Classical Conditioning Ruined Deafheaven For Me

On why you should never set your favourite song as your ringtone

 You all know what classical conditioning is, right? Learning by association, ring a bell when you feed a dog, dog learns to salivate at the sound of the bell. Yeah? Yeah. Ok then. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Google it. Or watch this:

There are an incredible number of videos like this on YouTube.

Conditioning is one of the most basic forms of learning but it affects everything from dogs and rats to people. It’s how you train animals to do certain behaviours. It’s also the basis of advertising- getting you to associate being cool and successful with wearing a certain brand or driving a certain car or whatever.

I’m not here to explain the neurochemical processes that make conditioning possible, or offer some new insight into the topic. I just wanna share a little story of how this primal and all-pervasive learning technique made my quality of life marginally worse.  It’s the story of how I accidentally conditioned myself to fear the song “Dream House” by Deafheaven.

Before we start I guess I should explain who Deafheaven are, for the plebs. Short version: they’re a popular but contentious metal band from San Francisco.

Slightly longer version: they’re a black metal band who mix in elements of post-rock and shoegaze to create a kind of dreamy, cathartic sound. They weren’t the first band to try this but they were the first to get major recognition for it- their 2013 album Sunbather was a massive crossover hit, winning dozens of “album of the year“ accolades and becoming the best-reviewed album of 2013 on Metacritic, the first and only time a metal album has done so. This made them controversial in that they became poster boys for “hipster metal”, introducing extreme metal to a whole new audience who thought they were the best thing ever, while earning derision from a lot of serious metalheads, who saw them as not being “proper metal” and hated them because they stole attention away from bands they saw as being more deserving.

You can tell they aren’t “proper metal” because they don’t have long hair and they haven’t been wearing the same Slayer t-shirt since 1986

You don’t need to know any of that to understand this article. I just like talking about metal. If you’re not into the politics of the extreme metal scene, the point is that Deafheaven were a band that I really liked and I listened to Sunbather a lot in 2013. I saw them live in this uber trendy hipster bar in Islington that was full of bearded idiots in tweed who spent the whole show standing totally still looking bored while I wanted to start a circle pit. You know your metal gig is in trouble when I’m the most rowdy person there.

About this time I also got my first halfway decent phone for Christmas- a Nokia Lumia, the same one I have now. Now I’d heard that all the cool kids put songs as their ringtones, and something about “Dream House”, the opening track from Sunbather, seemed like it would make a really good ringtone. So I set the song to play whenever anyone called me, and for maybe half a day I felt super smug and excited about hearing the first six seconds of a nine minute hipster metal song playing every time I got a call.

Hello? Hello? Dammit!

Within a few days I realised the terrible mistake I had made. It wasn’t just the fact that I heard the opening bars of the song several times a day, totally ruining any musical enjoyment I got from them. No, it was the connotations they were soon to be linked with in my mind.

At the time I was working for some crappy supply teaching agency who would send me to fill in as a cover teacher or TA in schools all around the county. This was not a particularly fun job. I’d only just learned to drive, so the prospect of heading out on icy roads in rush hour to notoriously rough schools to act as last minute crowd control for unruly teenagers was not especially enticing. The worst part was the uncertainty of it- having no clue where you’d be sent the following day, or even if you’d get any work at all. I spent plenty of nervous mornings sat by the phone, not knowing what was worse- getting the call telling me to ship out to goodness knows where, or not getting the call and being secretly a little relieved but knowing deep down I wasn’t making any money.

And guess what the stimulus was that heralded my bad news each morning and became inseparable from this state of constant apprehension?

That’s right, thanks to the wonders of classical conditioning I quickly learned to associate Deafheaven’s “Dream House” with feelings of worry and dread. Every time I heard those opening guitar lines my heart would jolt a little bit and the sense of foreboding would come over me as I knew I would have to speak to one of those monstrously cheerful agency people and get sent out to a day of dull, tiring and poorly paid work doing battle with the worst students the Coventry area could throw at me.

So yeah, the constant pairing of stimulus and response means that I can no longer listen to a song by a band I like, and by extension their entire album. Seriously, four years on I can only think of Deafheaven as a ringtone and a bringer of bad news, not as the masterpiece of modern metal I once saw it as. It doesn’t produce quite the same fear response in me as it did back then but it still just makes me think “phone’s ringing” rather than “ooh, cool song”. I haven’t listened to the album in years. I don’t think I ever changed my ringtone but I keep my phone on silent so it doesn’t matter. The damage has been done.

One thought occurred to me as I was writing this- could it have worked the other way? Could the presence of a positive stimulus- such as a song I love- have led to me enjoying my conversations with the agency in the morning rather than dreading them? Are there other ways you can use classical conditioning to your advantage to train yourself to like situations you would otherwise fear?

Maybe I’ll look into those questions in another post. For now, it is a cold and harsh lesson we must learn: that no matter how high and mighty humanity may have become, the part of our brain we share with dogs can still ruin nice things for us.

Bloody Pavlov.


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