The unforgettable melodies – Can music help us understand how memories form?

By: Viviana Caro, Annina Huhtala, Henry Lee, Andrew McNeill, Kate Schwarz

“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away”, wrote John Irving in his enticing novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. But how do memories form in the first place? And could the storyteller be right, does our brain store more than we can actively evoke? 

According to current understanding in neuroscience, we are tracking our environment at a rate of milliseconds, whether it be what we see, touch, taste, smell, or hear. This process is fully automatic, mostly unconscious, and we can’t switch it off, as it has evolved to keep us safe. When we take a walk in a park, our brains keep calculating probabilities about what will happen next and compare the present moment to past experiences. When we hear footsteps from behind, we assume they belong to a runner, not to a hungry beast, and we keep calm. It seems that sensory data is not something we actively remember, but it’s stored in our long-term memory.   

Neuroscientist Roberta Bianco is shedding light to these mechanisms with the help of music. In her recent study, she tested participants with soundtracks that included rapid, only milliseconds-long, sound sequences, to see whether people form long-term memories by just being exposed to auditory stimuli. The results? People detected these very brief patterns in novel music excerpts even after seven weeks of first hearing them. Bianco’s research confirms the idea that humans have the ability to build models from sensory input.

For researchers to better understand music perception, they have investigated how we encode and store music in our memory. Most forms of music have sequences and patterns that contain groups of notes and rhythms. Whenever we hear music, our auditory system does a great job at recognising these patterns and spotting any unexpected notes or chords. This effortless processing is called statistical learning, and it affects how we listen to and memorise music. We implicitly learn ‘normal’ sequences and patterns in music and build predictive models to estimate what will happen next and to notice irregularities.

In a study by Koelsch and colleagues, a group of participants, who were right handed non-musicians, passively listened to two chord progressions while the electrical activity in their brains was recorded using electroencephalography, EEG. The chord progressions ended in either an expected chord or unexpected chord. In the example below, the last chord of the second progression is a D flat major chord within a C major chord progression, which is unexpected. The graph shows that when a chord violates Western music theory rules, the brain notices.Screen Shot 2020-04-10 at 12.15.45 PM

In the experiment, participants’ brains showed a strong, negative response to the incongruent endings. The incongruent chord being a violation to the progression they expected. 

In a recent study, Bianco and colleagues had pianists play a chord sequence without hearing a sound. The results showed that the incongruent endings activated temporal-frontal networks, which are brain areas associated with memory, even in silence – demonstrating that the brain stores a meticulous representation of patterns in memory. To build strong predictive models, our brain needs long term exposure to melodic patterns. Our brain encodes and groups the information into tiny ‘storage units’ or n-grams. The more we get exposed to a specific melodic pattern, the stronger and more salient the n-grams become, incurring in fast retrieval of information. Most memories decay when time passes, but Bianco’s work indicates that when models are reinforced, they last longer despite memory decay.

How precise are these predictive models then? To understand how reliable our memory really is, Bianco and colleagues exposed participants briefly to melodic patterns and then tested how well they could recall them. Participants could recognise some patterns, but in most cases the results were relatively poor. Bianco then tested reaction times to recurring melodies. Results showed that repeating patterns were recognised much faster. For Bianco, this lack of correlation between familiarity and reaction time indicates a dissociation between what we remember implicitly and the degree of which we can explicitly recall. It seems that our cautious brain preserves as much information as possible, even if that information is not relevant to the task at hand, and stocks it away in long-term memory. It does this to protect the capacity of our short term memory. If short term memory gets saturated, we are not able to adapt and control our behaviour in the present moment; therefore, storing information in the long-term memory is a way to economise cognitive resources.

For how long does our long-term memory store information? Bianco and her group set up an experiment where listeners heard both novel music excerpts which had planted in them musical sequences that they had heard seven weeks before. Incredibly, the participants recognised the previously heard patterns, which lasted a matter of milliseconds, even after seven weeks! 

Bianco’s research in music helps us to gain more understanding of how memory works. It’s fascinating how hearing patterns, and pattern violations, can lead to the brain effortlessly constructing a model that is sensitive in detecting and identifying repeating structures. Of course, the implications of Bianco and her group’s research is far reaching. Understanding the way our brain preserves sequential information, and the way it deteriorates could be essential in the application of therapeutic medicine for those who have cognitive impairment. 

Our brain is very much like a computer; it can create and update complicated models. In addition, it can pick up data actively and store it in our passive memory bank just in case we need it again. Our brain is also a bit like a jukebox player, that collects and archives all the songs and sounds from its environment. There is no disputing the facts however that this computer and jukebox give us the tools to make sense of our environment and make decisions about the world around us. After all, there is also some truth to how our memory is a monster, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand about this particular monster. Perhaps we should, ultimately, it’s our beautiful monster that we’re taking care of. 


Bianco, R., Harrison, P. M. C., Hu, M., Bolger, C., Picken, S., & Marcus, T. (2020). Long-term implicit memory for sequential auditory patterns in humans. BioRxiv,

Cowan, N. (2008). What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory?. Progress in Brain Research, 169, 323-338.

Conway, C. M., & Pisoni, D. B. (2008). Neurocognitive basis of implicit learning of sequential structure and its relation to language processing. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1145, 113–131.

Daikoku, T. (2019). Statistical learning and the uncertainty of melody and bass line in music. PloS One, 14(12), E0226734. 

Koelsch, S., Gunter, T. C., Wittfoth, M., & Sammler, D. (2005). Interaction between syntax processing in language and in music: An ERP study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(10), 1565–1577.

Tillmann, B., Bigand, E., & Bharucha, J. J. (2000). Implicit Learning of Tonality: A Self-Organizing Approach. Psychological Review, 107(4), 885–913.


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Tails of Wriggling Earworms And Losing Control over Musical Imagery What are Earworms?

An Introduction to Musical-Mental Imageries

To understand where earworms, academically known as involuntary musical imagery (INMI), come from, Pearson (2013) believes that one must first consider the various types of mental imagery that support the everyday functioning of our mind. He defines mental imagery as the simulation or recreation of perceptual experience in the absence of a corresponding direct external stimulus from the physical environment. This mental simulation, like perception, can be experienced across different senses; for example, the visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory, kinaesthetic and tactile domains.

