6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

Hearing Health Blog

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

For example, research has revealed these common associations between specific 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 pleasant memories
  • The vibrations of a cell phone are often identified as annoying

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

So why are we susceptible to particular emotional responses in the presence of certain sounds? And why does the response tend to vary between individuals?

Although the answer is still in essence a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some exciting insights into how sound and sound environments can affect 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 seated quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, sudden crash. What’s your reaction? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This kind of response is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to possibly significant or hazardous sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

Many people commonly associate sounds with specific emotions dependant on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may provoke feelings of joy, while the same song first listened to by someone during a bad breakup may generate the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s hard to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are referred to as “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are performing a task AND when you are viewing someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone talking while crying, for instance, it can be difficult to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy listening to CDs that contain exclusively 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 stimulate emotionally powerful memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can provoke memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may stimulate memories linked with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been defined as the universal language, which makes sense the more you think about it. Music is, after all, merely a random combination of sounds, and is pleasant only because the brain imposes order to the sounds and interprets the order in a certain way. It is, in fact, your expectations about the rhythm and melody of the music that induce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Regardless of your particular reactions to various sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the capacity to hear particular sounds, you also lose the emotional impact tied to the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear well.

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

The bottom line is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we most likely realize. It also indicates 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.

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