Reviewed by Liesel Deppe
Reference: Eldar, Eran and Ganor, Ori. Feeling the Real World: Limbic Response to Music Depends on Related Content. Cerebral Cortex, December 2007.
Summary: Emotions are frequently object-related – whether a person or an object in the world. However the following question has not yet been adequately answered: are the object and the emotional response to it processed in different parts of the brain, or does that part of the brain that processes emotion also process content (i.e. the object)?
The authors used fMRI to demonstrate their findings. In order to keep the variables to a minimum, test subjects were shown 12 short films, which are emotionally poor, but rich in real-world details. Then they listened to emotional music, which although rich in emotional content, lacks details on the concrete world. Finally, subjects were shown a neutral film (poor in emotionality, but rich in real-world details) while listening to emotional music, which is rich in emotion, but does not give details about the concrete world. The first two tests were done as controls, in order to determine where in the brain increased activity takes place, and as mentioned before, to limit the number of variables.
What did they find? Combining emotional music with a neutral film elicited increased activity in the amygdale, hippocampus and lateral pre-frontal regions. The emotional music on its own did not obtain the same increased activity in these parts of the brain.
What does this mean? Since the amygdala is the heart of the emotional brain, this study seems to demonstrate that the brain response to an emotional stimulus is enhanced when there is also a concrete world component. This means that real-world content is important in emotional processing.
Review and Response: The authors set put their methodology well and systematically enough for a lay person to understand. Due to my lack of knowledge, I cannot comment on the methodology itself, or whether they addressed all the possible variables.
I was particularly intrigued by the authors’ assertion that there is a possible neurological link between emotion and cognition (as in perceptual-association content) in the human mind. While humans and animals share the same basic emotions, those of humans seem to have become more sophisticated. They can no longer be seen as meaningless forces that rule human behaviour, but can be mitigated by our increased cognition. To me, this also means that while emotions are valid, we still have choice in modifying/ choosing our behaviour because, or in spite of our emotions.