6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

Blogging about hearing loss

It has long been recognized that there are strong connections between sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and preferences determine the type and intensity of emotional response we have to distinct sounds.

As an example, research has revealed these prevalent associations between certain sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the individual
  • Wind chimes commonly evoke a restless feeling
  • Rain evokes a feeling of relaxation
  • Fireworks evoke a feeling of nostalgia and pleasurable memories
  • The vibrations of a cell phone are often perceived as annoying

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is universally identified as a positive sound signifying enjoyment, while other sounds are universally associated with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to specific emotional reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to differ between individuals?

Although the answer is still principally a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University delivers some fascinating insights into how sound and sound environments can have an impact on humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.

Here are six psychological mechanisms through which sound may arouse emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re sitting quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most people, you become emotionally aroused and compelled to investigate. This kind of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to alert you to possibly important or life-threatening sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people commonly associate sounds with certain emotions based on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may provoke feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may produce the opposing feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s hard to not smile and laugh yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are labeled as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are observing someone else perform the task. When we hear someone communicating while crying, for example, it can be challenging to not also experience the similar feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you like listening to CDs that contain exclusively the sounds of nature. Why do you like it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that further, it most likely evokes some robust visual images of the natural surroundings in which the sounds are heard. Case in point, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself relaxing at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can activate emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can bring to mind memories of a peaceful day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may activate memories connected with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been depicted as the universal language, which makes sense the more you give it some thought. Music is, after all, simply a random array of sounds, and is pleasurable only because the brain imposes order to the sounds and interprets the order in a specified way. It is, in fact, your expectations about the rhythm and melody of the music that produce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your specific responses to different sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capability to hear certain sounds, you also lose the emotional impact associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear properly.

With hearing loss, for instance, nature walks become less pleasurable when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of running water; music loses its emotional impact when you can’t distinguish specific instruments; and you place yourself at increased risk when you can’t hear fire alarms or other alerts to danger.

The truth is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably realize. It also means that treating your hearing loss will most likely have a greater impact than you realize, too.

What are some of your favorite sounds? What emotions do they stir up?

Are there any specific sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

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