Sometimes, the only way to cope with a bad day is to fling yourself on your bed, plug in your headphones, and listen to angry music until you feel better. Across the world, people use music to regulate their emotions in a way that fascinates scientists even today. Although decades of research have analyzed how music affects our emotions, researchers at the Academy of Finland recently looked into the relationship between music and mental health from a different angle. Rather than focusing on short-term changes in mood, they studied whether our music habits affect our long-term emotional health.
Music has long been used as a form of therapy, and a growing body of evidence suggests that it can improve depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders. However, researchers wanted to know if the opposite effect were true as well — if people self-medicate with music, so to speak, could these habits have long-term effects?
Participants' mental health was analyzed in a variety of areas including depression, anxiety, and neuroticism; additionally, a survey asked them to report their music listening habits. According to the study, volunteers with higher rates of neuroticism and anxiety tended to express negative emotions through sad or angry music. Interestingly enough, this was particularly pronounced in men.
Researchers also used brain imaging to see the effect different kinds of music had on the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a part of the brain that's linked to emotional processing and decision making, and again, data showed gender differences. Men who expressed negative feelings through music had less activity in their mPFC, while women who did the same thing had more activity in that area. Although the scientists couldn't point to a cause for the difference, they wrote that it could indicate that music listening has long-term effects on the brain.
This is hardly the first study to indicate that music impacts the human brain — you've probably heard that classical music supposedly makes babies smarter in the long run. Unfortunately for all the parents of would-be geniuses, that's not quite true, but previous studies have shown that music can excite us, calm us down, and even affect pain tolerance.
So what do we take away from the Finnish study? It's not exactly proof that we should all put away our angry Nirvana albums and only listen to happy-go-lucky music from now on, but it might be an indicator that we should look for a little balance in our playlists every once in a while. Or, you know, you could just keep doing your thing — after all, who doesn't love a good wallow on the floor while listening to the Garden State soundtrack?