Using music to express negative emotions increases neuroticism, researchers say

This is particularly the case among males.


Does listening to Elliott Smith when you're feeling down make you feel better or worse? The answer may depend on your gender. Scientists at Aalto University in Finland monitored brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain associated with emotional regulation. They found that when women listened to music to distract from negative feelings, there was an increase in activity in the mPFC. For men who were listening to the music to help them express their negative feelings, there was a decrease in activity in the mPFC.

In the study, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2015, researchers found that using music as a way of expressing negative emotion led to an increase in anxiety and neuroticism in both genders — though, more predominantly in men. As someone who sets a soundtrack to match every mood, spending solid amounts of time curating the perfect playlist, I find it somewhat disheartening that my “sad" playlists are increasing my neuroticism. The scientists were interested in finding out whether ruminating with repetitive thoughts was similar to ruminating with music. Based on my own self-observations, I can see truth in their discovery — if I'm letting Lana del Rey, Philip Glass, or The Tallest Man on Earth reflect my emotions back to me, aren't they just confirming those emotions? And doesn't that confirmation lead to increasing the rumination? However, if I use music as a distraction, to say, “I hear you, but let's think about something else right now," and blast The Kinks or Diana Ross, then the act of distracting will stop the cycle of repetitive thoughts.

When women listened to music to distract from negative feelings, there was an increase in activity in the mPFC. For men who were listening to the music to help them express their negative feelings, there was a decrease in activity in the mPFC.

That's my experience as a female, and it's interesting to me that men are made even more anxious and neurotic by using music to express their negative emotions. The study doesn't offer an answer as to why that is, although it's probably a good thing Woody Allen is so into George Gershwin (if he listened to more aggressive music, I'm guessing he would become so neurotic he would just implode).

"These results show a link between music-listening styles and mPFC activation, which could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on the brain," said Elvira Brattico, senior author of the study. That's an encouraging discovery, because if we know in what ways music affects our brains and emotions, then we can change our music-listening styles to become healthier. For example, I know that distracting myself can help me stop ruminating — and as the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together; thus changing that kind of habit can eventually change your brain.

That is in line with the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy developed by Marsha Linehan, a form of therapy that helps with distress tolerance and emotional regulation. DBT was designed to help individuals who have difficulty handling their intense feelings, and offers as a tool ways to distract oneself from unhealthy habits of thinking. This new research can and should be implemented by music therapists and DBT therapists alike, as we better understand how music affects our emotions and mental health.

I previously wrote about the evolutionary aspect of music, and how it can help us act more altruistically. Perhaps as more studies are done on music, behavior, and emotion, we can use its mysterious power to better ourselves and our world. That strikes a chord with me, and I feel fine.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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