The brain can distinguish between noise and music. And interestingly, according to Science, you may display a psychological and physiological response to music! Advances in scanning technology have enabled students to explore the association between neurology and music. They study the sound waves as they move from the eardrum to the brain and find the results produced by this new branch of study fascinating.
The rush you experience when you switch to your favourite song has been known to transport one into a special zone. It can make your heart beat faster or slower, and also increase or decrease your blood pressure. However, preliminary research into the working of the brain when it listens to music proves that this is more than just a pleasurable experience. If someone is so thrilled to listen to music that a chill runs down their spine, or their chest tightens, it also means that the structure of their brains is special. The way one responds to music may even affect one’s cognitive skills to a phenomenal extent (1).
Mathew Sachs, a doctoral scholar at Harvard University became curious about how he felt a chill go down his spine when he listened to music and wanted to do a study to check if this phenomenon was a common one or if it signified anything special.
Curious, he played a variety of songs to 20 other students and recorded the brain scans for further study. At the same time, he observed if their behaviour changed in any way. Half of them displayed noticeable signs, which included physical responses such as shedding tears or laughing spontaneously. They also experienced minor physical responses on their skin such as a cold chill and goosebumps. Sachs noticed that the brains of such responsive listeners were wired differently from those who did not respond in the same way to music.
The neural network that connected the auditory system to that part of the brain that is associated with emotions seemed to be denser in listeners who responded physiologically to music. Those who did not respond in the same way had fibres of less density in their neural networks. Listeners with dense neural networks processed information quickly because the information from the auditory system was transmitted to the brain instantly. But the scholar observed that not only was the response to music more efficient, but that the intensity of emotion was stronger. Typically such listeners whose skin tingled to music also had the capacity to feel more intensely than others (2).
Further, such listeners made associations between a song and a feeling. The song made them relive a certain emotional state and sometimes triggered a memory. Earlier studies have shown that music can improve memory and make the listener happy by flooding their neural network with the neurotransmitter (read: brain chemical) known as dopamine (3). But this study shows that the response depends on the density of the neural network.
The study, however, does not explore if this response is inherent in certain individuals or if they have been trained to respond to music. So, essentially, it is unclear if they are born with dense neural networks that communicate the musical information from the ear to the brain and therefore feel strongly about it, or if they were taught to appreciate music, whereby their neural network has grown to become stronger.
Another doctoral student, Mitchell Colver, from Utah State University, who studied the connection between the brain and music came up with a different theory. He believes that a physiological response need not be emotional. It can be intellectual. Some listeners try to predict how a creative singer would present a song. They expect the singer to stick to a certain style or pattern. When the singer is creative, he surprises these listeners with an unusual melody. Their response to the unexpected is what makes them feel goosebumps, he explains.
Some people clap and sing when they listen to music. While others feel instantly happy or refreshed when they listen to music. It is easy to see the effect music has on people. It can give relief from tiredness and motivate people to work more or with more concentration. Although we know what happens when we listen to music, it is only a study of the neurons that can tell us why we react to music the way we do.
There have, however, been only a few studies on the neurological connection between the brain and music. Though these studies are few and far between, it is clear from the data from these experiments that music listening is related to the efficiency of the brain’s ability to process information.
Further studies with larger groups of people can provide more data for scientists to show the extent of the connection between the efficiency of the brain and music. This will finally explain how some people make use of music to energize themselves and why others are not so easily affected. Therapy and treatment through music can then even become part of mainstream medicine.
So, does this make you think your brain is wired differently? If so, let us know in the comments section below!