Research in mental imagery has highlighted parallels between the experiences of perceiving and imagining visual, spatial, and auditory stimuli (Finke, 1986; Hubbard, 2010). However, unlike perception of external stimuli, imagery relies on memory whereby recreation is based on one’s memory recall of the previously perceived stimulus features. In this context, understanding how mental imagery is formed can reveal the processes of our perceptual and memory systems. Mental imagery in which an individual imagines musical sound in the absence of direct external stimuli is called musical imagery (see Figure 1). Musical imagery exists in many different forms which fall on a spectrum. While it is atypical, some individuals are unable to experience musical imagery whatsoever. Alternatively, some individuals have pathological experiences of musical imagery which manifest as musical obsessions or musical hallucinations. Figure 1. A breakdown of typical and atypical musical imagery
However, most of us typically do experience musical imagery. Occurrences may be voluntary, as musicians practice mental rehearsal or how you might sing a song in your head while washing your hands; it may be automatic, in response to a certain stimulus; or it may be involuntary. Involuntary musical imagery (INMI) is the experience of a song popping into your head out of the blue, or all of a sudden, having a catchy tune you heard on the radio stuck in your head. The latter example is called an earworm, which is something that researchers suggest happens at least once a week in 90% of the population (Liikkanen, 2012).

Why, When, Where, and How Earworms Crawl into our Minds? Current Trends in Research on Involuntary Musical Imagery

The compelling case for the experience of earworms, infamous as ‘the stuck song syndrome’ or ‘cognitive itch’ (Sacks, 2007) in nearly everyone’s everyday lives has spurred the interests of musicologists and neuroscientists alike. Researchers have delved deep and wide into this domain – from intra-musical features (Floridou, under review) to the socio-cultural factors like popularity that affect the occurrence of earworms (Jakubowski et al, 2017) to interpersonal differences and environmental factors. This post will further triangulate Floridou’s approach to studying earworms in particular.

Multiple factors can trigger INMI and mind-wandering, such as low-level attention activities, time of the day and mood. Studying such a subjective and frequent experience can be difficult as it relies on the participants to be introspective and aware of inner processes that we are often not aware of. Previous studies in this field of research have measured INMI by using data from retrospective studies or in behavioural studies, using diary entries (Byron & Fowles, 2013; Floridou, Williamson, & Müllensiefen, 2012; Hyman et al., 2013). In Floridou et al (2015) study, researchers used the experience sampling method (ESM) which is used to explore everyday occurrences and provide rich data on experience-based phenomena. This method involved using everyday technology, like personal phones, to collect data on INMI and mind wandering. Participants were prompted several times throughout the day to record information about the activity they were doing, their current mood and potential triggers if they experienced INMI. This prompting for information encourages the participant to look introspectively and become aware of their actions throughout the day; this sheds light on the little control we have on our conscious intentions regarding these occurrences.

Another issue that arises when studying INMI is that participants may be aware of the study’s aim, especially when clear questions about INMI are involved, resulting in potential biases when measuring various aspects of the phenomenon as its voluntariness. Floridou developed in her study a covert and ecologically valid strategy to overcome this problem: once exposed to the musical and visual stimuli, subjects were asked to judge their experience with a set of questionnaires (Floridou et. al., 2017). Among this, the ad-hoc created ‘Mind Activity’ Questionnaire was included: it was used to assess participants’ general level of mind wandering as well as its specificity in the musical, visual and speech-based domains, the last two serving as a mask for the real nature of the study. Clearly, earworms seem to permeate deeper layers of scientific inquiry than a mere soft-fascination of a whistling wandering mind. Can we harness its potential?

What if Earworms didn’t Wriggle as much? Applications, Limitations, and Future Directions

Freddie Mercury in a leotard dancing with the Mic stand? Hear anything yet? Started tapping the table yet?

Ra Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, Roma-roma-ma, Gaga, ooh la-la, what’s your …..? Can you hear it playing? Did you start grooving to it yet?

Remember the time you won that un-winnable game? Do you hear the song that accompanied your victory-dance?

Earworms are beyond the annoying melodic mental tics you can’t shake off on an idle (or equally busy) day. Research implicates the activation of the brain’s motor system during simple movements in relation to imagined or cued musical imagery (Halpern and Zatorre, 1999; Leaver et al., 2009; Herholz et al., 2012). Some studies conducted using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography also show similarities between the neural activations of music imagination and music perception (Halpern and Zatorre, 1999; Kraemer et al., 2005; Herholz et al., 2012). Moreover, the use of music as a cue for movement-based recreational activities like dancing or coordinated actions such as marching is rather well known. What’s even more fascinating is the research behind the efficacy of musical cueing for increasing athletic endurance (Karageorghis et al., 2010) and decreasing perceived exertion (Bood et al., 2013).

But only a few studies have examined the use of imagined music as a cue for movement in rehabilitation settings. Schauer and Mauritz (2003) have presented anecdotal evidence of music-based interventions that have promoted people to imagine the music while they walked or even the use of imagined singing to regularise gait in a small group of Postural Deformity patients as showed by Satoh and Kuzuhara (2008). Clearly musical cue has the potential to be elicited internally though musical imagery. These findings do highlight the trail leading up to Floridou’s current explorations about the feasibility of musical imagery for motor facilitation. Her findings question the role of imagined, heard, and absent musical cues on brain waves – especially when the cues prompt (or in the control conditions, don’t prompt) movement. Differences were observed during the active state compared to the non-aroused state of the participants’ brains. Floridou is optimistic about the findings and their applications in motor therapy.

Possible Limitations and Future Directions in Earworms Research How far can with this research lead into the practical applications in the world? Firstly, the viability of earworms in movement facilitation appears to be promising; a meaningful therapeutic application must only follow stronger, reliable, and empirically supported evidence from a lot more studies. The discrepancy between earworm frequency and musical training, as well as between aging and earworm vividness are some of the topics that been challenging the current understanding. Larger samples that reflect the diversity in
demographics are necessary for developing a reliable understanding of how earworms vary across the population and accordingly, how the role they might play in motor therapy will vary across patients.

Eventually, an exploration of the future possibilities and ambitious applications will evolve this domain. Just as exciting the proposed link between earworms and mind-wandering sounds, future studies could employ a more multidimensional approach to understand the relationships between earworms, spontaneous thought, mindfulness, and creativity. Although mindfulness is often regarded as antithetical to mind-wandering (e.g., Jo et al, 2014), recent research has suggested that mindfulness may in fact positively interact with mind-wandering (Agnoli et al., 2018), and investigating how these experiences interact with earworms may provide insight into how earworms can be harnessed in the creative process. After all, the cross-pollination of the arts and sciences thrives on curious explorations of what makes us truly human – from questions of why earworms wriggle in our minds to their tails and tales that lend us creative and therapeutic affordances.


