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Music is a tradition nearly as old as humankind itself, so it's no wonder our brains have developed interesting ways of interacting with and responding to it. Here are just a few of the ways music impacts our psychology.

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Links to Original Episodes and Sources:
How Music Can Heal the Brain
Why Does Music Make You Emotional?
How the Right Tunes Can Improve Your Workout
Why You Can’t Listen to Music While You Work
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The first 1,000 people to click the link in the description can get a 1 month free trial of Skillshare’s Premium Membership. [♫ Intro] When we experience music and psychology together, they can help us understand our world. Or at least help us function better within it.

And they really are a powerful duo. Music has even been shown to help heal injuries! If you think that’s too good to be true, tune in as Brit explains how it works: For thousands of years, people have been using music for healing.

Like, Ancient Egyptian and Greek physicians used instrumental music and song to help heal their patients. And during World War II, people even used music therapy to help soldiers recover from injuries and mental trauma. And while that might sound a little off the wall, studies have actually shown that music can reduce levels of stress hormones, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, relieve anxiety, and just make us happier.

But that’s not all. In the last few decades, advances in neuroscience have revealed that music is also a virtuoso when it comes to healing the brain. Now, clinicians are using music therapy to help patients overcome head injuries, recover lost speech or mobility, and even rewire their brains.

Part of the reason music is so powerful is because the brain doesn’t have a single section devoted to music. The pathways activated by music also orchestrate language, attention, memory, complex cognition, and movement. And that means music can potentially influence all these diverse functions.

For example, our brains have networks of cells called auditory-motor circuits. Part of their job is to process the rhythmic sounds we hear, like the rhythms of speech or music. But they also stimulate rhythmic movements, like walking.

Since these neural pathways deal with both sound and movement, if you excite the neurons with music, you can make them more ready to activate movement. And it’s not uncommon. Sometimes you hear music and you automatically tap your foot, or do a little dance, or walk to the beat.

And scientists can take advantage of this phenomenon to help people who struggle with movement. In a 1993 study, scientists recruited 10 people who had weakness in one side of their body after a stroke, which left them walking with a limp. Then the researchers asked them to walk to the rhythm of Renaissance dance music.

And they measured the activity in the patients’ muscles using electrodes attached to their bodies. The patients showed almost instantaneous improvements. They had more muscle activation in their weak side and more symmetry in their stride.

And one 2017 study found that stroke patients who received music therapy were still moving better six months after the therapy ended. This kind of therapy can help with all kinds of conditions that affect movement, too. For instance, some of the same scientists from the 1993 study later used a similar therapy on patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The patients suffered from severe slowness or even freezing—where they essentially stopped moving altogether. But the scientists found that listening to music significantly sped up patients’ walking pace and helped prevent freezing. In fact, overall, they found that among Parkinson’s and stroke patients with movement problems, music therapy actually worked better than standard physical therapy.

A different kind of music therapy can also help with a condition called aphasia, which is the loss of the ability to speak or understand language. It’s actually pretty common. One in 272 Americans has some degree of aphasia, often following a stroke, head injury, or brain tumor.

But what’s unusual is that, while many people with aphasia can’t speak, some can still sing—thanks to how musical memories are stored in the brain. While your brain mostly processes language on the left side, it uses both sides to process music and store musical memories. So if people have damage on the left side of their brain and struggle to put original thoughts into words, they might still be able to use the right side of their brain to sing a favorite song.

And because of this connection between music and language, therapists can use music to train the right hemisphere to recover lost language skills. This process is called melodic intonation therapy. To start off, the therapist typically asks the patient to hum and then sing a short sentence like “Nice to meet you,” using a melody that mimics the natural intonation of the phrase.

Gradually, they move on to saying the sentence with a sing-songy intonation, and then speaking the sentence. “Nice to meet you! Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you.” So, melodic intonation therapy takes advantage of the right hemisphere’s ability to communicate through song, then slowly trains it to transform song into speech. This rewires the brain, so that the right hemisphere takes over some of the language functions that the damaged left hemisphere can no longer perform. Melodic intonation therapy is typically used when there is such severe damage in the left hemisphere that it’s impossible to repair the neurons in that area.

So it’s necessary to recruit the right side to come to the rescue. But when there’s less damage, music therapy can be used to strengthen and rehabilitate connections in the injured area of the brain. For example, it can be used to treat cognitive problems caused by moderate traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

One part of the brain that’s often damaged in TBIs is the orbitofrontal cortex, and that can cause problems with attention, concentration, and social behavior. But studies have found that music can help patients with TBIs recover function in this part of their brain. In one study, scientists recruited seven patients with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex who were having persistent cognitive problems even after non-musical therapy.

