Music and the brain

One of the essential components of mental health is emotion regulation. The area of the brain that is crucial in expressing and regulating emotions is the limbic system. Psychologists argue, that if one has poor emotion regulation, he/she tends to have psychiatric mood disorders (like depression). Therapists are aware of the power music may have over emotions, so they use it to boost their clients’ mood and even relieve some symptoms of mental disorders.

At the same time, most people listen to music to alter their emotional state without being aware of how a certain type of music affects mental well-being. Researchers from three universities such as University of Jyväskylä, Aalto University in Finland and Aarhus University in Denmark explored the link between mental health, preferred music style and neural reactions to music. Scientists collected both behavioural and neuroimaging data to get valid results. They published the study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

One of the study authors and a music therapist, Emily Carlson, points out that they wanted to know if some types of music correlate with poor mental health of listeners.

First, participants were checked on such markers of mental health as depression, neuroticism and anxiety. They were also asked to explain the way they listen to music to regulate their emotional state. The results showed that individuals who mostly listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative emotions (especially males) have higher level of anxiety and neuroticism.

To study brain’s emotion regulation process, the scientists analyzed neural activity while listening to different types of music: happy, sad and fearful. Analysis with the help of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) revealed that men who prefer listening to music to express negative feelings are characterized with less activity in medial prefrontal cortex, whereas women using music to get distracted from bad emotions have high activity in medial prefrontal cortex. Thus, there is a correlation between music listening and the level of mPFC activation. This means that one’s listening style has continuing impact on brain’s activity.

The results of the study show therapists the importance of discussing music tastes of their clients, especially those who have mood disorders. Moreover, the study may inspire everyone to think about how ways of using music may support or damage their own psychological well-being.

Svitlana Drach

Svitlana Drach

Psychology4u.net team member

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