Many surgeons listen to music in the operating room; surveys tell us as much, and so do surgeons. But the practice hasn't been subjected to rigorous study, until now. Dr. Claudius Conrad is a German-born surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who also trained as a concert pianist and holds a Ph.D. in music philosophy. Conrad has performed scholarly research on the effect music in the operating room has on the work of surgeons. He spoke to NPR's Robert Siegel about his surprising results.
Surgeons at work in Portland, Ore.
Surgeons at work in Portland, Ore. Sarah McD/flickr
Conrad uses different types of music, from Mozart piano sonatas to experimental dichaotic music, to study the effects of auditory stress on surgical performance — especially individual components of performance like speed or accuracy. In one study, Conrad played death metal through one channel and German folk music through another. (Don't worry — the surgeons being studied were not operating on real patients during the experiments; they used simulators.)
"Research has shown that, indeed, (dichaotic music that contains vocal elements) seems to be more distracting under certain circumstances," Conrad says. "For us, it was an experimental tool to test, in a standardized fashion, auditory stress."
The results of the study showed that doctors listening to dichaotic music did complete the surgical tasks they were assigned to do, but it took them more time than those listening to other types of music.
"Those were very senior, expert surgeons," he says.
But Conrad says he is also interested in doctors early in their careers — novice surgeons. Stress is a very real part of their work.
"A young surgeon operates in the operating room and the floor calls in, or there's a conversation in the background," Conrad says. "There's noise introduced by machines we use in the operating room."
But the young surgeons did not respond to auditory stress the same way.
"Interestingly, with them, the influence of this dichaotic music varied a great deal," Conrad says, adding that his research has applications in medical training.
Conrad's data will be published soon in Surgical Endoscopy.