Understanding Music and the Brain
Does music really have that strong an impact on the brain?
Music is something that is older than human history itself. Birds make music. Humans have, for longer than history has recorded, sang songs to appease one another, please deities, and entertain one another. If you really think about it, music is part of who we are as living creatures.
Considering how striking an impact music has on us, there's got to be some scientific studies that back its importance, right? Of course there are. Here's what scientists have uncovered about music's impact on the brain—as well as your mood and health.
Let's start off with the most obvious way music affects people: their mood. If you've ever been in a rough breakup, then you probably have noticed how the right song seemed to help you get through things or how the wrong song may have made you even more depressed.
This is actually a very primal instinct in people, especially when it comes to happy, bouncy music. Even toddlers and babies are known to smile and bop to musical beats, and no one tells them to do that.
Studies have shown that listening to music can cause our brains to produce dopamine. Dopamine, as most people know, is the chemical that activates our reward centers. It's also released during sex, drug use, and other "feel good" activities.
A similar study also showed that listening to music allows you to work through negative emotions, even if those feelings are only on a subconscious level. Contrary to popular belief, even sad songs improve a person's ability to cope with stress, pain, and other bad vibes. (Does this explain why you have so many sad songs on that one playlist now?)
Oh, and also, singing along to the songs on your radio tends to boost moods via the release of another hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin, as you might know, is the same chemical that is released when you're cuddling up with someone you love. This actually explains why you tend to feel closer to people once you "car karaoke" with them.
Some studies also show that music tends to improve autistic children's abilities to understand emotion.
But, music isn't only a mood booster. It actually affects the way that you perceive emotions and understand people. One study conducted by the Journal of Music Therapy showed that autistic children who listened to music were able to recognize emotions in music. This meant that the music was able to succeed where regular words could not—at least, when it came to kids communicating how they feel.
Feelings aside, music also impacts the cognitive parts of our brains, too.
Going to school, you probably remember having to sing your ABC's along with your teacher. You might also have been taught songs that teach you the names of all 50 states, the books of the Bible, as well as a mathematical formula or two. There's a reason why you probably can rattle off every single song they taught you.
Music is directly connected to memories that you have, and that's also the reason why Alzheimer's patients often end up being able to recognize old songs tied to their childhoods when they no longer are able to recognize people around them.
Music also affects your memory and ability to learn. In fact, psychologists often call this the "Mozart Effect." Studies have shown that people tend to learn better with music that has neutral emotions, and test better with positive emotions.
The only caveat? Your ability to learn actually backslides with negative or sad music. And, there's not much neuroscience that can explain the reason why the Mozart Effect works as of right now.
Music therapy also has been noted to improve your brain's ability to rewire itself. This is also known as neuroplasticity, and it's a trait that is absolutely crucial if you have recently incurred brain damage. Music's ability to rewire your brain is so well-established that it was even used in the recovery process of Congresswoman Giffords after she was shot in the head.
Oh, and while listening to music is good, playing it is even better.
A huge number of studies have also been conducted on how playing music affects your brain. Surprisingly, the studies suggest that Kanye West and other musicians might actually be a bit smarter than many other celebrities out there.
When brain scans were taken of musicians and compared to non-musicians, doctors noticed quite a few things. First off, their brains were more symmetrical (healthier) than the brains of other people. Next, they also noted that the the parts of their brain that handle motor control, hand-eye coordination, and auditory processing are also larger. Lastly, the two hemispheres of their brains were better connected than those who didn't play music.
What this means is that the musician's brains were larger and more efficient than the brains of people who didn't pick up an instrument in school. Obviously, this might be a reason why kids who play music tend to do better in school.
The topic of how music affects the human brain is one that scientists really love to discover more on. It's gotten to the point that scientists even were able to prove that music actually improves our ability to withstand pain and deal with post-surgery discomfort more.
The sheer amount of ways that music will affect your mind, mood, and physical health is too much for one single article to cover adequately. If you're really interested to find out more, you should pick up a book on it.
Music is good, period.
The bottom line is that music has a very positive effect on your brain, your mood, and your ability to stay healthy. When in doubt, just open up Spotify, and you're good to go.