Suzana Herculano-Houzel

It’s never too late for new music

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There’s an urban legend going around that it’s normal and expected for our musical taste to “freeze” in time, so that once we’re adults, our brains would be stuck on the playlist of the songs we discovered as teenagers. Supposedly, because of a “loss of plasticity” in the reward system, we would be fated to choose forever to listen only to Bonde do Tigrão or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the like.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to experiment with new things as an adult can anticipate what comes next: of course, this urban legend is just that, a legend. More specifically, pure bullshit.

The brain’s motivation and reward system, that set of structures that registers with a feeling of pleasure our actions that have interesting results, whether expected or not, makes us look again for what worked in the past – in other words, what gave us pleasure. Once can be enough to stamp an event, such as a piece of music, as pleasurable and worth repeating.

It is a fact that in adolescence these structures become particularly susceptible to new discoveries, due to a programmed loss of sensitivity – responsible, incidentally, for the boredom characteristic of early adolescence: when what previously gave pleasure stops working. A teenage drama, boredom is also vital because it drives young people to discover new interests, new subjects, new sources of satisfaction such as politics, philosophy, different music, sex – and drugs, the easiest way to leave the reward system in the clouds.

The beginning of adulthood marks a phase in which the sensitivity of the reward system does indeed stabilize. But it’s never lost – otherwise we wouldn’t get out of bed, due to our sheer inability to anticipate the pleasures of the day. On the contrary, the same system that keeps us eager for the pleasures discovered in adolescence continues to be able to discover new interests throughout life.

Whether we take the trouble to explore new subjects, ideas and music is a matter of chance, personality, beliefs, values and, above all, opportunity. I, for example, discovered at an early age, when I started hanging out with musicians in Nashville, that I love a certain kind of heavy metal music, melodious like progressive rock, and above all with sensational bass lines. Our musician friends have figured out that to lure me from anywhere in the house to the studio, all they have to do is start playing the opening of my favorite Metallica songs. Who knew?

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo in December 2018.

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