Agnoli, S., Vanucci, M., Pelagatti, C., & Corazza, G. E. (2018). Exploring the link between mind wandering, mindfulness, and creativity: A multidimensional approach. Creativity Research Journal, 30(1), 41-53.

Bood, R. J., Nijssen, M., Van Der Kamp, J., & Roerdink, M. (2013). The power of auditory-motor synchronization in sports: enhancing running performance by coupling cadence with the right beats. PloS one, 8(8).

Byron, T. P., & Fowles, L. C. (2013). Repetition and recency increases involuntary musical imagery of previously unfamiliar songs. Psychology of Music, 1–15. Czsikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1987). Validity and reliability of the experience sample method. J Nerv Ment Dis, 175(9), 526-536. Finke, R. A. (1986). Some consequences of visualization in pattern identification and detection. The American journal of psychology, 257-274.

Floridou, G. A., & Müllensiefen, D. (2015). Environmental and mental conditions predicting the experience of involuntary musical imagery: An experience sampling method study. Consciousness and Cognition, 33, 472–486.

Floridou, G. A., Williamson, V. J., & Stewart, L. (2017). A Novel Indirect Method for Capturing Involuntary Musical Imagery under Varying Cognitive Load: Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Halpern, A. R., & Zatorre, R. J. (1999). When that tune runs through your head: a PET investigation of auditory imagery for familiar melodies. Cerebral cortex, 9(7), 697-704. Herholz, S. C., & Zatorre, R. J. (2012). Musical training as a framework for brain

plasticity: behavior, function, and structure. Neuron, 76(3), 486-502. Hubbard, T. L. (2010). Auditory imagery: empirical findings. Psychological bulletin, 136(2), 302.

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Burland, N. K., Duskin, H. M., Cook, M. C., Roy, C. M., McGrath, J. C., et al (2013). Going Gaga: Investigating, creating, and manipulating the song stuck in my head. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 204–215.

Jakubowski, K., Finkel, S., Stewart, L., & Müllensiefen, D. (2017). Dissecting an earworm: Melodic features and song popularity predict involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(2), 122.

Jo, H. G., Wittmann, M., Hinterberger, T., & Schmidt, S. (2014). The readiness potential reflects intentional binding. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 421.

Karageorghis, C. I., Priest, D., Williams, L. S., Hirani, R. M., Lannon, K. M., & Bates, B. J. (2010). Ergogenic and psychological effects of synchronous music during circuit-type exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(6), 551-559.

Keller, P. E. (2012). Mental imagery in music performance: underlying mechanisms and potential benefits. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252(1), 206-213.
Kraemer, D. J., Macrae, C. N., Green, A. E., & Kelley, W. M. (2005). Sound of silence activates auditory cortex. Nature, 434(7030), 158-158. Leaver, A. M., Van Lare, J., Zielinski, B., Halpern, A. R., & Rauschecker, J. P. (2009). Brain activation during anticipation of sound sequences. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(8), 2477-2485. Liikkanen, L. A. (2012). “Inducing involuntary musical imagery: An experimental study” (PDF). Musicae Scientiae. 16 (2): 217–234. doi:10.1177/1029864912440770. Liikkanen, L. A. (2012). Musical activities predispose to involuntary musical imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(2), 236–256.

Liikkanen, Lassi A. (2008). “Music in Everymind: Commonality of Involuntary Musical Imagery” (PDF). Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC 10). Sapporo, Japan: 408–412. ISBN 978-4-9904208-0-2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-02-03.

Pearson, D., Deeprose, C., Wallace-Hadrill, S., Heyes, S., & Holmes, E. (2013). Assessing mental imagery in clinical psychology: A review of imagery measures and a guiding framework. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(1), 1-23. Reason, J. T., & Mycielska, K. (1982). Absent-minded?: The psychology of mental lapses and everyday errors. Prentice Hall. Sacks, Oliver (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. First Vintage Books. pp. 41–48. ISBN 978-1-4000-3353-9. Satoh, M., & Kuzuhara, S. (2008). Training in mental singing while walking improves gait disturbance in Parkinson’s disease patients. European Neurology, 60(5), 237-243.

Schauer, M., & Mauritz, K. H. (2003). Musical motor feedback (MMF) in walking hemiparetic stroke patients: randomized trials of gait improvement. Clinical rehabilitation, 17(7), 713-722.

Williamson, V. J., Jilka, S. R., Fry, J., Finkel, S., Müllensiefen, D., & Stewart, L. (2012). How do “earworms” start? Classifying the everyday circumstances of Involuntary Musical Imagery. Psychology of Music, 40(3), 259–284.

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Hearing Health and Musicians

By: Jasmin Galvan, India Haire, Roos Mehrtens, Caroline Rafizadeh


Over 11 million people in the UK experience hearing loss (Report UK, 2015). By 2035, it is thought to affect more than 15 million people in the UK, one in five of us. The two most common causes of hearing loss are age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) and noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Being exposed to noises above 70 dB over an extended period can be harmful to your ears while noises above 120 dB may cause direct impairments to hearing ability. To put this into perspective, the average noise level in Manchester pubs and bars is 100 dB and rock concerts can exceed values of 120 dB.

As music often surpasses safe noise levels, musicians are exposed to a greater risk of NIHL. Hearing aid technologies can improve impairments significantly, though may cause auditory and social challenges. Taking precautions such as wearing hearing protection during exposure can reduce the risk of NIHL. However, they are not widely used.

Hearing impairment not only affects physical hearing ability, it also negatively impacts social and personal life. It causes difficulty in communicating, which can lead to social exclusion and fewer job opportunities. It can also diminish engagement with music and musical activities, therefore reducing quality of life.

Hearing loss and perceptual consequences

Hearing loss can be conductive, caused by the outer or middle ear, but it is most often sensorineural, caused by nerve damage in the inner ear. The inner ear contains a shell-shaped structure called the cochlea, which contain hair cells. Outer hair cells amplify low-level sounds that enter the cochlea, while inner hair cells turn sound frequency information into signals that the brain then interprets. Over time these cells become damaged, which is the cause of presbycusis. However, constant exposure to very loud noises can also damage these cells. Music induced hearing loss is common for professional musicians and even music enthusiasts who listen to music with headphones too loudly. The louder a noise is, the less time it takes to cause irreversible damage.

