Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Playing on the heartstrings

I'm a pretty emotional guy, and one of the things that never fails to get me is music.  Among the musical moments that always grab me by the feels and swing me around, sometimes to the point of tears, are:
Then, there are the ones that send chills up my spine.  A few of those:
I've always been fascinated by this capacity for music to induce emotion.  Such a response is nearly universal, although which music causes tears or that little frisson up the spine varies greatly from person to person.  Most of Mozart's music (with the exception of the Requiem and a couple of other pieces) really doesn't do much for me.  It's pleasant to listen to, but doesn't evoke much in me other than that.  I actively dislike Chopin, Brahms, and Mahler, and I know people for whom those are the absolute pinnacle of emotional depth in music.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

In a paper released just last week in Nature, neurophysiologists Kazuma Mori and Makoto Iwanaga of Osaka University looked into an explanation for how this phenomenon happens, if not exactly why it happens.  Their paper, "Two Types of Peak Emotional Responses to Music: The Psychopathology of Chills and Tears," describes experiments they ran in which they allowed test subjects to listen to music while monitoring their reactions not only via subjective description but by such physiological criteria as skin conductivity (a common measure of stress).

And what happened was pretty cool.  They found that (as I have done above) strongly evocative pieces of music tended to fall into two categories, ones that elicit tears and ones that elicit chills.  The authors write:
The present study investigated the psychophysiological responses of two types of peak emotions: chills and tears.  We used music as the stimuli because the chills response has been confirmed in music and emotion studies... The chills and tears responses were measured by self-report sensations during song listening.  We conducted an experiment measuring subjective emotions and autonomic nervous system activity.  The hypothesis was that tears would be different from chills in terms of both psychological and physiological responses.  With respect to psychophysiological responses, we predicted that chills would induce subjective pleasure, subjective arousal, and physiological arousal whereas tears would induce subjective pleasure, relaxation, and physiological calming.  In addition, we asked participants to rate song expression in terms of happiness, sadness, calm, and fear in order to understand the emotional property of chills-inducing songs and tear-inducing songs...  [The] results show that tears involve pleasure from sadness and that they are psychophysiologically calming; thus, psychophysiological responses permit the distinction between chills and tears.  Because tears may have a cathartic effect, the functional significance of chills and tears seems to be different.
Which supports the contention that my experience of bawling the first time I listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis served the purpose of emotional catharsis.  I know my mood was better after the last chords died out, with the exception of the fact that I felt a little like a wrung-out dishrag; and despite the fact that I don't exactly like crying, I listen to these tear-evoking pieces of music over and over.  So there must be something there I'm seeking, and I don't think it's pure masochism.  The authors write:
The current results found that the mixed emotion of chills was simultaneous pleasure, happiness, and sadness.  This finding means that chills provide mainly a positive experience but the sadness factor is necessary even though a favourite song is the elicitor.  Given that music chills activate reward-related brain regions, such an emotional property could make chills a unique experience and separate chills from other mixed emotional experiences.  Furthermore, as the mixed emotion of tears was simultaneous pleasure and sadness, it was different from the mixed emotion of chills.  The tears response contributes to the understanding of the pleasure of sad music.  As people generally feel displeasure for sad things, this is a unique mixed emotional response with regard to music.  Although previous studies showed that sad music induced relatively weak pleasure, the current tears’ results showed that sad songs induced strong pleasure.  It is difficult to account for why people feel sad music as pleasurable; however, the current results suggested that the benefit of cathartic tears might have a key role in the pleasure generated by sad music.  Therefore, the two types of peak emotional responses may uniquely support knowledge of mixed emotion.
So that's pretty awesome, and it's nice to know that I'm not alone in my sometimes overwhelming response to music.  And now I think I'll go listen to Shostakovich's Symphony #5 and have a nice long cry.  I know I'll feel better afterwards.

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