It’s that song. Again. The one they play over, and over, and over. It might be your roommate, child, or colleague. The year I shared a flat with my brother, it was Worst Comes To Worst thrice daily. What are the properties of the songs that drive some people to repeatedly listen to them over and over? A new article in Psychology of Music explores the tunes that just won’t quit.
No matter where they live, people interpret certain kinds of vocalisations, even from animals, as conveying a particular emotion – as “angry”, for instance, or “soothing”. It’s tempting to think that there might be similar cross-cultural universals in the ways that we use music – that a song used to calm an infant in Melanesia, say, should bear striking similarities to a song created for the same purpose by a culture in the Arctic Circle.
Well, it’s tempting if you’re a cognitive scientist – though not if you’re an ethnomusicologist (who studies music from different cultures), according to a survey of the opinions of academics reported in a new paper, published in Current Biology. “Historically, the idea that there might be universals in music from many cultures has been met with considerable scepticism, especially among music scholars,” note the authors of the study, led by Samuel Mehr at Harvard University, which then goes on to explore whether they do exist.
What counts as music to one person, sounds to another like a headache. Some of the difference is explained by our personalities (for instance, more open-minded people prefer classical) and our thinking style (systematisers prefer heavy metal more than empathisers). What’s not been examined before now, according to a paper in Personality and Individual Differences, is the biological basis of our musical tastes.
Surely creativity is about freedom. Dropping your inhibitions – maybe with the help of a few substances – and letting ideas writhe free from the unconscious unfiltered. What to make then of the research showing that creativity is associated with higher levels of executive functioning – the mind’s suite of control processes – which seem to help by inhibiting irrelevant information and combining the rest in novel ways? Does it mean you can use this mental control to make yourself perform more creatively? According to a new study in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts involving jazz pianists the answer may depend in part on your creative experience.
Unfortunately and often with the best of intentions, surveys have shown that a lot of teachers believe these myths (for instance, one survey published in 2012 found that British and Dutch teachers believed around half of the 15 neuromyths they were tested on). Now a study in Frontiers in Psychology has focused on German music teachers and students to see how vulnerable they are to brain myths pertaining specifically to music. Although the participants showed some ability to distinguish between true facts and myths, they still endorsed around 40 per cent of the myths, especially those that contained neuroscientific jargon.
Emotions can be fleeting and superficial, for example imagine the split-second of anger you experience after missing the bus. But other “peak emotional states” are more powerful and they are accompanied by intense physical reactions, such as crying or “the chills”. Often these physical manifestations accompany extreme fear or sadness, but they can also occur when we admire a magnificent sunset or enjoy a beautiful piece of music.
Now a study published in Scientific Reports by Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga has taken a closer look at the contrasting psychology and physiology underlying the chills and tears many of us experience when we’re profoundly moved by a song.
If you’re after chills down the spine, you might find that watching professional ballet dancers does the trick just as much as listening to music. Yet whereas the emotional effects of music are well researched – indeed, there are conferences and journals aplenty devoted to the psychology of music – scientists still know very little about the ways we are moved by watching dance.
Now one of the first ever investigations into the emotional effects of dance has been published online at Acta Psychologica and the researchers found that rounded dance movements, rather than edgy ones, made watchers happier, as did more impressive moves, up to a point. The research also showed that, like music, watching dance can provoke visual imagery and personal memories in the viewer.
Julia Christensen and her colleagues created 203 six-second black and white, silent clips of a world class female ballet dancer taken from her live performances. The woman’s face was blurred in the clips so the focus was on her dance moves. The clips were then shown to 83 participants – their average age was 21 and they were mostly women – who rated them for how positive they made them feel and how energized or calm.
The researchers found that the participants reported feeling more positive emotions in response to clips that involved the dancer performing the attitude position (front and back; A and B in the picture below) than to clips that did not involve any rounded movements. This actually complements research in the domain of architecture and design that’s found people feel more positive in rooms that contain more rounded furniture.
A to C rounded dance movements, contrasted with non-round movements D to F. Image from Christensen et al 2016
The researchers also compared the effects of clips featuring different leg movements – either no leg raise, bent leg raised at 90 degrees, straight leg at 90 degrees, or straight leg raised at over 90 degrees (see image below). Participants felt more positive emotion when the leg was raised at all compared with not being raised – a more impressive feat – but there was no increase in positive emotion for leg raises that were higher and more difficult. The researchers said this suggests that, in contrast with gymnastics, “affect is induced from dance through the quality of the expressive intention of the movement – not just by its quality (e.g. how stretched or extreme)”.
