How Music Affects Our Brain
Scientists are still trying to figure out how music affects our brain and why, just like any other art, we all experience it differently. But new discoveries in understanding the physical effect of music on the human brain are made all the time. It has been revealed that music can modify the brain structure, affect the taste of beer, and make men more attractive; it also turns out that the upbeat Beatles and the depressive Nortt are equally as good at making us feel better. In this ITMO.NEWS article, find out what scientists have learned about our relationship with music.
Love it or hate it
Have you ever met someone who doesn’t care for music at all? Someone who can spend their entire life without ever listening to anything? These people exist, and they make up approximately five to seven percent of the planet’s population. To find out how the brains of those who don’t care for music work, scientists from McGill University (Canada) have scanned the brain activity of 45 healthy test subjects while the latter listened to music; some of them were these “anti-melomaniacs”. It turns out that when these people listen to music, no connection is formed in their brain between the region responsible for processing sound and the brain’s reward center. At the same time, other stimulating activities, such as winning in games of chance, still causes them to experience pleasure.
This research, explain the authors, will help us better understand why people enjoy music and may also be useful for medical research. For instance, it can give us insight into the causes of neurological disorders that dampen people’s feelings of reward or motivation: depression, apathy, unfounded and harmful addictions.
Another study, conducted by scientists from University of Helsinki (Finland), Aarhus University (Denmark) and University of Bari (Italy), has proven that love of music is determined by genetics and depends on the function of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It helps humans anticipate pleasure, remember it and strive for it despite discomfort. Scientists noted that, having listened to music, participants of their experiment experienced functional changes in their dopamine receptors, which improved their mood. The researchers noted that this is the first study that has shown that music affects the brain’s physical structure.
Fun or sad, doesn’t matter
All sorts of music can have a positive effect on the brain. Researchers from UK and Finland have discovered that listening to sad and gloomy music is pleasing to people and improves their mood. Moreover, they begin to feel more comfortable, as the music makes them contemplate their experiences. The scientists have pointed out the paradox: people tend to experience a strange satisfaction after they’ve emotionally reacted to tragic art, be it music, cinema, paintings or others. Japanese psychologists have proposed that the explanation for this phenomenon is due to how people associate sadness with romantic feelings. Besides that, sad music is not seen as a threat to the organism, but as a way to relieve psychological tension and “switch” to an external source of sadness rather than an internal one.
Still, listening to upbeat, fun music has a positive effect on one’s creativity and teamwork abilities – the so-called soft skills. Researchers from the Netherlands have conducted creativity tests in several groups of people. One group listened to positive music, another – to sad music, the third – to calming music and the final – to tense music. A control group completed their test in silence. It turns out that the best results – meaning the more creative and yet practical solutions to the tasks – were shown by those who listened to positive music.
A peculiar study from the University of Cornwall has shown that listening to heavy metal music makes people less sociable and lowers their willingness to do things for the common good. The researchers had several groups of test subjects play a game. In the course of the game, players could “donate” their personal scores to improve their team’s score. Some of the teams would listen to such songs as The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” and the like. Others would be listening to heavy metal and similar genres. In the end, players from the first category were more eager to share their scores than those who listened to dark, gloomy music.
It matters why you listen
There’s a reason why they say that one’s mental approach plays an important role in controlling emotions and working productively. Researchers from Aalto University and University of Jyväskylä (Finland), and Aarhus University (Denmark) have found that the intent behind listening to music also has an effect on people’s emotional states.
The scientists performed brain scans on test subjects while those listened to sad, aggressive and “dark” music. A majority of male participants noted in their questionnaires that they listen to such music to express their negative emotions, while a majority of female participants tended to do that to distract themselves from these same emotions. The results of MRI scans showed that, for most women, activity increased in the area of their brain responsible for emotional control, while the opposite happened in most male participants’ brains. Usually, such drop in brain activity is correlated with the inability to switch between emotional states, which leads to depression and similar ailments.
Music as a painkiller
Listening to one’s favorite music can reduce pain. Two medical institutes from the US tested music therapy on patients who had undergone spinal surgery. Participants were asked to evaluate their pain level on a scale. Those who had undergone music therapy began to experience less pain than others.
Loud is better for business
Who would’ve thought that loud music makes people drink more alcohol in less time? To prove that, a group of French scientists went on a bar tour. With permission from bar owners, they experimented with the volume of music being played at the venues and observed the patrons: how fast do they drink? How much do they order? The activities of 40 men aged 18 to 25 were tracked. Researchers have suggested that the changes in the speed and amounts of alcohol consumed at bars are prompted by the volume of music, as louder sounds get them more excited and willing to eat and drink. Moreover, overbearing sound prevents patrons from being able to converse with each other.
Music can also make your beer taste better! A curious experiment was conducted by the Brussels Beer Project company in collaboration with the British band Editors. More than 300 participants tasted the same brand of beer, but one group was unaware of the brand and didn’t listen to music, one knew the brand and the third knew the brand and also listened to the band’s music. The poll showed that the third group enjoyed it the most, showing that taste is dependent on sound. Researchers also intend to use their results to find out if music can motivate people to, for instance, eat healthier food.
Playing music makes you hotter
Charles Darwin himself noted that one of the possible reasons why music has always been a part of human culture is that it is a natural continuation of animal mating calls. Scientists from the University of Vienna decided to put that theory to the test and to see if men and women find each other more attractive if they’ve listened to music shortly before that.
The experiment involved groups of men and women, some of whom were asked to listen to music before the experiment while others weren’t. All of them were then shown pictures of people of the opposite sex and asked whether or not they find that person attractive and if they would go on a date with them. For men, the frequency of positive responses remained the same whether or not they had listened to music beforehand; women, meanwhile, showed a drastic difference in results. Those who’d listened to music before the experiment were much more likely to provide affirmative answers and found more male faces attractive.
The researchers, therefore, have suggested that for women, musical abilities and general creativity may be seen as partial compensation for deficiencies in physical appearance and fitness.
Kittens hate metal
Everybody hates that one neighbor who’s always playing loud, noisy music for days on end. But what about kittens?
A group of Portuguese researchers has decided to find out how cats feel about different musical genres. The animals were equipped with headphones and listened to classical, pop and metal music while being neutered under anesthesia. Their respiratory rate and pupillary diameter were measured to evaluate their calmness level. Just like people, cats relaxed while listening to classical music and became tense while listening to AC/DC’s hit song “Thunderstruck”.