AUT academics team with music star BENEE

24 May, 2023
AUT academics team with music star BENEE
BENEE has collaborated with AUT neuroscientists and Youthline on a new single

Superstar Kiwi musician BENEE has collaborated with mental health charity Youthline and leading AUT neuroscientists on a new single, scientifically designed to help reduce anxious feelings.

Youthline’s Principal Partner ASB initiated the project after hearing the need for more practical resources young people can use to help manage their own mental health.

Written and produced specifically to support young peoples’ mental wellbeing, Bagels uses musical elements identified by AUT Associate Professors Daniel Shepherd and Mangor Pedersen to relax the nervous system, modify brain activity and ease feelings of anxiousness.

Neurological testing on rangatahi found listening to Bagels lowered levels of ‘state anxiety’, which is the type of short-term anxiety experienced in stressful situations. The track also calmed brain activity in the frontal and parietal lobes – the areas often associated with regulating emotions and the fight or flight stress response.

As a big believer in using music to cope with her mental health challenges, BENEE was excited to work with producer Josh Fountain and the AUT scientists to learn about why music impacts anxiety.

“I’ve always seen music as a kind of therapy, but it was fascinating to learn why certain sounds move your mood. Bagels was a totally different creative process for us: every aspect, from the beat, the natural soundscape and harmonies, to the subtle message in my lyrics, you are not alone, is designed to take away feelings of anxiousness.

“I’ve huge respect for Youthline’s work so it’s been awesome to partner on this track, to show young Kiwi it’s ok to talk about mental health, and to provide them with another tool to try when stressed. We all need to find what helps us, and one way I find calm is swimming at the beach and having a bagel – I’ve made a nod to this in the song, and obviously its title Bagels.”

As well as advising on the musical principles behind Bagels, Dr Shepherd and Dr Pedersen designed tests to measure the song’s impact on anxious feelings. Using electroencephalogram (EEG) imaging of brain activity, their research found Bagels was the most effective in easing anxious feelings and relaxing the brain of all music tested.

Associate Professor Shepherd says: “Our testing of Bagels shows its effectiveness for managing anxious thoughts and shifting young peoples’ bodies and brains into a significantly calmer state, shown through their lower heart rate, patterns of brain activity, and reduced perspiration.

“I’ve studied the psychological effects of music for 15 years and jumped at the chance to be part of this ground-breaking project. Powered by more than 10 billion data points mapping a detailed representation of brain activity, our research into Bagels is an unprecedented study of how music can regulate anxiety, and I’m excited to see it help our rangatahi.”

Bagels’ soothing melodies and natural soundscapes come to life in the animated music video which floats viewers through a series of playful, organic worlds. Anxiety-reducing principles woven into the video include smooth colour transitions and hypnotic swaying of organic forms, a technique to move our eyes repetitively from left to right. This strategy is a feature of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapeutic tool used to help with anxiety.

Bagels by BENEE is the latest evolution in Youthline’s ongoing partnership with ASB. Youthline’s Clinical and Services Manager, registered counsellor Joanna Madsen says ASB initiated the concept after Youthline shared feedback that young people wanted more practical and accessible tools to manage their own mental health.

“There’s been a rapid rise in mental distress post Covid and anxiety is one of the top concerns raised with our therapists and helpline counsellors. Helping rangatahi manage their mental wellbeing and anxiousness can prevent an increase in distress, but we know around half of young people don’t feel confident asking for support with their mental health.

“There’s a clear need for clinically sound, creative, and accessible resources young people can add to their wellness kete for when they’re feeling anxious. It’s our hope this track will be a practical tool rangatahi can use in stressful situations – around exams, a tough conversation, or on a crowded bus.

“It’s been so exciting to work with ASB to make this project happen, and we’re stoked to have someone as talented and relevant as BENEE onboard. She’s a vocal mental health advocate and her determination to use her voice to support rangatahi shines through in this track. BENEE’s profile will help us get this practical resource on the playlists of more young New Zealanders.”

Learn more about Bagels and the ground-breaking science behind the track

The Science

Dr Shepherd and Dr Pedersen, alongside postgraduate student Geet Vashista and Clinical Psychologist Dr Amy Kercher of AUT’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience tested the effect of listening to Bagels in reducing anxious feelings on 30 people aged 18-25 reporting mild to moderate anxiety symptoms.

Brain activity recordings containing more than 10 billion readings of brain and automatic nervous system changes were captured through electroencephalogram (EEG) tests, making this a highly robust and unprecedented neurological assessment of a song’s ability to manage anxiety.

Bagels was tested against five control music tracks, including Weightless by Marconi Union, widely acknowledged as the most relaxing song in the world, and Shape of You, by Ed Sheeran. Submitted to the peer-reviewed journal Psychophysiology and available on the preprint repository bioRxiv, key findings from this research include:

  • Listening to Bagels is 5.1% more effective in reducing anxious feelings than the current ‘gold standard’ of relaxation music, Weightless.
  • Bagels reduced brain activity in participants, indicating the song’s ability to soothe the mind.

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