Music and the brain

Gary likes Roy Orbison style vocals.
Dan likes Phil Keaggy style guitar.
Ben likes vocal and chill trance.

So what do three mates listen to when on a long bus road trip for a few days?
Since we all like very different stuff, and since music is both personal and meaningful to each of us, and since we all respect each other, we just all agreed we were not going to listen to anything. We could have put headphones in, granted, but peppered between the silence we chatted and the time passed and it was wonderful. Hanging out with my mates alternating between silence/thinking and talking.
Granted, after 4 days, when they noticed my twitch, they let me put on a few tracks, mostly because I would not shut up about how helpful the music had been for me over the past many months and partly because they wanted to hear what I was going on about.
Yeah. Nah. Did not do it for them.

When Gary handed over the keys to his (our?) beloved Goldwing, I turned the key to acc and the stereo came on… Might have been some Slim Dusty that burst forth from the speakers….I’m not sure exactly what it was. Gary has never seen the rear pannier open so fast, or seen his iPod go flying across the shed so smoothly as I jacked in my pre-prepared Trance USB stick.
Yeah. Nah. No way I am riding this beautiful bike for 5 days listening to that ‘stuff’ (I just can’t call it music).

We both love the bike, but our music tastes, yeah, nah. Not aligned.

Matt B and I on the other hand, yeah, nothing much better than the two of us in front of his stereo and a USB stick of new trance mixes. (To a point, he and I differ on the weirdest most unpredictable mixes sometimes).

So you all know that trance is a thing for me. Been listening to it for around 21 years now. Before that, one could argue I was listening to the electronic music that gave birth to trance.
What you might not know is that I have been struggling keeping an even keel mentally (different blog – maybe never) and I have found that trance has really helped keep me sane.
What up with that?

Long read is long but worth it. I will try and help out and block quote a lot to cut down on your reading, but seriously, if you are interested in this topic and can make/take/find the time, go read this.

Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity.

Most people choose to listen to music that they prefer or ‘like’ such as classical, country or rock. Previous research has focused on how different characteristics of music (i.e., classical versus country) affect the brain. Yet, when listening to preferred music—regardless of the type—people report they often experience personal thoughts and memories. To date, understanding how this occurs in the brain has remained elusive. Using network science methods, we evaluated differences in functional brain connectivity when individuals listened to complete songs. We show that a circuit important for internally-focused thoughts, known as the default mode network, was most connected when listening to preferred music. We also show that listening to a favorite song alters the connectivity between auditory brain areas and the hippocampus, a region responsible for memory and social emotion consolidation. Given that musical preferences are uniquely individualized phenomena and that music can vary in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics, the consistency of our results was unexpected. These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem. The neurobiological and neurorehabilitation implications of these results are discussed.

Yeah, well, I warned ya!
(It always feels weird starting out every blog post I do, I never know how long it will be or how on topic I will stay – but in this case, I know it’s going to be a long one. Sorry. Not sorry).

So what they are they saying – why did that intro reach out and touch me?
Music is personal. Check. We all know that. Moving on…. No. Not so fast.
How is it that three mates can have so much in common and yet only (barely) tolerate each other’s music choice?
There is some deep brain stuff going on and this article seems to hint that they found it.
Bottom line, they found two things.
1. Parts of the brain light up when you listen to your preferred music.
(Not unexpected, we all knew this).
2. Music alters the connectivity between parts of the brain.
Think about for a second, three very different people and music types and yet their brain lights up in very similar ways, but ONLY when each is listening to their preferred type of music. And we now have the technology to map this. Very. Cool.

One thing I need you to keep in mind while reading this blog…. Their quote here “Given that musical preferences are uniquely individualized phenomena and that music can vary in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics, the consistency of our results was unexpected.” Emphasises mine.
This matters to me because it proves that it’s not just me…. I am not the only one that has their music light up their brain. I totally get that music is just not a thing for some people (or it might be that they have not listened to enough variety for them to find their preferred type), but the fact remains, the consistency that this study found surprised them.
So joking, not joking, turns out, in this one regard, I am not imagining things.

Listening to music affects an intricate set of complex processing systems in the brain, such as systems associated with sensory-motor processing as well as functional elements implicated in memory, cognition and emotion or mood fluctuation. Listening to music often connects thoughts and emotions and, therefore, is associated with questions surrounding consciousness and “Theory of Mind” (the ability to understand the intentions and emotional state of others).