Damage to the outer hair cells leads to a reduction in the amount of basilar membrane vibration. This means that sounds need to be louder in order to be heard and high frequency sounds may not be heard at all. Damage to inner hair cells leads to less precise coding of sound information, which leads to diminished pitch perception and sound localization. Hearing loss poses a special problem for musicians since a large part of their lives depends on being able to hear music properly. They can face issues with losing high frequency information, difficulties in discerning musical instruments, and perceiving different pitches in each ear. Additionally, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) can be disruptive during quiet passages of music and music over a certain loudness level might cause pain.

Hearing Aids

For those who have experienced hearing loss, one of the most popular forms of hearing technology are hearing aids. Hearing aids work by enhancing sounds to make them louder and clearer as they are delivered to the ear canal. They are designed to identify and amplify speech, rather than background noise, which would be problematic for the wearer. Hearing aid devices compensate for threshold elevation and loudness recruitment through the use of two types of automatic gain control systems. One type adjusts gain automatically for different listening situations. The second type is intended to make impaired perception of loudness more like that of a non-impaired listener. Most hearing aids do not provide gain for frequencies below 200 Hz or above 5000 Hz, these limitations in range can lead to enjoyment problems for hearing aid users.

There are approximately 2 million hearing aid users in the UK, however, those in need of hearing aids are closer to around 6 million (McCormack & Fortnum, 2013), due to the stigma surrounding the use of hearing aids. There are even those within the musical population who suffer from hearing loss, with 34 percent reporting hearing problems (Gembris, Heye & Seifert, 2018). In a Schink et al. (2014) study, musicians were found to have a 3.51 higher incidence of NIHL and 1.45 higher incidence of tinnitus than the general public. However, a large portion of those musicians did not wear hearing aids (Patel, 2008) due to the fact that they can cause distortion and feedback when playing and listening to music. Despite these limitations, hearing aids are extremely beneficial for those with hearing loss. Hearing aids have been shown to reduce the psychological, social, and emotional effects that hearing loss has on a person (Chisholm et al., 2007).

Hearing Protection for Musicians

The organisation Help Musicians UK (HMUK) is committed to researching musicians’ use of hearing protection as well as providing musicians with the appropriate protection at a reduced cost. HMUK collects survey data regarding help-seeking behaviors and the usage of protective equipment within the professional community, while also offering specialist diagnostics and advice. Factors such as attitudes towards the usage of hearing protection as well as personal connections to members of the community with hearing loss are investigated. However, perhaps surprisingly, when asked if administered a hearing test within the last three years, nearly a third of a population of 561 musicians had not, citing not knowing which channels to seek in support (Greasley et al., 2018).

Personalized to meet each individual’s needs, HMUK offers a reduced cost hearing exam for £40 (typically upwards of £250) as well as bespoke hearing protection. In collaboration with the Musicians’ Union as well as Musicians’ Hearing Services (Harley Street Clinic), a follow-up exam is also provided two years after an initial visit. In attempting to increase the predominance of hearing protection–previously reported at a dismal 15% of survey takers (Greasley et al., 2018), HMUK takes a strong stance on the front-lines of hearing disorder prevention. With the prevalence of hearing loss on the rise, it is the primary mission of HMUK to prevent hearing disorders rather than allow professionals to suffer the adverse social and psychological effects of hearing loss.


The rising prevalence of hearing impairments in the UK is alarming and cannot solely be explained by age-related hearing loss. NIHL is a crucial factor and will be an ever-rising phenomenon if precautionary action is not taken. Although hearing aids offer significant hearing support, people, especially musicians, still experience unnatural auditory distortions and face the pressure of the social stigma that is associated with it.

Awareness in hearing health and precautions, such as hearing protection,shouldbecome a priority in everyday life. “Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable but once acquired, hearing loss is permanent and irreversible.” (Ritzel, 2013).


Chisholm, T.H. Johnson, C.E. Danhauer, J.L. Portz, L.J. Abrams, H.B. Lesner, S. McCarthy, P.A. Newman, C.W. (2007) A systematic review of health-related quality of life and hearing aids. ​Journal of American Academy of Audiology 18:​ 151-183

Gembris, H., Heye, & Seifert. (2018). Health problems of orchestral musicians from a life-span perspective: Results of a large-scale study. ​Music & Science, 1, Vol.1.

Greasley, A. E., Fulford, R. J., Pickard, M., & Hamilton, N. (2018). Help Musicians UK hearing survey: Musicians’ hearing and hearing protection. ​Psychology of Music.

Mccormack, A., & Fortnum, H. (2013). Why do people fitted with hearing aids not wear them? International Journal of Audiology, 52 (5), 360-368.

Patel, J. (2008). Musicians’ hearing protection: A review. ​Prepared by the Health and Safety Laboratory for the Health and Safety Executive.

Report UK. (2015). ​Hearing Matters, Why urgent action is needed of deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss across the UK. Action On Hearing Loss.

Ritzel, D. O. (2013). Hearing Loss Prevention and Noise Control. ​Umwelt Und Gesundheit Online 2018.

Schink, T., Kreutz, G., Busch, V., Pigeot, I., & Ahrens, W. (2014). Incidence and relative risk of hearing disorders in professional musicians. ​Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

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The Interacting Brains of Clients and Therapists: Investigating Music Therapy with a Dual-EEG Approach

Written by J’Ana Reed, Phoebe Tsou, Joon Oh, Matt Eitel, and Kate Chard

Have you ever wondered what is happening in the brain of the client during therapy? How about the brain of the therapist? What changes in the brain are happening as a session moves forward? Recently, MMB and PANC students were lucky enough to listen to a talk from visiting speaker Dr. Clemens Maidhof – a postdoctoral researcher with the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research. His research focuses on the cognitive neuroscience of music and, in his talk, Dr. Maidhof presented his research on music therapy utilising a procedure named hyperscanning and guided imagery in music (GIM). This procedure records activity in two participants’ brains simultaneously, allowing researchers to investigate the interaction between a music therapist’s and a client’s brain activity.

A recent study by Dr. Maidhof explored spontaneous imagery and how it is emotionally processed in a two-person therapeutic relationship. The study involved two female participants, a Guide (music therapist) and a Traveller (client), with the latter seeking therapy to help her cope with the anxiety caused by the potential loss of her grandchild. Both client and therapist wore EEG caps to capture electrical signals in the brain, and the session was also recorded using video cameras. A resting-state EEG was recorded, which was subsequently compared against the EEG recorded during the therapy.

