The Psychology of Music: Memories, Liking, and Preference

For a while, I believed that art and science existed on two opposing ends of a spectrum. Where science seemed cold and calculated, art and music were filled with warmth and emotion. Any attempt to mix the two was both impossible and a bit demeaning toward the artist’s work. However, advances in modern technology and science have allowed for an increased understanding of why we appreciate certain pieces of art and not others, the effect of art on emotion, and the neurological basis of art-appreciation. This entry will primarily concern the psychological effects of music on the brain and our memories, and how we come to like certain types of music or certain songs. Major research studies mainly focus on the neurobiological and the level of familiarity as bases of liking, but they seem to overlook the societal-social causes, which I propose are as important, if not more important, than any other reason science has found.

It has been long established that familiarity is directly related to physical attraction in humans. This is best described by the “mere exposure” hypothesis presented by R.B. Zajonc in the 1960’s. He believed that by simply exposing someone to a stumulus, eventually the recognition would cause an increased aesthetic liking for that stimulus. Recently, this repeated exposure paradigm has been applied to the realm of music. The relative complexity of the song, as well as the familiarity with the genre for individuals was taken into account in a study conducted by David J. Hargreaves at the University of Leicester, England. He found that repeated exposure to a song, after controlling for objective and subjective musical complexity, would increase an individual’s liking for a song—to a point. The caveat of this study was that the subjects brought with them their “musical prejudice” which caused some individuals to experience no increased liking for a genre of music they were previously inclined to dislike.

While the aforementioned study showed that liking may increase within a genre due to repeated exposure, how do we first begin to learn to like music? There are numerous explanations, ranging from sociological-societal to biological predispositions, but Norman M. Weinberger, professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, believes that “music exists in every culture, and infants have excellent musical abilities that cannot be explained by learning.” Furthermore, another study noted that music “sounds right […] because they match the frequency ratios that our brains are primed to detect.” It would seem, then, that we are genetically inclined to like certain patterns of music that we are used to—beginning from before birth in hearing speech patterns. This, however, still does not adequately explain the emergence of “musical prejudice” that individuals experience. The second aspect of musical preference or prejudice has to do with the emotional relationship between music and memories. Just as a specific smell can evoke vivid memories, so too can music. A study by Janata, Tomic and Rakowski done in 2007 found that “as the songs increased in familiarity, so did the strength of the autobiographical memories associated with the songs.” Furthermore, “songs that were rated as 'pleasing' were more likely to evoke memories than 'not pleasing' songs.” However, because it was a correlation study, we are unable to determine if preferred songs evoke memories, or if memories caused the song to be deemed “pleasing.”

A researcher at the University of California, Davis thinks that he has found the cause behind the link between music and memories. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (seen left) with self-reports of the subjects, he discovered that “the region of the brain where memories of our past are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.” If this is the case, then memories linked to music and the moods of the individual in those memories can directly affect whether or not a song is “pleasing.” This is very similar to how a certain scent or smell can cause us to recall past events with a positive or negative point of view. With this in mind, the implications of studying music are profound. If music and autobiographical memory are linked, and music can be used as cues for memories themselves, then perhaps music can be an integral part of therapy for the treatment of memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Given that Alzheimer’s patients can perform music long after they have forgotten other things, along with the fact that memories are temporally and sequentially defined by a memory-based soundtrack—then the loss of memory due to the disease may potentially be curtailed by anchoring music to life events for easier recall.

In my opinion, the cause of musical prejudice or preference is directly related to social psychology in that music and culture are inextricably tied into the social cues we receive from others in society. From as early as two years of age, toddlers are inclined to imitate the actions of others and derive pleasure from the awareness that they are being imitated. As social creatures, humans like to have the knowledge that others accept their choices and preferences. Thus, we are reinforced to like things we see others liking, be it from the radio, from online social networking sites, or from dance clubs and parties. When people have preferences that go against the beliefs, attitudes, or values of others, cognitive dissonance arises. The drive to reduce cognitive dissonance is strong in humans and may lead to conformity of musical preference if the music one likes goes against larger societal norms.

The study of music and liking is, in the end, difficult due to the idiosyncratic nature of personal preference. However, the previous research findings, taken together, lead to the idea that we like music based on the memories associated with certain songs, similarity to music within a familiar genre, the familiarity of a specific song, and the social acceptance that goes along with liking a song that others like, as well. In the end, science and art are not opposing factions. Each can be used to learn more about the other. Not only do we see beauty in science—in the study of the human body or mathematical functions, but we also see calculated patterns in the arts. If music can be used as a treatment for diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or chronic depression, perhaps more research needs to be conducted to determine the different ways music can impact our lives.


