What music reveals about our mind

What music reveals about our mind

Listening to a popular, familiar, or “throwback” song can instantly transport you to another moment in your life, reproducing details with startling clarity. And it’s not just an imaginative sentiment — there’s science behind how our minds connect music to memory.

There has long been a positive association between music and patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Repeated listening to personally meaningful music has been found to improve brain adaptability in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.

Listening to music with a special meaning stimulated neural pathways in the brain that helped them maintain higher levels of functioning, according to Michael Thaut, senior author of a study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto. It was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in November.

These songs had unique meanings, like music people danced to at their weddings, and increased memory on tests. The results could support the inclusion of music-based therapy in the treatment of cognitively impaired patients in the future.

Most notable were the changes in the prefrontal cortex, known as the brain’s control center where decision-making, social behavior moderation, personality expression, and the planning of complex mental behaviors take place.

When the patients listened to music that was personal to them, they activated a musical neural network connecting different regions of the brain based on MRIs taken of the patients before and after listening to the music. This was unlike listening to new, unfamiliar music, which only stimulated a specific part of the brain that was primed to listen.

The study involved just 14 participants, including six musicians, and they listened to specially curated playlists for an hour a day for three weeks. But these participants are the same ones from a previous study that identified the neural mechanisms involved in the maintenance of music-related memories in individuals with early cognitive decline.

“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never played an instrument, music is a key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” said Thaut, the director of the Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory and the University of Toronto is a professor at the Faculty of Music and Temerty Faculty of Medicine, in a statement. He also holds the Tier One Canada Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health. “It’s simple – keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, the pieces that are particularly important to you – make this your brain training.”

The research is a promising start that could lead to music therapy applications with a broader purpose.

It also highlights another connection: music and our personalities.

Like-Minded Music Fans

Music is related to our desire to communicate, tell stories, and share values, and has deep roots in early human cultures.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that as human beings we have forged connections and attachments to specific genres or styles of music to express ourselves and express our personalities.

A recent study across six continents with more than 350,000 participants showed that personality types are linked to specific musical preferences.

This is your music brain
During the study, people from more than 50 countries indicated their enjoyment of 23 different music genres while completing a personality questionnaire. In a second assessment, participants also listened to and ranked short music clips from 16 different genres and subgenres of Western music. The study was published in February in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The music fell under five main style categories. “Mellow” is associated with soft rock, R&B, and adult contemporary music, including romantic lyrics and slow beats, while “intense” is louder, more aggressive music such as punk, classic rock, heavy metal, and power pop. The other categories included “contemporary” (snazzy electronica, rap, Latin and Euro-pop), “sophisticated” (classical, operatic, jazz) and “unpretentious” (relaxing or country music genres).

Results showed direct links between extroverts and contemporary music, conscientiousness and unpretentious music, agreeableness and soft or unpretentious music. Openness was combined with soft, intense, sophisticated and contemporary music.

This means that songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers” appeal to extroverts, while Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” would appeal to pleasant people. Open people, on the other hand, like Nina Simone or David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity”. And all of these types of songs have an appeal that transcends national borders, according to the study.

How music can change your feelings and actions

“We were surprised at how much these patterns between music and personality were repeated around the world,” said study author David Greenberg, a volunteer research fellow at the University of Cambridge and a postdoctoral fellow at Bar-Ilan University, in a statement.

“People may be separated by geography, language, and culture, but when an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as introverts elsewhere, it suggests that music could be a very powerful bridge. Music helps people understand each other and find common ground.”

Those were all positive associations, but they also found a negative association between conscientiousness and intense music.

“We thought that neuroticism would probably have taken one of two routes, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or happy music to change their mood. In fact, on average, they seem to prefer more intense styles of music, which perhaps reflects inner fear and frustration,” Greenberg said.

“It was surprising, but people use music in different ways – some might use it for catharsis, others to change their mood. We’ll take a closer look.”

Researchers recognize that tastes in music are not set in stone and are subject to change. But the study provides a basis for understanding how music can transcend other social divisions and bring people together, Greenberg said.

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