One of the aims of a music therapist, in this particular case, is to work towards ‘moments of interest’ (MOI), when they make a meaningful connection with their client, as well as take note of ‘moments of non-interest’ (MONI). During the session, classical music was played and the client experienced different guided images of family members and messages from them. At one point during the session, the client’s brain activity moved from indicating negative feelings to a positive peak. As the therapist realised the session was really working, her scan indicated similar results; these feelings were confirmed in subsequent. In order to identify the MOIs and a MONI for the analyses, the Guide, Traveller, and two independent experienced GIM therapists were given a video recording of the therapy session. The MOIs identified by each of the raters were combined and two parts of the session were repeatedly rated as MOIs across all raters. The first MOI regarded the client experiencing a message from her deceased grandmother, informing her “not to worry”. The second MOI depicted the traveller describing feelings of spirituality and connectedness as her family gathered around a tree, suggesting that the singing currently being heard (the classical music being played) in the session was directed toward her unborn grandchild. To measure visual imagery, recordings of mean occipital alpha power were recorded. Frontal alpha asymmetry (FAA) between left and right frontal cortical areas was used a way to measure emotional valence during the therapy session, as increased activity in the left and right areas reflect positive and negative emotional processing, respectively.

Measurements collected during MOIs suggested that visual imagery was stronger during moments of peak emotion, as observed from greater mean occipital alpha power during MOIs. FAA data from the traveller revealed MONIs and rest periods being more positive than MOIs, on average. This suggests that the undergoing therapeutic process was emotionally challenging, as MOIs were processed negatively relative to other periods. Interestingly, this indication of shared emotional processing during MOIs was reflected in significant cross-correlations between FAA measurements for the traveller and the guide. An important point note is that EEG results showed that during therapy the emotions were not positive or pleasurable – this confirms that in the study they were working with negative emotions and anxiety. However, the setting used offered a secure place to work with such feelings to allow the traveller to gain the perspective that change is possible. This change was recorded when an imagined specific person to the traveller delivered a positive message, because the emotional processing changed from negative to positive – this was shared between traveller and guide.

One of the key advantages of this study was its natural, real-life setting, as the findings can be said to have high ecological validity (i.e we can use these to predict how people will behave in real life). Advances in technology also allowed the researchers to explore in hindsight, the shared emotional experiences in the therapy session using dual-EEG; this highlights some incredibly exciting new avenues for psychological experiments! However, if you fancy some more food for thought, arguably an interesting development on this would be to carry out these same procedures in an experimental setting – this would enable us to see what is potentially unique about the therapeutic setting. There are also some important limitations to note about this study. Firstly, this was a single case study, and when exploring the experiences of just one person we have to be incredibly careful about generalising this too far. What’s to say these experiences are in fact completely unique? Additionally, could there be an influence of ‘expert bias’? Expertise seems an odd thing to potentially undermine the findings of a study, but it is possible that having a collective 30+ years of music therapy experience between the Guide, Traveler, and two independent raters may have influenced how MOIs were selected and described. However, this isn’t guaranteed, and it is also possible that expertise allowed for greater access to this emotional information; it simply needs to be explored further (i.e repeat the study with non-experts).

The brain synchronizations of the current study could lead to investigations and evaluations in not only qualitative but also quantitative data. The combination of EEG and video-based qualitative data could be a promising approach in the future to show underlying mechanisms of music therapy and how and when these interventions could be effective. We thoroughly enjoyed this talk and would like to thank Dr. Clemens Maidhof for his time and insight into such an interesting and developing field!


Dr. Maidhof’s study:

Fachner, J. C., Maidhof, C., Grocke, D., Nygaard Pedersen, I., Trondalen, G., Tucek, G., & Bonde, L. O. (2019). ‘… telling me not to worry…’Hyperscanning and neural dynamics of emotion processing during Guided Imagery in Music. Frontiers in psychology10, 1561.

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Boogie with the Brain

By Caitlin Colapietro, Gabriella Tan, Shin Chien Chua, Sophie Brodtkorb, Valeria Perboni, Zoe Sole

The Neuroaesthetics of Dance

Why is dance infectious? Dance is a form of art with the ability to arouse aesthetic experience — a “gratification of senses” by any sensory stimulus (Goldman, 2001).
Literature suggests that there is an underlying reason as to why we feel like dancing when we observe dance. However, there is limited research investigating the neural correlates of the aesthetic experience in dance. As one of the first people to conduct research on the neuroaesthetics of dance, Beatriz Calvo-Merino discussed in her talk how the brain processes aesthetic judgement, evaluation and interpretation of artistic movement. She suggested that in order to study movement itself, the stimuli has to be dynamic and standardised. Thus, the kinematics of dance movement should be studied rather than static movements, while keeping other visual features such as background and costumes constant, as they could be confounding factors. Hence, dancers of similar body type, no music, and same neutral background should be considered for the study of dance.

The aim of the first study conducted on the neural correlates of dance aesthetics, set out to identify relationships between movement and related brain areas (Calvo-Merino et al., 2008). Using a mixed methods approach of questionnaires and fMRI, the study recorded non-dance experts’ brain activity while they watched video clips of classical ballet and capoeira. Results showed that only the like-dislike dimension had significant neural correlates on aesthetic experience, compared to the other four dimensions (simple-complex, dull-interesting, tense-relax, weak-powerful). This was found especially in the right premotor cortex, and bilateral early visual cortexes. Results also revealed that these brain regions prefer whole body movements that are displaced in space; such as jumping. Whereas body movements that were confined to a single limb, with no displacement in space, were least activated in the brain regions. Based on these brain activations, this research indicates people prefer full body movement over single limb movements. Activation in both parts of the brain suggests that the premotor cortex ‘mirrors’ actions. Mirror neurons refer to the principle that the same areas of the brain are activated when an action is observed and performed — as if the observer is performing the action in their mind.