Facial Movements and Babies: Morality Re-defined?

Over a hundred years ago, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud presented a very famous structural model of morality and personality consisting of three parts, each developing over a span of a few years. The first part, and the part we are born with, is the “id.” The id is the part of human brain activity that drives the pleasure principle; the id is concerned with satisfying basic instincts, regardless of the situation. The second structure, which develops over the next three years, is the ego. The ego is related to a child’s understanding of the “other,” or how other people may have their own needs and desires that need to be filled as well. Freud’s last structure, and the part that this entry is concerned with addressing, is the “superego.” Freud believed that the superego develops by age five in children, and it is responsible for guiding humans in questions of morality or ethics. Freud believed that the superego developed as a result of the environment and rules from primary and secondary caregivers.

While Freud’s theory has provided a base for many other psychologists to create their own versions of human personality and morality, two recent entries in the blogosphere focus on findings which portray morality in a novel way, as something innate and necessary for human survival. The first entry is by John M. Grohol from the Psychcentral blog entitled “Is Morality a Basic Instinct?” In the entry, Grohol examines new research in which scientists studied facial movements to draw parallels between physical and moral disgust in order to show how they may be related on a primitive level. The second entry, written by Jonah Lehrer from The Frontal Cortex blog, is entitled “Babies and Morality.” Lehrer examines an argument made by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, which suggests that perhaps human morality lies in “cooperative breeding” and may be “rooted in the cries and smiles of infants.” My responses to both of these entries can be found below and at their respective sites.

“Is Morality a Basic Instinct”

Having taken numerous child development psychology classes in school, I found this entry to be extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Most developmental theories taught today are based on the earlier works of psychologists like Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Ainsworth, which mainly believe that morality is a learned, experiential construct—something that is gained through social rules from primary caregivers. The idea that morality could be “hard-wired into our brains” goes against much of what I have already learned; therefore, I have a few questions about the study itself.

Upon reading the study, I was struck by the specificity of the conclusion based solely upon evidence relating the facial movements for disgust and moral disgust. I can understand how conditioned taste aversion would cause facial movement in the levator labii region, as this was something that may have “evolved from a functional role in regulating sensory intake,” which Darwin suggested long ago. Furthermore, I can believe that similar movement in the levator labii region would result from disgust in the unfair conditions in the Ultimatum Game, but how did this movement come to be an accepted construct for morality? Furthermore, in the article you cite, the author quotes Adam Anderson when he says, “Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn’s innate preference for what tastes good and bad.” Do you think this is a fair assertion to make when the journal article from Science says that “anger and sadness endorsement…did not correlate with levator labii region activity,” and that “contempt, another emotion that has been theoretically linked to immorality also did not correlate with the activation of the levator labii region?” Given that previous research has shown that anger has opposing neurological and physical patterns, do you foresee any way to test for other aspects of morality or immorality beyond the facial movements and self-report for disgust?

While I feel that the assumptions being made might be premature without further research, this entry was an extremely interesting read, giving me something else to think about today. Thank you for this post, and I look forward to hearing from you or other bloggers in the future.

“Babies and Morality”

This is an interesting post, which presents the idea of morality as something not derived from our complex brains, but rather as a result of the evolution of humans as “cooperative breeders.” This, like another blog entry found on PsychCentral, presents a new way of looking at human morality, which goes against the previous notion that morality and ethics are learned from experience from a caregiver or society. Dr. Hrdy argues in the article that the ability “to cooperate in groups, to empathize with others and to wonder what others are thinking and feeling” arose in response to the “selective pressures of being in a cooperatively breeding social group.” While I agree that on some level, this does make sense, but is this purely speculation on Dr. Hrdy’s part or does she have empirical evidence to back up this assertion? Furthermore, I am not so sure that the article you are citing truly allows you to dismiss the notion that human morality is a system of behaviors “attributed to the Ten Commandments, Kant, etc.”

I personally feel that human morality and ethics span far wider than our dealings with babies, and it is constantly shifting to keep up with the changing times. While in some aspects, I can identify with some of what Dr. Hrdy believes is true, it simply does not account for a myriad of other daily human interactions, and thus is inadequate for explaining morality as a whole. Also, just because I can see how it might be true, doesn’t mean that it is the best explanation for how the world works. In conclusion, the article unfairly assumes that humankind is wholly altruistic and uses this idea as a basis for morality, but this is a hasty assumption that, while new and different, is unproven. Until I am given any sort of empirical evidence to believe otherwise, the article and your post isn’t much more than an interesting, thought-provoking idea.


Cyber Bullying: Road Rage v2.0?