Image from Christen et al 2016
Research published a few years ago found that Covent Garden dancers have been raising their legs progressively higher over the years, possibly in response to changing aesthetic tastes. This provides a reminder that the current research was focused on people’s emotional reactions to dance, not their aesthetic appreciation of it. It’s possible that progressively higher and more difficult leg raises provoke more aesthetic appreciation without adding any extra emotional impact.
Another part of the current investigation involved presenting 15 of the dance clips to 12 undergrad students and then interviewing them about how the clips made them feel (it was emphasised to the students that if they felt nothing, this was just as important as reporting any felt emotion).
Even though the clips were just a few seconds long, some of the students reported feeling emotional reactions in response to them, and two of the students described experiencing visual imagery and triggered memories: “I even told myself stories about why the dancer made sad movements and felt sorry” said one participant; “When I felt that an emotion was negative it was because the sad clips made me think of situations where I’d been sad,” said another. This means that 17 per cent of the small sample reported imagery or memories, which is similar to the rates seen for music. Another parallel with music was that the participants often reported experiencing sad emotions, but they nonetheless said the experience was pleasurable.
This study makes a laudable though highly tentative first attempt to study what many may consider the hidden and unknowable connection between a dancer and her audience. “A dancer may dance without the aim to transmit anything to anyone, but follow an internal expressive intention, like an inner dialog” the researchers concluded. “S/he may dance just what’s on her/his mind. Yet that intention will be visible in the dance, and grasped by a spectator. Thus what we like when we see a dance is not necessarily the beautiful – but especially the honest and authentic.”
Christensen, J., Pollick, F., Lambrechts, A., & Gomila, A. (2016). Affective responses to dance Acta Psychologica, 168, 91-105 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.03.008
For the continuously updated list of psychologists who rock, please scroll to the bottom of the post.
— The review journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences has a reflective essayin-press written by Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist and performer with the Amygdaloids, a band that sings songs about “love and life peppered with insights drawn from research about mind and brain and mental disorders”.
As well as providing interesting background info on the Amygdaloids (they’re currently working on a EP called In Our Minds), LeDoux reflects on why so many scientists are drawn to music, and he talks about the benefits that performing music has brought to his own life and work. “Playing music makes me a healthier, happier person,” he says. “It not only connects me with others in a unique way, it also makes connections in my own mind, drawing up emotions and thoughts I didn’t know I had.”
LeDoux also gives plenty of examples of other scientists who rock:
“Dan Levitin, author of bestselling books, This Is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs, is part of the Diminished Faculties at McGill University. Harvard molecular biologist, Pardis Sabetti, heads Thousand Days. Francis Collins, Director of NIH, has played at benefits with Joe Perry of Arrowsmith. Richard Brown, a philosopher at CUNY, is in the house band of a monthly jam session he organizes (The Amygdaloids played at their Qualia Freak Fest last year). Dave Sulzer, a neuroscientist at Columbia, has an alter ego as David Soldier, the leader of an avant garde music group. A biology-based bluegrass band in New York is called the Southern Blots. There’s a band of shrinks called The Psy- choanalytics. A New Jersey punk band is named the Lonely Ions. The Periodic Table hails from Long Island. Ryan Johnson of Michigan State is in Kinase Moves. The Science Fair is a jazz group from Norway that sings about science.
Andy Revkin, a biologist and New York Times environmental writer is part of the roots group Uncle Wade. Freaks of Nature are a science band from Philadelphia. The Cell Mates are from Yale. Darwin’s Finches are an a capella group from Rockefeller University. MacArthur awardee David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, plays guitar for Seattle band Big Dirt. Mike Shadlen, also at the University of Washington, fronts the Turing Machines. Chris Code, a psychologist from Exeter in the UK, is in Broken Road. The Society for Neuroscience has a music social every year at its annual meeting, where brain geeks strap on guitars and other instruments. And we shouldn’t overlook that there are some really well known rockers with connections to science. Brian May of Queen has a PhD in astronomy and spends part of his time these days teaching at Imperial College London. Greg Gaffin of Bad Religion has a PhD from Cornell and teaches life science at UCLA. They Might Be Giants does some science-themed songs. We Are Scientists, on the other hand, seem to only be connected to science in name.”
To his list I can add at least four psychologists who rock: Catherine Loveday, a neuropsychologist at the University of Westminster plays keyboard and sings backing vocals in a band; Ellen Poliakoff, a psychologist at the University of Manchester is in a band called Stray Light; Rob Hughes, a psychologist at Royal Holloway was in a band called Alien Matter; and psychologist Stephen Kosslyn was in a band when he lived in Cambridge Massachusetts. Do you know of any other psychologists who rock?
(Thanks to Tadhg MacIntyre for the tip-off about this article, and about Kosslyn).
