Investigating our Emotions
The word emotion is the modern English form of a latin word ‘emovere’, which originally meant “to move, remove, agitate, or stir up’. If you think about it, most emotions can be prescribed into one of those categories; stirring you up could be taken as either making you energetic or making you angry. Then there is “to move”; perhaps a song contains certain sound effects or chords which make you feel sad, or even depressed; it could also describe feeling joyful, or full of love.
Emotions are often the result or the cause of our feelings; emotions tend to be passive, fading quickly, whilst our feelings tend to last much longer – perhaps even forever. If you feel disgusted by a terrible crime that you have read about in the newspaper, the emotion of being disgusted will probably fade as you turn the page, whilst your feeling of disgust towards the the murderer may last forever.
Scientifically speaking, our emotions are the cause of chemicals being released in the brain as a response to a specific trigger. Musically speaking, a certain sequence of sounds, a chorus, or a specific sequence of chords can activate the reward system in our brains, especially if it is the musical climax of one of our favorite songs. This causes a release of dopamine in our brains, a chemical that plays a key role in how we feel pleasure. Dopamine can also aid in the creative process, too, as it helps us think, plan, focus, or find things interesting.
But How Does It Work?
Music is sometimes described as being a universal language, but recent studies and advances in scientific analysis have revealed that, for most people, language is processed by the left side of the brain, whilst music has long been considered to only activate features of the right hemisphere. This includes many elements of the so-called limbic system that is responsible for motivation, emotions, learning, and memory.
Recent studies have revealed that music can, in fact, stimulate almost every part of our brains. A recent study in Finland recorded the brain responses of several people who were listening to their favorite songs. The results were fascinating – when the brain processes music, it stimulates the motor areas of the brain, as well as a system which is described as the "default mode network”. This area of the brain is responsible for mind-wandering and creativity.
Music and Memory
Listening to songs that we enjoyed in the past can evoke powerful emotions and memories; this response is a compelling area of research that is still being intensely studied today. Almost all of us can relate to this experience - listen to a song from decades ago, and your brain can make you feel as if you have been transported back in time.
Two groups of people were asked to think about an important life event that occurred a long time ago. One group was asked to listen to a song that they enjoyed around that time, whilst the other group did not listen to any music at all. The results of this test were conclusive – the group that were asked to listen to music could remember the events of that time much more clearly than the group that did not listen to music.
Memories are a complex thing; there are several types of memory, such as explicit and implicit memory, and each of these involve different areas of our brains. Explicit memories are simple – examples might be “what did you do 15 minutes ago?”, or “where did you go on your vacation last summer?”. Answering these questions is a conscious retrieval of our past.
Implicit memories are different – they are memories which are stored in the unconscious areas of our brains and are invoked by a reactive action of memory. Despite this, we can still retrieve these memories into our conscious mind, as they last much longer than our explicit memories. The most interesting thing about this is that the key to our long-lasting memories is that they are linked to a specific emotion that we felt at the time they were stored in our mind.
If there is anything that we should take away from this, it is that we should listen to more music – music inspires emotions, and those emotions aid in our ability to remember the things that are important to us. I think most of us would agree, this is a good enough reason to spend more time enjoying our favorite songs.