They’re bulking up mentally
By Denise Gellene and Karen Kaplan
December 20, 2007
The Los Angeles Times
For Dr. Lee Bartel – Music and the Brain 2122H
A Summary, Review and Response
Many musicians, academics, corporate executives, students and professional poker players have started using beta-blockers to help clarify their minds, improve concentration and control emotions. Many different types of beta-blockers have been used by these individuals, from Ritalin, usually prescribed to children suffering from ADD/ADHD to Aricept, a drug used to slow the decline of Alzheimer’s patients to Inderal, a beta-blockers used by many classical musicians to help them stave off stage-firght. Many of these drugs haven’t been tested on healthy people but the physiological effects that they cause on the brain are well-tested and understood.
A study completed in 2005 surveyed 10,000 college students and found that 4% to 7% of the participants had tried ADHD drugs at least once to help them focus in academic settings. Many of the people interviewed for this article took the beta-blocking medications in order to help them focus, sometimes, for hours at a time. The drugs block adrenaline receptors in the heart and blood vessels and help the person to focus and not become distracted by their own nervousness.
Sarah Tuck, a flutist in the San Diego Symphony conduced a survey of flutists and found that one-quarter of the subjects interviewed used the beta-blocking pills before performances and auditions. She estimates that three-quarters of the musicians she knows use the drugs occasionally.
This type of “cosmetic neurology” has risks. Many of the medications can cause headaches, insomnia and loss of appetite. Some can make users anxious and bring on headaches, some can cause drowsiness, fatigue and wheezing and even dizziness and vomiting.
I was surprised to learn that many people, not just professional musicians, use beta-blocking medication to help them focus during high-pressure situations. Just as baseball players and Olympic athletes may seek to enhance themselves physically, there are many people that want to enhance themselves mentally.I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised because stage-fright isn’t always limited to a “real” stage. There are many people that have trouble speaking in front of large crowds and the thought of having to lead a presentation could cause them to feel great anxiety. There are countless ads on television now for people that have anxiety, especially in social situations, and for them using a type of medication to help them calm down and focus might be necessary. But should regular, healthy people make use of these drugs? In my opinion; no. We have to learn how to deal with a variety of situations in our lives – from high pressure to high stakes – we have to learn to control our own bodies and our own minds. Turning to a pill to get us through these moments is the lazy way out.
I am worried that our society is too often looking for the “quick fix” to all of life’s problems. Instead of practicing and learning how to control our emotions and anxieties, we want to literally “take a pill” to fix the problem. I think that taking beta-blockers in order to be successful is just as bad as an athlete taking steroids. Beta-blockers can give a musician an unfair advantage in an audition setting because in this situation technique is often more paramount than emotion in the music. Beta-blockers could help the musician to focus more intensely and play with better technique.But you know what? I like the jittery feeling I get just before a performance. It makes me feel alive and I become even more alive through the music I am playing! The thought of taking those sparks away through the use of beta-blockers makes my heart sink, because you would in essence, be taking away the feelings and emotions of the music. The beta-blockers may help me to focus and to play more right notes and rhythms, but if I just want to hear correct rhythmic and notated passages I could listen to a computer generated piece of music.
I believe that medicine should be prescribed to treat an ailment. If you do not have anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADD/ADHD or any of the other diseases that beta-blockers actually treat then you should not be using them. I understand that codeine and morphine can make a regular, healthy person feel pretty good, but I doubt my doctor would give me prescription based on that! Stage-fright is a normal part of being a performer. If your stage-fright is so intense that you cannot possibly get on stage without taking medication, then perhaps you should either get a studio gig or new job. Or you could try working through your stage fright using non-medical means – like yoga or meditation. The same can be said for non-musicians using the drugs.
We need to stop looking for quick, easy solutions to these problems. Doctors need to stop prescribing antibiotics to patients who obviously have viruses or antibiotics will cease to work on the real infections. The same can be said for prescribing beta-blocking medication to individuals who obviously have no real anxiety issues. At what point will these beta-blockers also cease to work?