Brain imaging explains the power of music.
We all know that listening to music that we like is uplifting. It makes us detach temporarily from everyday concerns and helps us relax. If we listen to our favorite song, memories flood our brain and emotions take hold of our body. Music we dislike (even without being associated to unpleasant memories) stimulates instead a completely different set of sensations and thoughts.
How does this happen? What different effects does the music we like elicit in our brain compared to the one we don’t like?
Scientists from Wake Forest University in North Carolina have started to look at our brain’s responses to music. They measured brain’s activity by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 21 participants while they were listening to music they Liked, Disliked, or to a Favorite song.
The researchers found that listening to music always activated elements of a neural circuit called the Default Mode Network (DMN), regardless of the individual’s preferences. The DMN includes structures in the parietal area of the brain in front of the occipital lobe, as well as regions of the brain cortex, and it is involved in introspection, self-awareness, and the processing of memories.
However, Liked and Favorite music appeared to activate some neural circuits of the DMN more efficiently than Disliked music, and in particular to enhance the connection between an area called precuneus, located between the two brain hemispheres and the brain cortex. In contrast, when listening to Disliked music the precuneus was active but weakly connected and thus relatively isolated from the other DMN cortical regions.
As expected, listening to music also stimulated the auditory cortex, reaching similar degrees of activation in all conditions. Again though, different neural circuits were turned on depending on the music preferences. In fact, Liked and Disliked music promoted the connection between the auditory cortex and a brain structure called hippocampus, which is important in memory formation and consolidation; on the other hand Favorite songs did not activate this link, and the hippocampus, though weakly active, remained isolated from the auditory cortex.
How to interpret these findings?
The scientists suggest that by enhancing the functionality of areas of the brain cortex, Liked and Favorite music promote a switch of attention from the outside to the inner world, favoring introspection, imagination and what they call ‘mind wandering’ experiences.
This network is implicated in the development of cognitive abilities and creativity, with their related emotional and mood changes: for this reason the researchers propose that its stimulation can be beneficial within the context of music therapy for anxious and depressed individuals.
In addition, Liked and Disliked music activated the hippocampus circuit and the ability of memory formation. Only Liked music though, probably increased the ability to form new, self-related memories linked to introspective thoughts and emotions because at the same time it enhanced the DMN circuit that leads to focusing on one’s inner reality.
On the other hand, Favorite music did not promote the connection with the hippocampus. The scientists explain that the prevailing effects of Favorite songs are of recalling previously established memories which doesn’t need hippocampus function, and at the same time of stimulating intimate thoughts and emotions through the increased connectivity with brain cortex regions.
To those who still doubted about the power of music, this work offers a scientific explanation of how music that we like, independently of its genre, can not only improve our mood but more interestingly can stimulate our creativity and cognitive abilities, favoring the elaboration of new thoughts and ideas, revealing new perspectives, and ultimately disclosing new horizons.
Wilkins RW, Hodges DA, Laurienti PJ, Steen M, & Burdette JH (2014). Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: From Beethoven to Eminem. Scientific reports, 4 PMID: 25167363