How Sad Music Affects the Brain

how sad music affects the brain

Through history, people have sought solace in songs about death and loss. These melodies are also played during pivotal moments in people’s lives such as breakups or when memories are stirred up.

However, some people report that listening to sad music makes them feel worse rather than better. This phenomenon, known as the sad paradox, remains a mystery that researchers are still working hard to unravel.

1. Nostalgia

Nostalgia can come in many forms – through music, smell or taste – that we may not want to remember or experience. Yet it also brings us closer to our past while helping us recognize its good aspects.

When someone experiences nostalgia, they often look back with fondness on memories that were happy or memorable. Additionally, they may miss a time or person from the past and wish they could revisit it.

Scientists are still learning about the brain’s involvement in nostalgia and its effect on us. But we know that certain parts of our memory-related brain, such as the hippocampus and reward system, become activated during a nostalgic episode.

Researchers have observed that the activity of certain brain regions, including the hippocampus, substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area – all part of our reward system – changes when we listen to a sad song. These areas are involved in processing emotion and memory as well as being connected to the limbic system which produces feelings of pleasure.

Research has also revealed that personality, learned associations and the social context can all have an effect on how we react to music. These factors may either enhance or diminish a person’s pleasurable response to sad music (Figure 1), depending on which combination occurs.

Psychologists also discovered that people who associate sadness with negative experiences tend to experience a positive pleasurable response when exposed to sad music. Thus, if you tend to have low moods, listening to sad music may actually exacerbate them by bringing up painful memories.

Nostalgia can bring back fond memories and feelings of optimism about the past, but it also has the potential to negatively affect our lives if we constantly compare current circumstances to those from decades past. This dynamic can create a vicious cycle of negativity whereby we always find something to regret, which ultimately has detrimental effects on both health and wellbeing.

2. Empathy

Empathy is a complex social and emotional skill that allows us to recognize and understand the feelings of others. It involves bottom-up and top-down information processing. The bottom-up level is automatically activated by perceptual input and accounts for emotion sharing; the top-down level, regulated by executive functions, modifies this lower level and adds flexibility.

In a recent study, researchers used fMRI to investigate the neural underpinnings of empathy by studying participants who listened to sad music and recorded their self-reported feelings afterward. The results showed that people who had a higher degree of empathy experienced more positive feelings than those with a lower degree, such as feeling relaxed and being moved.

The researchers also noted that a number of individuals with high levels of empathy also felt more negative emotions after listening to sad music. They said these negative emotions were triggered by memories related to personal losses, such as the end of a relationship or the death of a loved one.

Several studies have shown that the brains of people who have high levels of empathy are more active than those who do not when they are viewing videos of aggression or pictures depicting victims in distress [29,30]. Stronger activations of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the amygdala (AI) were detected when participants observed pain scenes showing a person with intense or chronic pain, rather than a painful but hardly visible needle penetrating a skin area.

When subjects with psychopathic traits watched pictures of aggressive hand movements, their ACC and AI were significantly reduced in activation compared to those who did not see the images. This suggests that persons with psychopathic personality have impaired empathetic capacity. However, these effects were weakened when these subjects were asked to empathize with the person depicted in the video.

Although it is a common belief that empathy is innate, this is not true. In fact, the ability to empathize is a genetic trait, which is probably an adaptation to the demands of natural selection. Human empathy, which involves both sympathy and cognitive empathy, is an essential element of altruism and a source of altruistic motivation. It is therefore important to understand the biological basis for this ability.

3. Prolactin

Music can be an incredibly powerful emotional tool. It helps us cope with difficult situations like the loss of a loved one or terminal illness. When we listen to sad music, our bodies release prolactin – a hormone which helps process feelings of grief – as well as dopamine, the brain’s “feel-good” hormone.

Prolactin, produced by the pituitary gland, plays an integral role in brain development and reproduction. During prenatal development, prolactin enhances cerebral cortex growth, facilitates embryo attachment to uterus lining, and ensures fetal health and survival.

It also affects other parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. If damaged, this part of the brain can lead to memory loss. Likewise, prefrontal cortex–an area responsible for empathy and emotion–also experiences effects from BPA exposure.

Prolactin plays an integral role in our lives, yet it also has the potential to cause issues. If you are diabetic or have primary hypopituitarism (when your pituitary gland isn’t working properly), prolactin levels may rise dramatically; additionally, taking certain medicines like antipsychotics or antidepressants may also cause this condition.

If your doctor determines that your prolactin levels are too high, they may prescribe cabergoline. This medicine helps decrease these levels to normal and is typically taken twice a week. Bromocriptine may also be prescribed but has more potential risks than cabergoline and may cause heart valve damage in some individuals.

This study revealed that people who reported greater enjoyment of sad music tended to have lower prolactin levels than those without. Furthermore, those emotionally moved by the music – such as those feeling empathy – tended to have lower levels of prolactin than other participants.

Researchers theorize that some people found joy in sad music due to activating a reward pathway in their brain, associated with pleasure. This pathway is controlled by PRL gene code for prolactin; researchers have even linked genetic polymorphisms within this gene to people’s reactions to sad music.

4. Imagination

Imagination can have a tremendous effect on our mental health, especially when used to cope with stress and anxiety. It also enhances creative thinking and empathy, enabling us to see beyond the obvious and consider what kind of life we want for ourselves.

A recent study suggests the brain has two distinct subnetworks which interact when we imagine something. One responds to the vividness of an imagined scenario, while the other takes into account its emotional component. These findings could offer scientists new insight into how imagination works and provide new treatments for those who struggle with visualizing things.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure activity in several regions of the brain while people listened to music that was rated either sad or happy. They discovered that the claustrum, a little-known region of the brain, was more active during sad music with lyrics than happy music without lyrics.

The claustrum, located lateral to the putamen and beneath the insula, is believed to be involved in emotional memory processing and memory recall. It also activates when we relive or experience trauma and plays an important role in controlling intense feelings such as fear or pain.

Furthermore, the claustrum appears to be connected to our perception of emotion; its activity corresponding with how much sadness or joy we experience. This contrasts with the hippocampus, which activates only when we are reliving or remembering a positive event.

According to the paper, this suggests that the claustrum and insula are working together in order to help us process emotional feelings. They also found that the claustrum was more active during sad music with lyrics than happy music without lyrics, likely due to our brain’s capacity for storing emotions.

These findings could have significant ramifications for musical therapy, as music has long been used to aid therapy – and sad music in particular can be therapeutically beneficial to those suffering from depression and anxiety. The researchers hope their results will encourage music therapists to include sad music in their treatments as a powerful tool.