During the eight-week study, the researchers gave the patients two piano lessons a week and instructed them to practice at home each day. Afterward, the patients listened to music in an fMRI scanner while the scientists monitored the activity in different regions of their brain. And compared to the beginning of the study, they found increased activity and connectivity in several brain areas, including the orbitofrontal cortex.

What’s more, six out of the seven patients experienced improvements in attention, memory, learning, and social interaction. They were even able to return to work again. So, for those who can experience it, music is not only relaxing, uplifting, and fun.

It can also stimulate neurons to improvise new connections and pathways, helping people with different brain conditions get their groove back. Music has been used to heal patients for years, across different cultures and historical time periods. Some researchers even suspect that it played a role in our evolution.

I’ll count Brit in to explain the idea more thoroughly. And a one and a two and a: We all sort of know that music tugs at our heartstrings. Think of the excitement you feel at a rock concert or the lump you get in your throat when the first dance starts at your friends’ wedding.

Think of that holiday music nostalgia [♪ SINGING] The First Noel or how nice it is to dance around your kitchen to your favorite Spotify playlist. And like, there’s definitely a reason that the soundtrack for a horror film is nothing like the one for a romcom. But the question of why music gives us the feels is a trickier one, and it’s something psychologists have been investigating for a long time.

Turns out, this research might be so difficult because there are a whole bunch of explanations. First, it’s worth pointing out that music really is universal. whether you're hearing it through your ears or feeling something like rhythm through vibrations. It’s been found to be part of every known human culture, and even as infants, we react to and enjoy it.

Different cultures also seem to use similar types of music for similar things. This kind of suggests that music has an evolutionary purpose, which is something that scientists as far back as Darwin have proposed. They’ve suggested it could have been a kind of language before we had words, or an auditory way to convey what’s usually expressed by movement.

But even if there’s a good reason for why humans have embraced music, it’s a little more complicated to explain exactly how it influences our emotions. It’s so complicated that, for a while, some researchers actually thought that it didn’t. They argued that the feels were just the result of tension being released as our expectations were met and violated by what happened in a song.

If you’ve ever gone “uhhhhh” at a dissonant and arrhythmic piece of modern classical music, you probably know that expectations do matter when it comes to listening to music. But many researchers now argue that, while expectations might be one way songs influence us, you really are feeling emotions when an angry ballad brings you to tears. There’s a lot of evidence that, when you listen to a piece of music, something is going on in your body and brain… and that’s kind of hard to ignore.

For example, some studies have found differences in participants’ heart rates and blood pressures when listening to happy, uptempo, tonal music versus sadder, slower, more dissonant stuff. Admittedly, it’s hard to say whether the music changed how positive people actually felt or just got them more riled up. But another study got around that a bit by looking at how music affected subjects’ interpretation of facial expressions.

They found that happy music made happy, neutral, and sad faces seem happier, while sad music made them seem sadder. That seemed to suggest the music was making them feel things and influencing their perception of emotions. And a 2014 research review published in Nature found that many of the brain regions we associate with emotion -- like the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and hippocampus -- are involved when we listen to songs.

So there’s definitely some emotion-related stuff going on in your brain when you plug in your headphones. But why and how those things happen is a much harder question to answer. For one, the research hasn’t been totally consistent.

Different studies have asked slightly different questions when they’ve investigated music and emotion -- like “What do you feel when you hear this?” versus “What do you hear in the music?” If you aren’t paying close attention to what the researchers asked their participants, it can make the results of their studies seem confusing or even contradictory. And then there are all the potential mechanisms for how music gives us emotions. In 2008, in a paper from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, researchers argued that there may be as many as six, including things like reflexes in the brain stem, but also more cognitive things like musical expectancy.

Like, even though the emotions are real, they could still be caused by expectations, like older researchers thought. Another possible mechanism is that the feelings you get from music happen via a process called emotional contagion, where you mirror the emotion that you hear happening in the piece. But how this happens in the brain is still unknown.

And then there’s the idea that your memories can have something to do with how songs make you feel. Research has shown that melodies can evoke strong autobiographical memories, meaning that a song really can take you back to when and where and what was happening when you listened to it. So it’s totally possible that by bringing up a memory, a song could invoke the emotions associated with it, rather than one that’s built into the song itself.

It’s why that cute love song you and your ex used to like might make you feel angry or sad instead of all warm and fuzzy inside. So yeah. There are a lot of possibilities.

In that 2008 paper, the researchers argued that that might be part of the reason why we don’t have things figured out yet. Having so many possibilites—and failing to distinguish when different ones are responsible in different situations—could be muddying our overall understanding. And of course, the idea of liking music is a whole separate issue… because you totally can get pleasure out of a really sad song.

