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Music on the brain: what our taste for music reveals about our mind


Listening to a favorite, familiar, or “retro” song can instantly transport you to another moment in your life, bringing back the details with startling clarity. And it’s not just a fancy sentiment – there’s science behind how our minds connect music to memory.

There has long been a beneficial association between music and patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Repeated listening to music that has personal meaning has been found to improve brain adaptability in patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment.

According to Michael Thaut, lead author of a study by researchers at the University of Toronto, listening to music with special meaning stimulated neural pathways in the brain that helped them maintain higher levels of functioning. It was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in November.

These songs had a unique meaning, like the music people danced to at their weddings, and led to better memory performance on tests. The results could support the inclusion of music-based therapy in the treatment of patients with cognitive impairment in the future.

The changes were most notable in the prefrontal cortex, known as the brain’s control center, where decision-making, moderation of social behavior, personality expression and planning of complex mental behavior occur.

When patients heard music that was personal to them, it fed into a musical neural network linking different regions of the brain, based on MRIs taken of the patients before and after listening to the music. This differed from when they heard new and unfamiliar music, which only triggered a specific part of the brain to listen.

There were just 14 participants in the study, including six musicians, and they listened to specially curated playlists for an hour a day for three weeks. But these participants are the same as those in an earlier study that identified neural mechanisms for preserving music-related memories in those experiencing early cognitive decline.

“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or you’ve never played an instrument, music is a key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” said Thaut, director of the Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory. from the University of Toronto and a professor at Temerty’s Faculty of Music and Medical School, in a statement. He also holds the Tier One Canada Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health. “It’s simple – keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those tracks that are especially meaningful to you – make them your brain gym.”

The research is a promising start that could lead to music therapy applications with a broader goal.

It also highlights another connection: music and our personalities.

Like-minded music fans

Music is linked to our desire to communicate, tell stories and share values ​​with each other, and it has deep roots in early human cultures.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that as humans we have forged ties and connections to certain musical genres or styles as a way to express ourselves and broadcast our personalities.

A recent study spanning six continents with over 350,000 participants showed that personality types are linked to certain musical preferences.

During the study, people from more than 50 countries said they enjoyed 23 different musical genres while filling out a personality questionnaire. A second assessment also allowed participants to listen to brief excerpts of music from 16 different genres and subgenres of Western music and rank them. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in February.

The music fell into five main style categories. “Mellow” is associated with soft rock, R&B, and adult contemporary music, including romantic lyrics and slow beats, while “intense” is louder, more aggressive music like punk, classic rock, heavy metal and power pop. Other categories included “contemporary” (upbeat electronica, rap, Latin, and Euro-pop), “sophisticated” (classical, opera, jazz), and “unassuming” (relaxing or country musical genres).

The results revealed direct links between extroverts and contemporary music, conscientiousness and unassuming music, agreeableness and soft or unassuming music. The opening was linked to soft, intense, sophisticated and contemporary music.

That means songs like Ed Sheeran’s “Shivers” appeal to extroverts, while pleasant people would be happy to listen to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Meanwhile, open people tend to enjoy the classic “Space Oddity” by Nina Simone or David Bowie. And all of these types of songs have appeal that crosses national borders, according to the study.

Music on the brain: what our taste for music reveals about our mind

“We were surprised to see how well these patterns between music and personality were replicated across the world,” said study author David Greenberg, Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and postdoctoral researcher. at Bar-Ilan University, in a statement.

“People can be divided by geography, language and culture, but if an introvert in one part of the world likes the same music as introverts elsewhere, that suggests that music could be a very powerful bridge. Music helps people people to understand each other and find common ground.”

These are all positive associations, but they also found a negative link between mindfulness and loud music.

“We thought that neuroticism would probably have followed one of two paths, either preferring sad music to express their loneliness or preferring upbeat music to change their mood. In fact, on average, they seem to prefer more musical styles. intense, perhaps reflecting inner angst and frustration,” Greenberg said.

“It was surprising, but people use music in different ways – some might use it for catharsis, others for changing their mood. We’ll look at that in more detail.”

Researchers recognize that musical tastes are not set in stone and can change. But the study provides a foundation for understanding how music can cross other social divides and bring people together, Greenberg said.

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