What happens in your head when you turn on your favorite music? Quite a bit, actually. Scientists are only beginning to discover the various ways that music interacts with—and in some cases, changes—the human brain.
Here are a few of the most interesting findings.
It makes you more susceptible to suggestion.
Ever wonder why every grocery store has quiet, non-offensive music playing in the background? “When shoppers are exposed to music in a store, sales resistance decreases,” marketing professor James Kellaris told Newsweek. Basically, when you’re thinking about music, you don’t think as hard about whether you really need that value pack of Oreos. That’s also why stores tend to play the hits. “If you hear an excerpt of a familiar piece of music, it might cue recall of the entire piece,” Kellaris said. That changes how your mind perceives time, and makes you more willing to spend your time milling about the store. Incidentally, that’s also part of the reason that hold music is so effective. You’re less likely to hang up the phone if you’re not sure how much time has passed, and music helps create the illusion that you’re not going to be waiting that much longer.
You pay more attention if you’re listening to somewhat predictable music.
Research from Stanford University showed that the parts of the brain involved with making predictions, paying attention, and updating events in the memory were more active when study participants listened to music. Essentially, music helps our brains organize information. It sharpens our ability to anticipate certain events—the end of a movement of a classical piece, for instance. When we hear music with unexpected elements, the ventral regions of our brain activate, and we note the differences between what we’d expected and what actually occurs. The Stanford researchers theorize that human brains evolved to use music as a sort of attention-sharpening tool and say the brain may actually use the same mechanism to follow a specific conversation in an otherwise noisy room.
You’re more capable of exercising for long periods of time.
Research shows that music affects the way that our minds respond to fatigue. The mechanism could be quite simple: Music provides a distraction. “Given that exercise is often tiresome, boring and arduous, anything that relieves those negative feelings would be welcome,” Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London told the Scientific American in discussing a 2009 study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The same article suggests that the human brain also has a direct connection between auditory neurons, which allow us to hear sound, and motor neurons, which are responsible for movement. Some research indicates that music can trigger a reflex reaction. In other words, even when we’re not actively thinking about our music, it could be affecting our physical capabilities. Karageorghis even referred to music as a legal performance-enhancer.
Ambient noise can make people more creative.
A 2012 study found that moderate amounts of ambient noise improve people’s creative ability and performance. Researchers believe that the noise “washes out” distractions, activating abstract cognition. The study’s authors also noted that high level of noises have the opposite effect, so while you might be slightly more creative if you turn on some quiet ambient tunes, you’re not going to experience the same effect if you’re sitting right next to a jet engine. We’re clearly in the early stages of understanding music’s impact on the brain. Still, there’s evidence that music has a profound effect on how we think—certainly something to keep in mind during your next Spotify session.