The music we listen to reveals a lot about our mental health, according to new research.
A new brain imaging study has found that our neural responses to different types of music affect our emotion regulation.
Emotion regulation is an essential component to mental health, according to scientists. Poor emotion regulation is associated with psychiatric mood disorders, such as depression.
Clinical music therapists know the power music can have over emotions, and are able to use music to help their clients to better mood states and even to help relieve symptoms of psychiatric mood disorders, like depression.
But many people also listen to music on their own as a means of regulating emotions, and not much is known about how this affects mental health.
That led researchers at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research at the universities of Jyväskylä and Aalto in Finland and Aarhus University in Denmark to investigate the relationship between mental health, music listening habits, and neural responses to music by looking at a combination of behavioral and neuroimaging data.
“Some ways of coping with negative emotion, such as rumination, which means continually thinking over negative things, are linked to poor mental health. We wanted to learn whether there could be similar negative effects of some styles of music listening,” said University of Jyväskylä graduate student Emily Carlson, a music therapist and main author of the study.
Volunteers were assessed on several markers of mental health, including depression, anxiety, and neuroticism. They also reported the ways they most often listened to music to regulate their emotions.
Analysis showed that anxiety and neuroticism were higher in people who tended to listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings, particularly in men.
“This style of listening results in the feeling of expression of negative feelings, not necessarily improving the negative mood,” says Dr. Suvi Saarikallio, co-author of the study and developer of the Music in Mood Regulation (MMR) test.
To investigate the brain’s unconscious emotion regulation processes, the researchers recorded the participants’ neural activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they listened to snippets of happy, sad, and fearful-sounding music.
What the study revealed is that men who tended to listen to music to express negative feelings had less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). In females who tended to listen to music to distract from negative feelings, however, there was increased activity in the mPFC.
“The mPFC is active during emotion regulation,” said Dr. Elvira Brattico, the senior author of the study. “These results show a link between music listening styles and mPFC activation, which could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on the brain.”
“We hope our research encourages music therapists to talk with their clients about their music use outside the session and encourages everyone to think about the how the different ways they use music might help or harm their own well-being,” concluded Carlson.
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.