Figure 1. Examples of dance movement that achieved the highest and lowest scores on the aesthetic questionnaire


The role of familiarity and expertise

From the above mentioned study, we now know what happens in the brain when we view dances we enjoy. Calvo-Merino is also interested in how this may relate to viewers’ dance expertise. Using the same methodology as Calvo-Merino et al. (2008) amongst non-dancers, ballet dancers, and Capoeira experts, Calvo-Merino et al. (2004) found those who liked the dance sequence had higher strength in motor resonance in the dorsolateral premotor cortex. In summary, experts in the same motor activity i.e. dancers watching dancing, will have a different neurological response compared to novice counterparts. This suggests participants are able to use their mirror neuron system to internally participate in the motor movement they are familiar with whilst spectating. For example, for participants familiar with Capoeira, the same brain regions will be active whilst watching the movement sequence, as those executing them. However, this study was unable to distinguish which comes first, liking or strength of motor resonance.

Calvo-Merino’s use of fMRI is extremely useful as it allows for implicit data to be collected, in addition to traditional explicit data. Implicit preferences are  unconscious, opposed to explicit data often obtained via surveys and questionnaires. Explicit data can come with complications for researchers such as bias and social desirability. Because implicit data is unconscious, it bypasses these issues and can be used in conjunction with explicit data to further the understanding of a variety of human behavior.


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Figure 2. Classical Ballet and Capoeira movements performed by experts


How can we examine the perception of dance?

Christensen et al. (2019) has created a library of normalized dance videos aimed to reduce confounding factors. By separating the ‘dancer’ from the ‘dance’, the library allows researchers to examine the individual motions — the kinematics. Dance sequences are converted into movements of dots replacing the dancer’s joints and head. This eliminates the confounding body stimulus, contributing to forming an aesthetic perception of the dance movement (Calvo-Merino et al., 2010). This separation decouples the movement from its emotional salience, since not the movement sequence itself, but rather the quality of the movement is responsible for transferring emotions (Christensen et al., 2016). Hence, this allows the study of movement without the interference of emotional value.

However, any such experimental study of dance can arguably lack ecological validity in a number of ways, for example, trying to separate the body from the movement, or watching videos in and out of scanning devices. More importantly, experiments fail to account for the emotional responses of the complementary aspects of dance such as music, staging, theatre, costumes, context, atmosphere, storyline and number of dancers.

Nevertheless, neuroaesthetic dance research has a number of practical applications including, but not limited to, changing dance teaching practices, implementing choreographic devices and the possibility of creating ‘choreography for the brain’. By knowing what aesthetic judgments and which movements evoke stronger aesthetic responses in an individual, one might expect that neuroaesthetics of dance can be used to create the ‘perfect’ dance performance. However, many choreographers refuse this model of application, as it is in contrast with ideologies of creativity. It is important to consider that the idea of a ‘perfect dance’ is in itself flawed. In fact, different levels of expertise influence the subjective emotional response and objectively measurable physiological arousal of dance. Although universal response tendencies for dance movements can be found, the ultimate evaluation differs individually (Christensen et al., 2016).

In conclusion, objective quantitative measures of emotional response to the aesthetic stimulus are still only one component in the overall experience of dance. From research, we can say the brain ‘likes’ dance movement that we explicitly like, and we prefer movement we are more familiar with. Although breaking dance down into its individual components allows us to gain a more in depth understanding of its neural correlates, from a Gestalt approach, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Arguably, if you reduce dance movement to its bare components it is no longer an authentic aesthetic experience. Overall, subjectivity related to previous experience is what makes our emotional response to the aesthetic experience of dance so varied.




 Calvo-Merino, B., Ehrenberg, S., Leung, D., & Haggard, P. (2010). Experts see it all: Configural effects in action observation. Psychological Research PRPF, 74(4), 400–406. Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D. E., Grèzes, J., Passingham, R. E., & Haggard, P. (2004). Action observation and acquired motor skills: an FMRI study with expert dancers. Cerebral cortex, 15(8), 1243-1249.
Calvo-Merino, B., Jola, C., Glaser, D. E., & Haggard, P. (2008). Towards a sensorimotor
aesthetics of performing art. Consciousness and cognition, 17(3), 911-922.
Christensen, J. F., Gomila, A., Gaigg, S. B., Sivarajah, N., & Calvo-Merino, B. (2016).
Dance expertise modulates behavioral and psychophysiological responses to affective body movement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 42(8), 1139–1147.
Christensen, J. F., Lambrechts, A., & Tsakiris, M. (2019). The Warburg Dance Movement Library—The WADAMO Library: A Validation Study. Perception, 48(1), 26–57.
Goldman, A. (2001). The Routledge companion to aesthetics. In B. Gaut & D. McIver Lopes (Eds.), The aesthetic (pp. 181–192).






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Mind-Wandering During Music Listening: when music takes your mind on a metaphorical stroll

By Aleksandra Igdalova, Annie Dehaney-Stevens, Charlotte Grainger, Reina Khoury, Robyn Landau, and Stephanie Wilain.

Have you ever found yourself driving or walking somewhere, listening to music, and suddenly found you’ve arrived at your destination but have no recollection of how exactly you got there? While moments such as this seem spontaneous and subjective, studies are showing that such experiences are not as untameable as we think. Liila Taruffi, PhD, an interdisciplinary music researcher at the University of Durham, works at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, and aesthetics, investigating music’s capability to evoke emotions and to influence specific types of thought patterns such as mind-wandering.  She explains how the music you’re listening to can change the way your mind wanders.

Mind-wandering is a growing field in cognitive neuroscience, and while research in the field has developed over the past 20 years, it is still a poorly defined concept. Mind-wandering is an umbrella term encompassing different mental states such as daydreaming (visual mind-wandering), earworms or inner speech (auditory mind-wandering), as well as higher cognitive functions such as episodic memories or social cognition. It is a universal phenomenon of the mind that we encounter approximately 50% of our waking time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010), however – because it is a fundamentally internal and subjective experience, the objective measurement can be challenging. Despite this, mind-wandering remains an important and necessary topic of study, with impact across our everyday lives affecting emotions, decision-making, wellbeing, and even creativity (Baird et al., 2012).

Often described as ‘auto-pilot’ mode, mind-wandering is an internally-driven experience where attention is task-independent. It is said to create an immersive collection of experiences where one almost loses touch with the external world. Put simply, the focus is shifted away from environmental stimuli and towards self-generated and internally orientated thoughts and images, which are free-flowing and uncontained.

