Mental Health

That Rush You Get Hearing a Favorite Tune Is Real

music spain
Spanish people play music from their balconies after strict lockdown measures were initiated in the spring due to the coronavirus. STR / JOSE JORDAN

 

Music is a language shared by people worldwide. It is an art that can relax your mind, ease your stress and cushion you from the harshness of reality, for a time. Sometimes, listening to music can send chills down your spine. There are moments, too, when you may imagine scenes, like a daydream. But the organic chills are difficult to fully explain. 

Now, neuroscientists based in France have published a study in Frontiers in Neuroscience that maps the brain patterns that create the chills we get while listening to music.

Researchers from the Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté in Besancon used EEG, or electroencephalography, a typical test for detecting brain activity, to map reactions to music. 

They recruited 18 healthy adults who usually feel chills when hearing their favorite songs. All participants were medically assessed and found to have normal hearing.

Participants were asked to listen to five chill-causing musical tracks, chosen without regard to music style or trend, through wireless earphones. They also listened to three additional pieces selected by the experimenters. Participants could push a response box to rate their level of emotional arousal (calming or exciting) and pleasure (positive or negative).

The listening sessions lasted about 15 minutes, including 30-second pauses between tracks. Three sessions were done with three different EEG systems. Those who experienced chills were told to describe each event -- whether it felt like goosebumps, a thrill, hair standing on end, or tingling sensations. The results 

Participants reported 305 chills, or 16.9 average chills per person, lasting an average of 8.75 seconds each. Neuroscientists did not find a connection between reported chills and characteristics of participants, such as gender and age. 

"The fact that we can measure this phenomenon with EEG brings opportunities for study in other contexts, in scenarios that are more natural and within groups. This represents a good perspective for musical emotion research," said PhD student Thibault Chabin, PhD in a press release.

When a chill was reported, researchers observed electrical activity in three regions of the brain involved respectively with emotional processing, movement control and musical appreciation.

The three regions work together to process the music and trigger the brain’s reward system to release dopamine, a hormone that gives pleasure and satisfaction. The hormone, and the enjoyable anticipation of the favorite part of the song, may lead to the chilling experience. Surprisingly, the neuroscientists could not find evidence of a biological benefit from listening to music. 

However, Mr. Chabin said that the results suggest an “ancestral function” of music -- that we have evolved the ability to anticipate the release of the pleasurable dopamine.

Children and Music

An earlier study, also published in Frontier, discovered that children may improve their attention and memory recall through musical training. Forty children aged 10 to 13 years were recruited by researchers with the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. 

Twenty played an instrument, had at least two years of lessons, practiced at least two hours a week and played regularly in an orchestra or ensemble. The other 20 had no musical training, except for what they get from the school curriculum. Participants were given a validated task for attention and working memory.

Results showed no difference in the reaction time of children. But those who had musical training showed better memory. Researchers said that two distinct brain networks are likely enhanced by musical training. One network is involved in the working memory for language and sound processing, and sound-motor connections. The other network is involved in mentally demanding tasks and goal orientation, which are related to attention.

When your child shows interest in music, letting them play an instrument may lead to some benefits. But don’t cling to the idea that musical training will necessarily lead to better attention and working memory; more studies are required to get clearer evidence.

Mental Distress and Music

Music does not always lift the spirit. Listening to music while feeling sad may worsen the mood in some people. A study in 2017 showed two unique behavioral patterns in sad listeners. 

Those who have depressive symptoms and listened to sad music and talked about sad things may feel more down. This was more obvious in younger people, which might reflect the association of music and social relations in youth.

On the other hand, those who have depressive symptoms and listened to inspiring music in a group while conversing about life and music were likely to feel good. 

Experts are not done investigating music chills. They have yet to answer why music is an important part of our lives. Even without a direct biological benefit, they recognize that listening to music is a rewarding experience for most people.

 

Ralph Chen is an enthusiast of medical topics and advanced technologies. 

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