Desperate to wring some serotonin out of a hit of nostalgia, I recently looked up YouTube videos of hands-down the best racing game on Nintendo 64 — Diddy Kong Racing. I was immediately transported back to my childhood, completely entrenched in hitting every single turn and boost perfectly in order to beat Wizpig and free the animals on Timber’s Island.
The videos obviously made for a great distraction, but as I dragged myself from my nostalgic haze to return to the real world and my daily toiling, a funny thing happened: The intense, upbeat songs from the game continued to echo throughout my brain as I worked. Better yet, I felt the same focus and drive that I felt flying through Snowflake Mountain back when I was 9. Since I’m always looking for anything that will boost my productivity, I searched to find the game’s playlist and discovered an entire world of people using it for the exact same purpose. On YouTube, there’s “1 Hour of Iconic Mario Kart Music for Studying” and “Zelda Music to Relax/Study/Work/Game”; and over on Spotify, the idea is perfectly encapsulated by “Mario Kart Car Go Fast Brain Go Fast.”
The teens, it seems, have been on to this productivity hack for a while now. In fact, last month a TikTok user blasting Mario Kart music to finish an essay eventually landed a track from Mario Kart Wii at #15 on the U.S. Spotify Viral 50 chart.
I felt like an idiot. Could I have been leveraging video-game nostalgia to juice my focus this whole time?
“Before we get to, ‘Boss music makes me want to slay my own dragons,’” forensic musicologist Brian McBrearty tells me, “the effect of listening to music depends a ton on the listener’s broader relationship with music.” That is, how you listen to music, what that music is and the environment you’re consuming that music in can all play a part in whether or not a certain type will lead to greater concentration.
And with the caveat that the video-game soundtracks of our youth have plenty of potential to be more distracting than anything else, there’s some logic behind why they might boost productivity. For starters, per McBrearty, when people want a piece of music for motivation — not to simply cover up background noise or provide white noise for a walk — the idea is to “overwhelm the cognitive cost [of distraction] with another benefit related to mood.”
As such, he says, “we need to analyze our relationship to different types of music and map to the positive feelings that enable productivity.” On one end of the scale is how much the Diddy Kong Racing soundtrack and all the memories and emotions therein might distract me, but on the other end, “in this case at least, is a dopamine hit, a potential adrenaline hit for our brains,” McBrearty explains.
In the same way my little Diet Coke treat in the afternoon puts me in a good mood and helps my productivity, McBrearty says we can think of music “in terms of dosing ourselves with a certain amount of enjoyment.” If the soundtrack to an old video game is enough to brighten your mood and “remind you about the rewards of accomplishment,” he continues, “that’s motivation, and motivation spurs productivity.” Plus, the music injects some adrenaline into the mix as well, which, “in the right amount, can heighten our senses and attention, and keeps us alert.”
The music from Diddy Kong Racing does exactly that for me. While there are a few distracting tracks I have to weed out, the overall experience simultaneously puts me in a good mood and gives me a rush of adrenaline. “So bringing a bit of that back consciously, or manipulatively, makes perfect sense,” McBreary explains, comparing it to curating a workout playlist full of music that’s outside your preferred genre. “I create my workout playlists for all kinds of personally manipulative reasons. If you can regain the adrenaline and dopamine in the right amounts, especially with the subconscious kickers of the wellness and contentment of your youth, how can that not be a productivity boost?”
That said, he knows there could be some not-so-great memories tied to the music, too. “For example, that time you rocked back in your gamer chair so hard, you split your head on the coffee table? You might not want to bring that back,” he laughs. “True story — Mario Kart Wii.”