6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

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

As an example, research has revealed these widespread 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 discovered that the sound of laughter is globally identified as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we susceptible to certain emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the reaction tend to differ between people?

While the answer is still in essence a mystery, current research by Sweden’s Lund University delivers some interesting 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 stir up emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

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

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with specific emotions depending on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For example, listening to a song previously played on your wedding day may give you feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may produce the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s tough to not smile and laugh yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s revealed that the brain may contain what are described as “mirror neurons” that are active both when you are performing a task AND when you are watching someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone talking while crying, for instance, it can be hard to not also experience the corresponding feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you love listening to CDs containing only the sounds of nature. Why do you enjoy it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that even further, it most likely evokes some strong visual images of the natural setting in which the sounds are heard. For example, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can induce emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can bring to mind memories of a relaxing day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may lead to memories affiliated 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 consider it. Music is, after all, only a random assortment of sounds, and is pleasing 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 activate an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

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

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less enjoyable when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional punch 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 most likely 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 evoke?

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

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