It’s basically Adele’s whole business model. So we don’t totally know how we get from music to feels, but we do definitely know that music makes us feel things. There are a lot more questions to answer, but they’re questions a lot of people care about and are looking into.

After all, music is a huge part of most of our lives, and might have also played a role in Our evolutionary history. So next time you’re sobbing along to the credits of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire or having a spiritual experience at a Beyonce concert… Well, know that you’re not alone. So music can affect us both physically and emotionally.

And if you’re enjoying learning how music affects our brains, you might enjoy learning more with Skillshare! Like with their course “What is Music? An Introduction to Music Psychology,” ​​which gives a brief insight into the power and influence music can have over us all.

Skillshare is an online learning community that offers membership with meaning. With so much to explore, real projects to create, and the support of fellow creatives, Skillshare empowers you to accomplish real growth. Premium Membership is curated specifically for learning, meaning there are no ads, and they’re always launching new premium classes, so you can stay focused and follow wherever your creativity takes you.

Plus, the first 1,000 people to click the link in the description get a one month free trial of Premium Membership. Now, here’s more about how music can help give our brains and bodies a boost: It’s no secret that athletes love music: rumor has it, swimmer Michael Phelps listened to the Eminem song “‘Til I Collapse” before every race and gymnast Shawn Johnson jammed out to “Soul Rock” by Ferras before every big meet. And that’s because music not only puts them in a good mood, it might actually make the difference between bronze and gold.

Dozens of studies have found that listening to loud, uptempo music gets athletes working harder and helps them exercise longer. Which is why, of course, that’s the kind of music you hear the moment you walk into any fitness center. But the real question is why this happens.

Part of the story, no doubt, has to do with how music makes people feel, since how you feel affects how you think and act. Music you like lifts your spirits, and in general, upbeat songs tend to make people feel happier. A 2014 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science showed certain songs can even evoke a sense of power.

When songs like “We Will Rock You” by Queen or 2Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This” played in the background, the participants felt more powerful, and that led to them acting differently— doing things like choosing to go first in a debate or taking charge in an activity. This was especially attributable to bass sounds. When the experimenters chose an unfamiliar classical piece and artificially ratcheted up the bass, people in the study felt more powerful than when listening to the same track with the bass dialed down.

Other studies have similarly found that people are more willing to take athletic risks when music is playing. So when athletes hear a fast-tempo song with lots of bass, they might work harder or do better because the music makes them feel stronger and more confident. Basically, they feel empowered to shoot that long 3-pointer, or go for that triple axel.

Music can also help distract you from what your body is feeling, which is helpful if you want to push yourself. You can only process so much sensory information at once, so hearing music—especially loud music you can’t tune out—draws your attention away from your sore muscles and your aching joints. This effect is especially strong with music— researchers have had subjects listen to audiobooks instead, and they feel more exhausted than music listeners, maybe because the words alone just aren’t distracting enough.

Nevertheless, you can get my book in audio form, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, available wherever audiobooks are sold. [bell dings] Distraction can be a bad thing if you’re doing something hard that takes a lot of coordination— basically, when you need to really focus to do well, like making that perfect putt. But if you’re just trying to build stamina, or doing something automatic and repetitive like cycling, distracting music can help you last longer. Also, working out literally hurts less when you put on your favorite gym tracks.

That’s because music can stimulate the release of natural opioids in the brain, dulling pain and helping you push your body harder. All of this might be part of why exercise feels easier when you’ve got good tunes. But it’s still more than all of that, because studies have found you literally don’t have to work as hard to perform the same action when you’re listening to music.

In one study, researchers found that 61 participants used less oxygen—an objective measure of physical exertion—while lifting weights and listening to music. Similarly, researchers found that 10 trained runners had lower levels of lactate in their blood—a physiological sign of exertion—while running on a treadmill if they were listening to music. Why this happens isn’t well understood, but it might be because of how our neurons react to a good rhythm.

It’s called entrainment: basically, the neurons in your brain and the rest of your body sync to the beat, and that literally makes it easier on your muscles when you work out. Neurons in your brain, especially in the outer cerebral cortex, send electrical pulses in the form of brain waves. These can measured by putting a whole bunch of electronic sensors on a person’s scalp—a test called an electroencephalogram or EEG.

And it turns out that when music gets pumped into your ear canal, the neurons in parts of your brain involved in hearing start to pulse in time with that musical beat. Brain waves in the motor cortex sync up as well. Before long, neurons all over your body are essentially swaying to the beat.

Unconscious actions like breathing begin to match the rhythm, like an athletic symphony. It’s thought that this body-wide pacing helps your brain coordinate your muscles more efficiently, so it’s easier for your limbs to perform repetitive movements, like flexing and releasing when you're lifting weights or rowing your arms while you swim. And when exercise is easier, you can do it better and for longer.