Update. More psychologists/neuroscientists who rock (grabbed from comments or Twitter): Allan McNeill was an original member of Simple Minds and went on to manage 80s pop band Hue and Cry; stats whiz Andy Field drums with Fracture Pattern; Charles Fernyhough plays guitar with the Aimless Mules; Tim Byron plays keyboard with Lazy Susan; Roy Baumeister apparently plays guitar; Matt Wall is a UCL neuroscientist who plays guitar in a pub-rock covers band; Ian Deary sings and plays sax with the Dancing Mice; Katherine Woolf plays in Someone Else’s Wedding; Luke Jones at Manchester University is bassist in pro metal band Soma Dark; Adrian Owen’s band is You Jump First; Max Birchwood plays the sax; Bristol-based band ‘Traps’, features psychologist Paul Redford from UWE; Adrian Wells played keyboards in a band called OC/DC; and post-doctoral psychology researcher Dan Carney plays guitar and sings in the folk/indie/electronic band Dark Captain Light Captain (they’ve had Single of The Week on iTunes US, toured the UK, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, and been played on Radio 1/Radio 2/XFm etc… They’ve also soundtracked a Royal Bank of Scotland advert and had their music used on numerous TV programmes both here and abroad!).
In ‘For those psychologists about to rock…’, Sutton looks for shortcuts to musical expertise with a little help from his friends. The article and subsequent Twitter discussion has led to more ‘psychologists who rock’ adding their details in the comments below.
So much research has looked at the effects of violent music lyrics and video-games on people’s aggressiveness, but what about the effects of media with a positive message? Can songs like Michael Jackson’s Heal the World and Bob Sinclair’s Love Generation change people’s behaviour for the better? Tobias Greitemeyer says this side of the media-behaviour equation has been neglected before now, but in a series of five studies conducted in Germany and the UK he’s shown that ‘pro-social’ music reduces people’s aggression. What’s more, he’s demonstrated that it appears to do so through its effect on mood and emotion rather than via changes to thoughts and cognition.
Greitemeyer’s general approach was to have half his participants listen to a few pro-social songs, the others listen to neutral songs, and then all of them complete various questionnaires or tasks, depending on the specific experiment.
Further examples of pro-social songs used in the experiments include Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s We Are The World (among the biggest selling singles of all time) and U2’s Vertigo. Among the neutral songs used were Michael Jackson’s On The Line and Bob Sinclair’s Rock This Party. Greitemeyer deliberately chose some pro-social and neutral songs by the same artists so as to control for the effects of the actual singer and general style.
Participants who listened to pro-social songs subsequently showed reduced aggressive cognitions – for example they were less likely to complete ambiguous word stems (e.g. ‘schla_’ in German) with violent endings (e.g. ‘schlagen’, to hit), choosing instead more peaceful endings (e.g. ‘schlafen’ to sleep). They also exhibited reduced aggressive mood, being less likely to say they felt angry or irritated.
Most importantly, participants who listened to Heal the World and other pro-social songs were less likely than participants who listened to neutral music to actually be aggressive. This was tested indirectly by having participants evaluate a job candidate. Apparently this is a common measure in the aggression field, with harsh judgements being taken as a sign of indirect aggression. Aggressive behaviour was tested directly in another experiment by giving participants the chance to choose how much chilli sauce another student would have to eat, having heard that he or she hated chilli. This student had earlier given the participants an unfair essay evaluation so there was a temptation to be aggressive.
In the final experiment, when Greitemeyer looked to see whether it was cognitions or mood that mediated the effect of pro-social songs on aggressive behaviour, he found it was mood or ‘affect’ that was key. Intriguingly, this is the opposite to what’s been found for video-games, in which case it’s changes to cognitions, not affect, that mediates the influence, for better or worse, of violent or pro-social games on subsequent aggression.
‘Music exposure is omnipresent in our daily life,’ Greitemeyer concluded. ‘Thus, the present findings are not only of theoretical significance, but have important practical implications as well, in suggesting that depending on the context of the song lyrics music exposure may reduce aggressive encounters.’
Greitemeyer, T. (2011). Exposure to music with prosocial lyrics reduces aggression: First evidence and test of the underlying mechanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (1), 28-36 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.08.005
Today’s Science Weekly Podcast from The Guardian is a fascinating special on music and the brain.
Music is found in every human culture and one theory is that it was an evolutionary precursor to language.
Whereas language allows us to make propositional, “information rich” statements, music is far vaguer but arguably provides a superior means of conveying emotion. The podcast describes how this emotional power is being harnessed to help people with Alzheimer’s. We also hear how singing can help stroke patients rediscover their lost voices.