Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sad Classical Music fMRI Study

Reference: Mitterschiffthaler, Martina T., and Cynthia H.Y. Fu, Jeffrey A. Dalton, Christopher M. Andrew, and Steven C.R. Williams. A Functional MRI Study of Happy and Sad Affective States Induced by Classical Music. Human Brain Mapping 28:1150-1162 (2007)

Posted by Devon Fornelli

There were many levels involved in this research experiment. Firstly, researchers had to assemble a list of musical examples they could label as “happy”, “sad”, and “neutral”. Then they had to confirm that these pieces were indeed happy, sad, or neutral by conducting a research survey with a different set of subjects. Once they had designated a number of pieces that were associated with and emotion, they were prepared to proceed with their main study.
In the main study, researchers exposed listeners to pieces that were rated as happy, sad or neutral and took fMRI readings as they listened to excerpts of each piece. Subjects were also asked to rate each excerpt as happy, sad or neutral following each excerpt.
Based on the previous categorization of pieces as being associated to an emotion and subjects’ subjective reporting of what emotion they perceived in the music, researchers were able to localize areas in the brain as they reacted to happy, sad and neutral music.
The researchers raise the problem that the order in which the excerpts were introduced affected how later excerpts were perceived. For example, if a happy excerpt was played first, then there was a slight emotional bias based towards “happy” as subjects rated later examples. The same happened when sad excerpts were played first. This demonstrates how order affects and skews subjects’ later perceptions.
Results: happy musical stimuli were associated with increased activity in the bilateral ventral and left dorsal striatum, left ACC, and left parahippocampal gyrus. Sad musical stimuli were associated with increased activation in the right medial temporal structures.

I believe this research goes a long way in proving how music can influence our emotional states. Though I am not qualified to comment on the details brought up in this exhaustive study, I can estimate that the scientific research undertaken helps to prove what many may have guessed was fact: that music influences our mood/emotions. What is especially interesting in this study is how important listening order is in subjects’ perceptions. This is what I understand from their findings: the music that we listen to first in our playlist will determine how we perceive all the music that follows. In other words, if I were to listen to a driving, energetic piece of “happy” music, all the subsequent pieces I listen to will be perceived in relation to that first piece, and likely “tinged” or “tainted” by the happiness of the initial piece; whether or not the following pieces happen to be sad or neutral, they will be perceived in relation to the happiness from the first piece.

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