Neuroscientists assess the impact of short-term music training on implicit emotion regulation

Credit: Berthold-Losleben et al.

Emotion regulation is an essential aspect of mental health and well-being. In fact, previous studies have found associations between poor emotion regulation and several psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During their daily lives, humans can regulate their negative emotions in different ways, most of which do not require any conscious cognitive engagement. For example, they can take a bath, go out for fresh air or listen to music.

Researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the University Hospital of Aachen, Germany, recently conducted a study aimed at study the effects of short-term musical training on implicit emotion regulation. Their article, published in BMC Neurosciencesspecifically examined whether music training helped people reduce negative emotions elicited by unpleasant or disgusting odors.

“At the time of conception, my colleagues and I worked in the same department in Aachen,” Nils Kohn, one of the researchers who conducted the study, told MedicalXpress. “The project was born out of our curiosity about the emotions and mood-inducing power that music harbors. Mark Berthold-Losleben, being more of a trained musician than I am, was the perfect person to discuss it with.”

Kohn, Berthold-Losleben and their colleagues set out to investigate whether, in a controlled environment, music could alter people’s emotional responses to unpleasant odors. They focused on olfaction because previous studies have shown that smells can consistently drive emotional responses.

Their paper builds on previous knowledge about the stability of olfaction and its neuroanatomical connections, which has been gathered by their research group in the past. Furthermore, it builds on Kohn’s theoretical interpretation of how implicit emotion regulation works.

“In the first version of our article, we also wanted to explore the implicit regulation of emotions in professional musicians and/or composers,” said Berthold-Losleben. “We therefore initiated a cooperation with the Cologne School of Music and Dance to recruit participants. Unfortunately, most of the musicians did not fulfill our timetable or the inclusion criteria for the study. Another problem was that professional musicians, or at least the ones we were trying to recruit rookie, didn’t like positive auditory stimuli as much as non-professionals. We assumed this was because of their professional and therefore more complex approach to music. Maybe our stimuli were too familiar and boring for them.

To investigate the effects of musical entrainment on implicit emotion regulation, Kohn, Berthold-Losleben and their colleagues designed a simple experiment in which they paired negative olfaction (causing negative emotion) with positive music to create four different combinations of stimuli. They then recruited 31 healthy participants to take part in their experiment.

Essentially, participants were either exposed to a smell similar to rotten eggs or no smell at all. Simultaneously, they listened to either a snippet of classical music or a range of neutral tones.

“We then added three weeks of passive listening to classical music as a music intervention for participants and repeated the test,” Kohn explained. “In the task, subjects were always asked to rate how disgusting the smell was, how they liked the music, and how they felt in general. This was done while the subjects lay in the fMRI scanner.”

Overall, the results collected by the researchers suggest that listening to music twice a day for three weeks can reduce the negative emotions aroused by a bad smell, especially if music is heard again. In other words, music could improve well-being and help people regulate negative emotions triggered by an external stimulus.

If they also applied to people with psychiatric disorders, the results collected by this team of researchers could have important implications. For example, they might highlight the value of musical interventions in increasing resilience to stress and helping people with affective disorders better regulate their emotions.

“Patients with affective disorders like depression often find themselves in an endless circle of sameness,” Berthold-Losleben said. “Once confronted with triggers that lead to negative affect, they respond with negative emotions/feelings, negative body experiences, and negative thoughts. All of this in itself can trigger new negative affect. These patients tend to find themselves in a negative circle or spiral that is difficult or impossible to get out of.”

The overarching goal of the work of Kohn, Berthold-Losleben and their colleagues is to design simple musical interventions for people with depression or other affective disorders that are easy to implement and may improve their ability to regulate negative emotions. However, they first needed to gain a better understanding of emotion regulation and the stimuli that can elicit or reduce negative emotions.

“We are now trying to initiate a collaboration between Radboud University Nijmegen and Norwegian University of Science and Technology Trondheim to continue this line of research, as I am always very interested in what challenges our abilities to regulate ourselves in our daily lives and what can support us,” Kohn said. “Music would truly be such a simple, powerful, and supportive tool for emotion regulation.”

Aggressive music linked to anxiety in men

More information:
Short-term music training affects implicit emotion regulation only in behavior but not in brain activity. BMC Neurosciences(2021). DOI: 10.1186/s12868-021-00636-1.

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