Switching modes

During the day, our brain goes through many different states of consciousness. Mind-wandering happens notably during easy tasks, especially when a task has been practised repeatedly enough to cause habituation. Conversely, the more challenging the task, the less the mind is free to wander, as attentional resource is allocated to the task. Mind-wandering is also more present during periods of fatigue when the mind is more vulnerable to intrusions from inner thoughts. While mind-wandering is linked to both past and present thoughts, individuals more often focus on the future which can be linked to both positive and negative outcomes, depending on personality, state of mind and environmental stimuli. Each one of us can relate to the experience of daydreaming, where these self-referential thoughts occur, often centred around future unresolved goals.


The Default Mode Network (in purple) has so far been linked with mind-wandering. (image source)

The brain area that has so far been linked with mind-wandering is the Default Mode Network (DMN), a large set of brain regions on the medial surface of the brain, so named because it activates by ‘default’ when a person is not engaged in a task which requires focused attention (Fox et al., 2010). These regions are activated during wakeful rest and are anti-correlated with the Executive Control Network (ECN), which activates when we engage in challenging tasks, demanding high focus. Brain imaging studies looking at DMN and ECN reveal that we are constantly shifting between these two different attentional modes, either directed internally or externally.

Mind-wandering and thought content: putting music in the driver’s seat


Individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experience a highly negative and disquieting involuntary mind-wandering. (image source)

Our emotions and thoughts help shape our mind-wandering experiences. For example, past-oriented mind-wandering and rumination of repetitive thoughts, especially in the case of individuals suffering from depression, often result in a negative mind-wandering experience (Ruby et al., 2013); and future-oriented mind-wandering may evoke a more positive mood (Ruby et al., 2013). The latter is commonly observed in narcissistic individuals who demonstrate a future-oriented mindset, executing thoughts that have a more optimistic, self-absorbed approach. In contrast, individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experience a highly negative and disquieting involuntary mind-wandering.

Researchers, such as Dr Liila Taruffi, are exploring ways to drive thought content into a positive direction, and music has been preliminarily shown to help facilitate this. Using the knowledge that individuals use sad music to introspect or daydream, Taruffi, Perhs, Skouras, and Keolsh (2017), explored the modulation of mind-wandering through happy and sad music. Participants were probed about their mental states and self-awareness while listening to classical instrumental music and movie soundtracks. Specifically, they were asked when a mind-wandering episode would occur and whether the form of their thoughts was in images or words. The experiment revealed that sad music was associated with increased mind-wandering and decreased meta-awareness. Sad music prompted more self-referential thoughts, while happy music provoked more positive ones. For all participants, thoughts occurred more in the form of images than words, regardless of the music being sad or happy. This experiment illustrates the power of music to induce emotional states and provides evidence that music affects mental activity and the way our mind wanders. We have all experienced this subjectively, however, we can now draw a scientific link between aesthetically-induced emotions and the contents of thoughts. Even more, music can be used to induce positive mind-wandering episodes, which has crucial implications for clinical populations with dysfunctional DMN activity and negative mind-wandering.

Capture d’écran 2020-04-30 à 16.35.19

Differences in mind-wandering properties depending on the music (sad or happy) (retrieved from Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S. et al. Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and the Default Mode Network. Sci Rep 7, 14396 (2017).

Capture d’écran 2020-04-30 à 16.35.00

Word cloud of thought content during sad and happy music (retrieved from Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S. et al. Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and the Default Mode Network. Sci Rep 7, 14396 (2017).

From research to art: composing music to shape the way we think

Dr Taruffi’s research on music as a tool to stimulate mind-wandering in order to create adaptive experiences led her to set up a collaborative project with Disquiet, an online music community. She invited musicians to compose music that would either decrease our mind’s tendency to wander or trigger mind-wandering episodes.


Understanding how music can modulate mind-wandering can give rise to our own unique, immersive ‘therapy’ which we can incorporate into our everyday life. (image source)

Collaborations between the arts and sciences such as this not only contribute to our understanding of our brains on music but also shed light on the particularities of our music listening behaviour. For example, have you ever wondered how or why ambient concerts where artists play soft electronic music for hours have become so successful in recent years? The answer may lie in mind-wandering and the resulting emotional states that trigger such episodes when we are engaged in these musical experiences. Studying the effects of mind wandering across different musical settings can be used to enhance development in this area of research concerning the beneficial nature of music. Understanding how music can modulate the phenomenon of mind-wandering to evoke pleasurable emotions suited to the individual can give rise to our own unique, immersive ‘therapy’ which we can incorporate into our everyday life.




Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W.   (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1117–1122.

Fox K.C., Spreng R.N., Ellamil M., Andrews-Hanna J.R., Christoff K. (2015). The wandering brain: meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies of mind-wandering and related spontaneous thought processes. Neuroimage, 111, 611–21.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 330, 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439

Ruby, F. J. M., Smallwood, J., Engen, H., & Singer, T. (2013). How Self-Generated Thought Shapes Mood—The Relation between Mind-Wandering and Mood Depends on the Socio- Temporal Content of Thoughts. PLoS ONE, 8(10), e77554. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0077554

Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S. et al. Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and the Default Mode Network. Sci Rep 7, 14396 (2017).


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Do You Feel Me?

By Rachel Jardin, Brielle Richardson, Monica Rodrigues, Michael Scerbo, Katherine Symons.

How Emotions Can be Interpreted Through the Art Experience – Evaluations on Matthew Pelowski’s Introduction to Emotional and Empathic Connections


//Students from programs, MSc in Psychology of the Arts, Neuroaesthetics, and Creativity as well as from MSc Music, Mind and Brain were given the opportunity to be part of a talk held by Matthew Pelowski, where he discussed his recent behavioural and brain studies regarding the understanding of emotional and empathic connections between the artist and the viewer. //


Art is all in the telling. Like a story, art is a way of encountering. It is to meet someone halfway in a space, where you can take a moment to observe, to feel, to listen, and to tell each other a story. In the same way, to love someone is to put yourself in their place, to put yourself in their story. A story is a place and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, an artistic gesture. Encountering an artwork is entering in an emotional dialogue with the object, the artist and yourself; in other words, art is a compelling and empathic experience.

What is empathy, then? Empathy is primarily known as the imaginative capacity to understand what someone else may be feeling through the experience of emotional contagion. A key element in human social engagement; empathy, or “einfuhlung”, as it is known in German, was originally coined to describe the experience of “feeling into” (Gerger, Pelowski & Leder, 2018). Simply, this describes the human ability to relate to non-social contexts by perceiving objects as part of the self (Stavrova & Meckel, 2017). This is perhaps why, when exploring emotion transmission through art, empathy first comes to mind as the ‘interpreter’ mechanism, translating the artist’s language spoken through the artwork to the viewer. Indeed, empathy is argued to be necessary to engage with art, as it is suggested that the better one’s ability to feel into an object, the more pleasurable one’s engagement with it is (Freedberg & Gallese, 2007).

