Be quiet, then shout

I think I figured out why karaoke is so much damn fun.

Last weekend I sang karaoke, shouted my little lungs out for a few hours to Foo Fighters, System of a Down, Marilyn Manson, Rihanna (IBNLT). By the end I was a bit hoarse and a bit damp and percolating in seratonin and dopamine. It could be that I just enjoy sing/shouting, but I think there’s something a little more going on. I think there’s something about sometimes shouting that also makes us healthier.

The core of the idea is that short sprints of effort followed by periods of rest outperform consistent, steady levels of effort. It’s one of those patterns that seems to pop up everywhere in nature and culture once you look for it:

Fitness: There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that high intensity interval training is as effective as steady state cardio in improving endurance and increasing fat loss, and may be more effective in reducing insulin sensitivity and markers for type-2 diabetes.

Nutrition: Similarly, nutrition scientists now tout the benefits of intermittent fasting for decreasing diabetes risk, improving cholesterol markers, and accelerating fat loss.

Stoic philosophy: Seneca suggests practicing poverty for a few days each year to inoculate yourself to the fear of failure and loss:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with course and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

Mental Focus: We do our best work when we take breaks. A 2014 study found that employees accomplished more when they alternated 52 minutes of work with 17 minutes of rest.

Back to singing:

As kids, we learn not to shout in public places. It’s rude, we learn, to disturb others with our unmodulated honking and quacking. For most kids, the edict extends into the home – quiet down, calm down, pipe down. And if our parents didn’t make it clear, teachers shamed and punished us into silent civility.

I’d argue though, that vocal cords are made to be stretched to their limits. Our biceps swell from the stress of the barbell, our hearts pump harder from the strain of the sprint, and our brains bathe in endorphins to reward us, to say, “yes, do this more.” Just the same, our bodies ache to flatten the world with the unleashed power of our voice. In doing so, our lungs grow stronger, and so do our hearts and our spirits.

There is a clarifying moment during intense effort. Sprint or sing or lift or draw as hard as you can, and for an instant the world falls away. Or perhaps, more precisely, you disappear. The inner narrator disappears. Time narrows; you aren’t considering the past or aware of the future.

Alan Watts argues that this is the moment that fear ceases to exist within us.

Roaring into a microphone in a basement in the Tenderloin, I could care less about all that. The universe is a song singing itself. I am in Nirvana.

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