Music can also help you recover after that heart-pumping workout. A 2017 study found that slow music helped 42 participants relax after exercise, lowering their heart rates and stress hormone levels more than upbeat music or silence. So forget all your GNC muscle powders—if you really want to up your game, just try a little music.

That makes me want to throw on some music with heavy base drops before my next big presentation. I want to go into the room feeling powerful and confident enough to take some risks. Unfortunately, listening to music while you’re trying to get work done, like finishing that big presentation, can be hard.

What’s great for a workout might be counterproductive for work. And here’s why: Some people can work in a coffee shop with music playing and dozens of people bustling about and all sorts of smells wafting through the air, and be totally productive. And some people get completely derailed when they’re trying to work and their neighbor plays their music above a whisper, or starts fidgeting.

Why? Mainly, the difference has to do with sensory gating, which is your brain’s ability to filter out unnecessary sensory inputs competing for your attention. If your brain lets in and processes a lot of unwanted sensations, you probably have what neuroscientists call leaky, or impaired sensory gating.

And if it doesn’t, you probably have selective sensory gating. But the good news is, no matter which type you have, both can actually boost your creativity, just in different ways. Sensory gating can involve various senses, from sight to smell to hearing.

And overall, it’s kind of like a bouncer outside a nightclub. Some bouncers have a strict door policy: “you’d better change your shoes, mister.” And some let in, yeah, basically anyone: “come on in. Looking good.” Overall, scientists are still trying to figure out exactly which parts of the brain control this.

But they do have some leads. Like, when it comes to filtering sounds, a 2019 study found that it starts at the ventral cochlear nucleus, or vCN. That's where the auditory nerve fibers that encode information about sound connect to the brain stem.

This suggests that auditory sensory gating begins almost as soon as someone hears something. So, ultimately, whether someone can filter out noise while they work might just boil down to how their brain is wired. When it comes to other senses, though... the jury is still out about mechanisms.

Still, one thing we do know is that sensory gating isn’t just about filtering out stimuli. It can also influence your ability to come up with innovative and original ideas. One study that looked into this was published in 2015.

It measured 97 test subjects’ auditory sensory gating ability, and looked at how that correlated with their creativity. First, the participants took a test that measured creative thinking. It asked them to finish incomplete figures to make pictures, and also to imagine what might happen in improbable scenarios, like, if they could fly.

Then, subjects were asked to give a number ranking to their achievement and recognition levels in various creative fields, including music, dance, scientific discovery, and visual arts. Finally, the participants sat in a sound-proof booth while wearing headphones, and researchers played two, one millisecond-long clicks 500 milliseconds apart. And while participants listened, their brain activity was measured using an electroencephalogram, or EEG.

In the end, people with leaky sensory gating had the same level of neurological response to both clicks. Meanwhile, people with selective gating registered the first click, but paid much less attention to the second. Essentially, their brains filtered it out.

But here’s the really fascinating thing: The study also found that people with leaky sensory gating had more actual, real-world creative achievements. As in, their creative work was more likely to be widely distributed or recognized. The authors suggest that might be because leaky sensory gaters focus on more stimuli than other people, so they’re able to make more creative connections between seemingly-unrelated things.

For instance, a writer with leaky gating might be inspired by a random conversation they overheard in a restaurant. Or a dancer might be inspired by, say, the movement of rain on a window. That said, if you don’t have leaky sensory gating, that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative!

The same study found that people with selective gating were more likely to exhibit divergent thinking, which is another form of creativity. Divergent thinkers are able to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. And the reasoning is, if you can shut out distractions and really focus on the task in front of you, you can likely come up with these innovative solutions more easily.

So there are definitely benefits and trade-offs to both types. If you really want to switch camps, though… well, that’s easier said than done. Evidence shows that you can go from selective to leaky sensory gating in some situations, but it isn’t really a skill you can practice.

Like, a 2019 study found that military service members exposed to high-intensity blasts developed leaky sensory gating as a result of damage to their auditory processing system. Another study published in 2016 found that muscle fatigue could also make your sensory gating leakier… at least temporarily. Meanwhile, on the flip side, scientists are less sure about whether you can tighten up your sensory gating.

Still, just because you might not be able to change your gating doesn’t mean you can’t optimize how you use it. For instance, if you think you have leaky sensory gating, maybe it’s worth adding those noise-cancelling headphones to your wishlist, or making sure your workspace is free of distractions. And if you have selective gating, you could set aside time to focus on the world around you if you need inspiration.

But in either case, you can still explore and unlock your creative genius. So tuning into the psychology of music could help us tap into our physical, emotional, and mental powers. In the end, the psych you take is equal to the psych you make.

And if you just can’t get enough musical SciShow, you might enjoy this video on our main channel! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! [♫ Outro]