Everybody hurts, sometimes. And when the Bell Jar comes knocking, it’s only natural to wallow in your favorite dirges until you can’t wallow no more. (The 21 maudlin tracks on my own playlist, which I’ve named “Dark in Hur,” have served me well.) But apparently, the tendency to listen to sad songs when we’re upset isn’t necessarily conducive to emotional nirvana.
Neuroscientists from Denmark and Finland explored the link between three factors: the act of listening to sad or aggressive music, mood disorders and brain activity. Their central question was, how do different relationships with music enhance or impede the ability to regulate emotions?
To determine the impact of the three different listening styles, researchers gathered self-reported information from male and female adult participants on their mental health and emotional relationship with music. Then, they used fMRI to record participants’ brain activity as they listened to happy, sad and scary music.
Male participants who said they listened to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings (wallowers) had a higher incidence of mood disorder traits such as anxiety and neuroticism. Brain scans also revealed that men who wore out their Nick Drake or Insane Clown Posse CDs (sad or mad) when they got the blues also exhibited decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region that’s active during emotion regulation. Therefore, the act of hitting Spotify to indulge sadness appeared to correspond with difficulty mediating emotional highs and lows. Going dark lets feelings fester.
Women who reported listening to music as a means of distraction, however, exhibited an uptick in medial prefrontal cortex activity during brain scans, indicating a greater ability to keep calm and carry on.The results suggested to researchers that the ways in which we listen to music matter in terms of keeping feelings in check.
So, guys who won’t stop playing Bon Iver may not be emotional rocks, but women who favor frothy, mindless pop because "it's just fun" are likely bastions of stability. That awkward conversation starter, "Uhh, what kind of music do you like?" just got a lot more interesting.