No question this is a big part of ‘me’ over the past several months, connecting thoughts and emotions and associating questions of consciousness, heavily coupled all that with ‘ability to understand the intentions and emotional state of others’….

I have been struggling with ‘the ability to understand the intentions and emotional state of others’. I guess it could be put down to the fact that this is the very heart of my issue, I have been struggling to understand MY intentions and emotional state, how then can I understand others?
I have been unknowingly using music to help me sort, catalog and stabilize my intentions and emotions. What I never guessed is that the music has been actually rewiring my brain in the process – which is exactly what I want to do, I want to make lasting changes to how I think and interact with other people…..
Through music, other people then, while they are not making sense yet, in some rare cases, I have opened the door a little to them. In other words, if you speak trance, I have found that I will be more likely to let you in a little deeper, a little quicker than otherwise.
(In the case of my mates, we all had history together before we got deep into music, also, while I have been a little ‘different’ my whole life, it’s since moving over here and a few events that have really done a number on my head – in other words, I have always loved trance, but the past 9 months it has almost become a daily dose requirement – and yes, I am listening to it now while I type).

When listening to strongly preferred music, people report they often experience deeply personal, often unsolicited and emotionally-laden, thoughts and memories. Listeners describe that the phenomenon of self-referential thoughts and memories can be triggered by different types of music and the presence or absence of lyrics.

No question that trance is deeply personal for me, there is meaning and emotions to the songs that I would really struggle to express, so deep and powerful they are. Is there a word deeper than intimate? You get the gist.
Some years back I started a Google Document of trance lyrics, I have been really adding to it over the past 9 months. My preference is now to the point of indifference. I used to just like tracks with no lyrics, but if the voice is soothing and the words dialed in, then I am just as happy there, if not more so. I love the way that a lot of trance lyrics seem unfinished, just fragments of thoughts and feelings. Like a shattered mirror reflecting your own thoughts back to you through the song.

They next spent a lot of the article talking about how they did the brain scans (MRI) and how they needed a ‘control’ and so they played each subject (21 different people) a range of 6 types of music, 4 they might have heard before, rock, classic etc and one they have not heard, Chinese opera and then the subjects favorite chosen song.
I don’t want to get too bogged down in their methodology, the point is, it was scientific and it is a peer reviewed paper. Let’s keep looking at what they found.

Described as functioning somewhat like a toggle switch between outwardly focused mind states and the internal or subjective sense of self, this network appears to include mind-wandering experiences such as imagining the future, the discovering of new possibilities (hopes), and the affective significance of aspirations or dreams.

In short, we are talking about some very very powerful connections here.
I don’t want to get too off track, but I liken ‘imagining the future, aspirations or dreams’ to be almost on a spirit level. ‘Hope’ surely would be part of the spirit in us that drives us beyond physical limits?
I guess my point is that I agree with what they are saying here, music can induce mind-wandering experience that are real.
I don’t think I am stretching (or hoping too much) things here to say it sounds like they are saying that music can bridge the gap between the physical and the spiritual in the human mind?
Music can flip a switch in your mind and, it sounds almost cheesy, music can set you free of being trapped in your own mind. Beyond interesting.

The high degree of connectivity found within the precuneus combined with the default mode network community structure results suggest that listening to music that is preferred influences these emotionally-laden experiences in the brain. Research is now showing that disruptions and abnormal connectivity within the default mode network may be related to a set of neurological challenges, such as autism, mild cognitive impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and depression.

Ok, now we are getting into some heavy stuff…..
They are saying that there can be disruptions, either genetic or environmental (eg, stress), to the normal connections between these parts of the brain (they call it ‘default mode network’). They are saying that our preferred music type can exercise these weakened connections. Just like any muscle that is weak, using it, exercising it, can rebuild it and make it strong.
When you do this, you are able to move around, travel, more than before.
In other words, listening your preferred music type could help restore emotional connectivity between parts of the brain.

This has specific implications for neurologic remediation (therapy), where music has been shown to have neurorehabilitation effects, such as improvements in executive function and emotional adjustments, as well as lessening of anxiety and depression.

