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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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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