Your brain could be alive with the sound of music. That’s one way to think about the work of neuroscientist Matthew Sachs, who studies the relationship between emotions and art. Sachs’s research includes uncovering the neural basis for the pleasurable feeling of sadness or “chills” in response to music. In addition, he has investigated the types and neural basis of the feelings we have in response to music and film.
As a graduate student at the University of Southern California, Sachs studied with Antonio Damasio, with whom he co-authored a study on changing emotional patterns in response to music. In that 2020 study, participants listened to specially selected music three times: once during an fMRI scan, and two more times while simultaneously rating the intensity of their feelings of sadness or enjoyment.
Activity in specific parts of the brain were “significantly synchronized across participants.” This suggests that how participants heard the music was uniform. A subset of the participants, however, had greater synchronization. This subset was already primed to respond emotionally to music.
Methodologically, the heart of Sachs’s work leverages technology to observe the dynamic activity of the brain in response to specific stimuli. The benefit of fMRI, rather than techniques that render a snapshot of the brain at a given time, is that researchers can approximate the brain’s real-time changes. So, in the 2020 study, Sachs leveraged the fMRI technology to make headway in determining the synchronization dynamics of feeling sadness or enjoyment in specific brain networks.
Previously, in 2016, Sachs led a study of individual differences in pleasure responses to music. Some people get chills, and some don’t feel a thing. There is evidence for a neural basis to account for the difference. More specifically, Sachs found more neural connections between the auditory cortex, prefrontal cortex, and emotional processing in those who got the shivers. One explanation for that relation is musical training. Still another is memory. (The generation that slow danced to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” at their 1997 prom most likely feels something rather different when they hear the song than the kids who grew up with, say, Ed Sheeren.)
The 2016 study also dug into the peculiar fact that there’s no obvious evolutionary reason why we respond emotionally to music. We humans are apparently unique in our ability to experience pleasure in response to music, despite there being no obvious evolutionary reason for it. In other words, given that music does not seem inherent to survival, unlike food and water, it’s not immediately clear why, Sachs writes, “experiencing music activates the same reward network in the brain that responds to the basic, sensory pleasures associated with food, sex and drugs via dopaminergic pathways.”
That reward system is also involved in social activities like cooperation. Because music is integral to cultures around the globe, “perhaps,” the study concludes, “one of the reasons why music is a cross-culturally indispensable artifact is that it appeals directly through an auditory channel to emotional and social processing centers of the human brain.”
So, the next time you happen to hear a favorite song on the radio, or you queue up a melancholy playlist on your music streaming service, think about what you’re feeling and why. Do you feel consoled by a sad song? Were you pulled out of a funk by a tune you haven’t heard for ages? There may be something about our emotional relationship to music that we can use to improve our mood. For his part, Sachs is hopeful about music’s potential therapeutic value. Perhaps, he thinks, “you could use music with a therapist to explore feelings.” His new research focuses on mood regulation and music.