A science nerd’s perspective on hearing and emotions
I asked my friend the other day how she experiences music (the question was purposely ambiguous). She responded very simply, “I hear and feel it”. This may not sound all that profound to most people, but for me it was a reminder of the symbiotic relationship music has with our emotions.
Moreover, as a physiology and anatomy nerd it got me thinking… why? When it comes to questions about the relationship between structure and function, “It just is” is hardly a satisfying answer for me.
I am fortunate enough to currently be working with the Canadian Hearing Society, so this seemed as good a place as any to find some sort of answer to this question about the interplay between hearing and emotions.
My supervisor right now also happens to be an audiologist whose passion is disorders of the auditory system such as tinnitus (a persistent sound like ringing or buzzing in the ear) and hyperacusis (extreme sound sensitivity sometimes to the point of pain).
We were speaking about why emotions often trigger or exacerbate these disorders and how music is hypothesized to be effective at regulating them because of its effects on the auditory pathways. Needless to say, she had some valuable insight.
Here’s my take on it:
When we think of our brain as an onion, the core or the part that forms first is the most primitive of structures (often referred to as the reptilian brain-see picture below). Instinctive and emotional responses are stored here in a group of structures called the limbic system. As we move outwards we get away from this system and have areas for things like logic, hearing, speech, etc. Already you might be thinking: well then hearing and emotions are separated in the brain.
A reasonable assumption, but in a way, much of the limbic system acts as a gatekeeper for signals coming in and out of the brain.
Have I lost anyone yet? I hope not because here’s where it starts to all come together.
When we hear something, that physical sound is transformed into electrical signals that are in a way the “language of the brain.” Neurons or nerve cells carry these electrical signals from the ear up towards the brain like an assembly line. Now remember how I said that the hearing centres for the brain are located towards the outside, but at the core of our brains is that primitive limbic system responsible for emotion? Well guess where that electrical signal has to pass through in order to get to the hearing system? The gatekeeper! That emotional centre. It passes on its way up and it passes on its way down.
If we return to the assembly line analogy, it is a lot like supervisors who inspect the unpackaged product and then the final packaged product. It is here (in the limbic system) that our brain decides to accept or reject the sound and this directly affects how we “experience it” on an emotional level.
Negative responses can range from a reflexive response to cover your ears to a lack of inhibition and overstimulation of the auditory system resulting in persistent sound (tinnitus) to even a pain response (hyperacusis). If it is a pleasant sound we can have emotional responses that signal relaxation, joy, and even arousal.
Granted this is a simplified explanation, but I think it helps understand why what we hear can impact our emotions and how we feel can influence what we hear.
So this month as we explore music and writing, think about how music you enjoy might have a positive impact on not only your emotions but the functioning of your brain. It helps writing, and it helps you as a writer. While there is little known about the “creative brain” and how we generate novel ideas, from personal experience I know that when I feel good, I write good… uhh… well.
A very special thanks to Deborah O’Sullivan, founder of Auditory Pathways and specialist in tinnitus and sound sensitivities, for the inspiration for this post.