So yeah, hit three big ones for me right there, ‘therapy for emotional adjustments, anxiety and depression’. Phew.
I guess I was pretty excited to see some ‘proof’ that I was not imagining things, that I really do feel better when I am listening to trance.
This is one of the challenges I have had, are the voices in your head right or wrong? Are you imagining them, or are they real? Because they are in your head, they are you, but you know you are not quite right…sssooooo do you really feel better when listening to trance, or is something else going on?
These guys seem to have proof that indeed, listening to your preferred music type can ‘lessening of anxiety and depression’.

Connectivity within the DMN is also emerging as a diagnostic measurement in autism, where understanding the inner representation of other people’s affective state (i.e., empathy) is often compromised. Our results suggest there may be some potential utility in listening to preferred music to optimally influence functional brain connectivity within this network. Clearly, future research is needed to more fully understand how music listening impacts these brain mechanisms.

Yeah, nah, you can all relax, I am no better at ‘doing people’ (ie, having empathy) when listening to trance, or am I? Either way the thought does intrigue me a lot.
I fully understand that trance is not everyone’s cup of tea, so while I might be more chill talking with you while some trance is playing, I am aware that you might be getting more and more on edge because of ‘that horrible banging sound’.
I do know that when both people are really enjoying and connecting with the music, there can be a human connection that breaks down the usual mental and emotional barriers, a deeper more lasting connection is possible.
Clearly more research is needed and I would love to be part of said research.

It has been shown that the hippocampus is critical in the formation of social and emotional memories. Our finding that the auditory cortex and hippocampus shared the same module when listening to liked and disliked music supports this implication.

Struggling to put into words how important and meaningful this is for me.
I have always been able to remember tech stuff better than emotions.
Thus spending time with people is not always something I remember.
It is not something I can easily explain or verbalize. Thus I am fascinated that there might be a link between memory, specifically, social and emotional memories and music.
In short, connecting people with music helps form emotional memories.
Whoa. Mind blown.

Perhaps, when listening to a personal favorite song the brain retrieves, rather than encodes, emotionally-laden autobiographic and episodic memories. This is consistent with the notion that when listening to a favorite song or music, memory formation is no longer critical as memories associated with a personal favorite song have been previously encoded. In summation, by combining the two community structure findings, our results suggest that listening to a favorite song has the potential to not only recruit those previously encoded memories but also, even more importantly, to simultaneously support and sustain brain introspection via connectivity within the DMN, thus effectively re-processing autobiographic and episodic memories.

I feel like anything I add to this quote would be like a fish flopping around out of water, all noise, no help…… But try I must…..
We can all hear a bit of music and have emotions, feelings and thoughts flood back, the music can transport us through space and time to when we made the memories around the music. I have countless songs encoded with memories, often so rich they will almost include the smells of when I heard that track. It is not (always) when you hear it for the first time, often it is just a perfect storm of the music and emotions that connect the song to that experience in your head.
Never have I had that experience so strongly flood over me than in the 9 hour (hey, I had the time, so took the long way) drive from Uranquinty to Ballarat in Gary’s little red car. I had my trance playing for the whole 9 hours and the different tracks took me some totally unexpected places.
In some tracks I was physically shocked that they contained the thoughts and feelings they did. Some of these tracks I have been listening too for over 15 years, all of them I had been listening to them in Temecula but had no idea that I was encoding them with what I had been. To hear them at the end of the three weeks back home was like a night and day experience. It was shocking.
In Australia, my mind was in a different state, a different emotional condition, so when I heard those tracks, and my mind lit up and triggered those encoded memories and emotions….. Yeah, there is a reason it took 9 hours to drive a 6 hour trip.
I am not going to stop listening to those tracks, I just want to have my eyes open. This article, coming after the experience of driving through rural Australia, helped me see just how powerful the music is to me, and how I need to be mindful and respectful of what it is doing to my mind.

Wrapping all this up…..
Music is powerful. More so for some people than others. Music does stuff to your (and my) brain.
My names Ben and my preferred music type is (vocal/chill) Trance.
Do you know what your preferred music type is? Do you take time to deliberately listen to that music?

I feel a blog coming up about the no skip driving playlist I have been working on for the past 9 months… Another time.. You lot need a drink and little lie down after this one…..

Yeah. Long blog is long.
Once again I almost feel like I should apologize if you have come this far.
Yeah. Nah.