanese mistress, so I guess I would have thought he'd be requesting something by R. Kelly or even Coolio — anything but the B-52's.
Call me cynical, but Osama just doesn't seem like a guy who's a sucker for whimsy.
But according to Boof, Rock Lobster really was his favorite song. (His other passions allegedly included reruns of the TV show, The Wonder Years, and watching Boof "dance like a Caucasoid girl.")
As strange as his music choice might sound, it makes perfect sense to neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. If you asked him, he'd probably think Osama's choice of music was entirely predictable.
Sapolsky, as explained on a story on National Public Radio, started wondering about music and the brain a few years ago when he hired a young assistant. Sapolsky found his assistant to be extremely annoying. Oh, the assistant did his work just fine, but it was the music he played.
One day he'd be tapping his pencil to Sonic Youth, and the next day he'd be listening to glorious Ludwig Van. If only the pendulum of his musical tastes swayed from just those two extremes! No, this kid listened to klesmer music, to freakin' Minnie Pearl, even pygmy love songs!
Sapolsky, then in his forties, no doubt wanted to shove the kid's forehead through his Bose music system.
He couldn't get over that the kid wasn't stuck in any kind of musical rut, whereas Sapolsky pretty much listened to the same old Bob Marley CD over and over again. Sapolsky could probably karaoke I Shot the Sheriff without even looking at the screen. He was disgusted to find he'd turned into one of those guys who pays attention to late-night commercials that advertise anthologies by music dinosaurs.
The greatest hits of Todd Rundgren? Baby, throw me my wallet and the phone and get ready to rock!
Sapolsky kept asking himself, why? Is there an age from which a person passes from an open-minded, adventure stage to a close-minded, comfortable stage?
Sapolsky decided to investigate this apparent phenomenon.
He called up 50 radio stations and spoke to the station manager of each. He asked them two questions:
1. What is the average age of the music you play?
2. What is the average age of the people who listen?
Sapolsky found that radio stations use something called the "Breakthrough minus 20" formula. Let's say Billy Joel had his first breakthrough hit in 1976. That means his first fans were born about 20 years earlier.
Breakthrough = 1976 — minus 20, or 1956.
In a nutshell, the music you got to high school and college with is the music of your life, and that's the premise commercial radio stations are built on.
From the ages of 14 to 21, you're open to new music. Once you hit about 35, most people won't tap their pencil to anything new, no matter how dynamic. At age 35, your ears, and unfortunately, your mind, close up shop and go to the ranch in Texas to clear out brush...forever.
Let's take a look at my opening example. So party animal Osama allegedly likes Rock Lobster, which was a hit in the summer of 1978. Using our "Breakthrough minus 20" formula, we subtract 20 from that and get 1958.
And it turns out Osama was born in 1957.
It looks like those radio stations know what they're talking about. Suddenly, the notion that Osama was rockin' to the B-52's isn't that outlandish, or at least not as outlandish as it might have seemed a minute ago.
So if you're a 25-year-old Testosterone reader, you'll be listening to the same crap you're listening to today 20 years from now! Your kids will snicker and roll their eyes because the I-pod cerebral implant in dad's head, bless his fogey-heart, is playing the "old standards," classics by DMX, The Killers, those delightful old crooners from Slayer, and Busta Rhymes.
Sweetheart, do you remember where we were the first time we heard 'I Love My Bitch'?
But Sapolsky didn't limit his research to music. He wondered if people are more adventurous regarding food when they're younger, so he called up 50 sushi restaurants in the Midwest.
While sushi has been part of the food landscape of the east and west coasts for years, it's still relatively new in the Midwest. According to one restaurant manager in Omaha that Sapolsky called, "uncooked fish wrapped in seaweed still makes a lot of Nebraskans nervous."
While it was difficult to get specific numbers, Sapolsky calculated that first-time sushi eaters were likely to be 26 years old or younger. People from the ages of 26-29 were less likely to eat raw fish, whereas taking anyone over 39 to a sushi restaurant for the first time was a task that only a tag team consisting of Sisyphus and Epicurus might tackle. In fact, only 5% of those over 39 would dare to munch on maguro.
After 39, you're stuck with the same old foods you've always eaten. Your window for new foods not only closes, but you pull the drapes down and turn off the lights.
Sapolsky decided to look at one last area that seemed to be the exclusive domain of youth: piercing.
After talking to 50 tattoo parlors and body piercing studios, he determined that the window of tongue piercings is pretty much restricted to ages 16 to 23. Only 5% of tongue-piercing customers are older.
While Sapolsky found the door on belly button piercings isn't as tightly regimented as tongue piercings, it's a pretty safe bet that there aren't too many women over the age of 40 getting them.
What is it about the ageing brain that makes us pass from the novelty stage to the predictable stage? Obviously, there are those who continue to be open to new music, new food, and new circumstances of any kind, but are there any specific characteristics that the stodgy hold in common?
A psychologist named Simington, an expert on ageing, believes those who don't retain their sense of adventure have two characteristics:
1. They stay at the same job for a long time.
2. They become eminent or especially successful at that job.
For whatever reasons, this combination ramrods you into a debilitating state. As soon as something new arrives, you're screwed. Your brain short circuits. You spend your free time yelling at kids to get off your lawn.
Well, that's a nice theory, but this transition to fogeydom happens in the animal kingdom, too. When a baby rat reaches puberty, novelty is good — new foods are cool, new haunts are cool — but not quite so cool when they get older.
Similarly, when baboons are moved to a new territory with new plants, the older baboons won't try them. The young ones do, though, while the older baboons sit around and talk about the good ol' days and how you "shoulda' tasted the leaves in the Congo, by gum, because they really knew how to grow them leaves up there...not like these new-fangled leaves, gosh-durn it."
The older baboons are just like the sushi-eaters in Nebraska!
So it must be biological. Robert Sapolsky thinks so. While it apparently can't be explained by an equation or anything chemical, Sapolsky thinks aging creatures all over nature are often drawn towards repetition because, "...you get to a time in life where, by definition, stuff's turning to quicksand and wherever you can get some solid footing, the familiar becomes real comforting."
Similarly, Chris Miller, one of the station programmers interviewed for the National Public Radio piece, says that his listeners can hear an old song and see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt those many years ago when they first listened to the song.
In effect, it becomes a form of time travel, something permanent in an ever-changing world.
I don't know about that. I just think it's another biomarker of aging, as concrete as failing eyesight, droopy testicles, or inelastic arteries. Besides, what you're familiar with is easier; you don't have to make up your mind about anything and risk opening up new mental pathways. It's easier to stick stuff into old files than open up new ones.
That attitude might explain a lot of the reluctance of athletes to adopt newer training programs or new dietary methodologies. Their HIT system worked for them, by God, when they were 25 and it's going to work again, now that they're 45. They did nothing but bench presses and squats in the old days and that's all they're gonna' do today, thank you.
Smart alecky kids! They think they invented weightlifting or something!
Sure, sure, I can understand that type of thinking...but it's wrong. You have to fight it. The thing is, when you try new things, new adventures, open yourself up to new experiences, you grow. And I'm not just talking about growth of the mind, but growth of your muscles, too.
To hear the original NPR piece, click here.
This column was first posted August 18th, 2006.
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