As one of the most important mediums of communication in society today, the internet provides a valuable service to the public; it connects hundreds of millions of individuals through open forums, blogs, and social networking sites. The advent of these different types of sites has created an instantaneous, constantly occurring dialogue, regardless of geographic location. However, the increased interconnectivity also comes with a price: face-to-face communication may occur less, and, as CNN has reported, the level of aggression and bullying over the internet is rising at a rapid rate. I contend that the reason for this cyber bullying is that most of the communication occurring on the internet is done anonymously. Furthermore, this cyber bullying is a real problem, and while it may not be bullying in the traditional, physical sense, actual harm can come from psychological bullying, and it needs to be addressed in an attempt to curtail the increasing trend of aggression.

Many of the channels of communication on the internet today, like chat rooms, blogs, and forums, allow for communication to occur anonymously. Often, the identities of the posters can be hidden which “can embolden individuals” in both positive (to voice concern without repercussion) and negative (as a mask for verbal cruelty) ways. Lesley Withers, a professor of communication at Central Michigan University, noted that the difference between the pre-internet era and present day is that “now there’s a perception of anonymity[…]people think what they say won’t have repercussions, and they don’t think they have to soften their comments.” The main difference between face-to-face communication and internet communication is in the difference between verbal and nonverbal cues. Text-based communication lacks the cues that verbal communication gives, which adds to the detachment and helps to de-humanize others over the internet. This very detachment has led to vitriolic or aggressive communication over the internet which has had a negative effect for those on the receiving end of the comments.

This lack of face-to-face interaction also leads to aggression in a parallel, real life way in the form of road rage. Often characterized by “sudden acceleration, braking, close tailgating, sounding the vehicle’s horn, and, of course, the classic one fingered salute,” road rage is a common part of today’s driving experience and something that many encounter or participate in on a daily basis. The psychological cause for road rage often stems from the fact that many feel secure behind the locked doors of the car, as well as the fact that drivers “may develop a sense of anonymity and detachment in the confines of their vehicles.” I have seen very normal, mild mannered individuals get extremely angry with other drivers without justification. In a psychological sense, the cause for this is that they often have a fundamental attribution error, choosing to overestimate the personality-based explanations and underestimate the situational variables for the behavioral actions of others. The drivers who feel road rage are unable to humanize the driver of another car, and they choose to attribute poor driving to ineptitude or a lack of concern, rather than to think about other possible reasons for the poor driving. Furthermore, road rage and subsequent poor driving can be controlled by cops who issue traffic tickets, but there are generally very few repercussions for cyber bullying, which makes it more of an important problem.

In online virtual environments, like those found in “Massively Multiplayer Online Games” like “Second Life” or “World of Warcraft,” entire groups of individuals have emerged known, in gaming vernacular, as “flamers” or “griefers.” These players actively go out of their way to be negative to other individuals. While this harm may not be physical in nature, the psychological effects can often be just as damaging. Players who invest hours of time into their game avatar can feel a sense of attachment or pride, as the character is a representation of the self in the game world. When a person’s avatar is bullied, the psychological harm involved is potentially longer lasting than physical harm due to this attachment. There really is not that much that can be done to stop this problem in these online virtual environments. As a second life player notes, “if you are attacked in Second Life, there’s little you can do besides file an abuse report.” Furthermore, by bullying other players, negative, hurtful behaviors are sometimes reinforced with attention or status, which only furthers this problem.

Internet bullying has also assumed the role of anonymous gossip or slander. Websites, like the now defunct “Juicycampus,” provided a safe haven for writing whatever gossip internet bullies wished to write without any negative consequences. Furthermore, even after the website was embroiled in legal battles concerning the harmful effects of the anonymous bullying, there were no repercussions for the writers of the gossip itself, only repercussions for the owners of the site. While there have been reports of jobs being lost, relationships ruined, and even lives taken as a result of internet bullying, the problem remains; there is little that can be done to police this type of activity in any wide-scale, all-encompassing way. Though internet bullying is much more prevalent and possibly more dangerous, the internet remains ungoverned and uncontrolled by any unifying body with absolute power.

The solution, then, is a long-term, individualistic answer, similar in some ways to the solution for solving road rage. First, and probably hardest to engender, is the need for compassion in every individual on the internet. There should be more attempts to humanize communication and interaction over the internet, like requiring websites to hold its posters or members accountable for their actions. Secondly, there needs to be more parental responsibility for children’s activities over the internet. Though the internet is a new medium, more awareness needs to be raised concerning the actual dangers involved with its use. Finally, the government is slowly attempting to pass legislation trying to make cyber bullying a criminal act. These steps, while they may not guarantee anything, may help to ameliorate some of the problems associated with anonymity and cyber bullying over the internet.
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