Precisely at this crossroads between art experience, emotions and empathy, we encounter the work of Matthew Pelowski. Whilst his former research has found little evidence between one’s own empathic sensibility and the ability to ‘feel more’, recent findings (i.e. Pelowski, Specker, Gerger, Leder & Weingarden, 2018) clearly show how the viewers’ possess an ability to not only guess, but also to feel the emotions intended by the artists. Perhaps most interestingly, findings of a spontaneous connection reveal how viewers also perceived the same emotions as the artists did, even when the latter did not intend for these to be transmitted through their artwork (Pelowski et al, 2018).


Empathy and emotions between viewers and artists in behavioural and brain studies.

Pelowski et al (2018) explored the topic of emotion sharing through artworks and assessed both the artist’s intentions and emotional experiences when creating three installation artworks by three different artists, as well as the consequent emotions and understanding experienced by the viewers. In the first artwork, the artist aimed for a light, happy tone, whereas in the second artwork, the artist aimed at evoking a sense of disorientation and increased anxiety. Lastly, the artist of the third installation intended for it to be a bombardment of contradictory sounds and imagery, hoping that this chaotic experience would bring viewers together (refer to Figure 1 for reference of artworks and study design).


Figure 1. Artwork and study design examples.

According to the study, viewers in the first and second artworks, regardless of intention, revealed similar emotion patterns to the ones felt by the artist while making the pieces, and could feel the intended emotions even at a higher magnitude. However, this was not the case for the third artwork, with only 13.5% of participants reporting an understanding of the artists intentions, additionally rating this installation as “unclear” and “distant” (Pelowski et al, 2018). These results suggest the possibility that emotions have been shared, therefore an empathic space was created. Similar results were also found in another study (in press) performed by Pelowski on professional artists.

Surprisingly, whilst it could be easy to assume that higher empathy involves a higher capacity to perceive the emotions of others’, Pelowski’s study did not find significant evidence that the trait of empathy could predict differences in general magnitude of emotional response. Could it be possible that the viewers did not actually feel the artists intended emotions, but were simply feeling themselves? Or could these results have occurred simply by chance?

Art has been used as a tool to convey emotional dialogues across all cultures as a universal language (Schepman & Rodway, 2019) through the ‘aesthetic experience’ (Pelowski & Akiba, 2011). Certainly, the aesthetic experience is known to be also a personal, emotional and introspective journey, driven mostly by one’s sense of self and by personal expectations (Pelowski et al,  2014). So, whilst there is clear evidence of a strong link between depicted emotions and art appreciation, this actually raises more questions. What mechanisms could underlie this?


Our brains constantly receive a vast amount of information from our senses, that is constantly being interpreted, commonly through past experiences as a guide. When the brain cannot revise each past memory, it instead uses concepts. A concept is a ‘mental particular’, meaning an abstract idea that occurs in the mind. A mental representation created by our brains to make faster sense of the world around us (Margolis & Laurence, 1999). In this way, the brain will only need to retrieve the relevant bits of sensory information to match it with a relative concept. Words are able to communicate concepts – often there are various words to express one concept; conversely, many different concepts are expressed by one word.


Jackson Pollock – The artist at work (Retrieved from:


Audience viewing Jackson Pollock’s work. (Retrieved from:

Under the Theory of Constructed Emotion, concepts are used to make sense of our experiences; a brain interpretation of bodily sensations (Barrett, 2017). For instance, the experience of fear is a simulation based upon our body’s predicted reaction to external situations. This idea supports Pelowski et al’s findings (2018), suggesting that perceiving, or even ‘imagining perceiving’ something can not only mirror the similar emotions, but also activate the same neural mechanisms as if one is directly experiencing it (Gallese & Guerra, 2015). As such, this notion of a cognitive, online simulation (Pelowski et al, 2018) can be argued to account for empathy, whilst also being one of the possible mechanisms facilitating the empathic conversation between viewer and artist.

Language is the common medium used to communicate internal concepts, these can be expressed using words, as well as pictures, or video; or far more abstract forms. In other words, an aesthetically compelling piece of work is the result of the artists’ unique imagination, perception, motor skills and spatial abilities (Pelowski et al, 2019), combined with past experience. In the same way, the viewer can experience an artwork through their own socially and culturally constructed experience, moderated by distinct interpersonal traits (Pelowski et al, 2018).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fact that viewers could guess the right emotions in the artworks, attuning themselves to the artists’ own feelings (Pelowski et al, 2018), certainly points to a shared language for emotional representations. Most importantly, Pelowski’s work has made it clear that there is wide room for further empirical progress, not only in exploring the emotion-transmitting potential of art, but also in determining how these emotional connections are so firmly established through artworks.

So, the question stays open, do you really feel me?


Barrett, L. F., (2017). How Emotions Are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Mifflin Harcourt.

Freedberg, D., & Gallese, V. (2007). Motion, emotion and empathy in aesthetic experience. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(5), 197–203.

Gallese, V. & Guerra, M. (2015). The Empathic Screen: Neuroscience and Cinema. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. pp. 38-44.

Gerger, G., Pelowski, M., & Leder, H. (2018). Empathy, Einfühlung, and aesthetic experience: The effect of emotion contagion on appreciation of representational and abstract art using fEMG and SCR. Cognitive Processing.

Margolis, E., & Laurence, S. (1999). Concepts: Core readings. MIT Press.

Pelowski, M., & Akiba, F. (2011). A model of art perception, evaluation and emotion in transformative aesthetic experience. New Ideas in Psychology, 29(2), 80–97.

Pelowski, M., Liu, T., Palacios, V., & Akiba, F. (2014). When a body meets a body: An exploration of the negative impact of social interactions on museum experiences of art. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 15(14).

Pelowski, M., Markey, P., Goller, J., Förster, E., & Leder, H. (2019). But, How Can We Make “Art?” Artistic Production Versus Realistic Copying and Perceptual Advantages of Artists. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 13(4), 462-481.

Pelowski, M., Specker, E., Gerger, G., Leder, H., & Weingarden, L. (2018). Do You Feel Like I Do? A Study of Spontaneous and Deliberate Emotion Sharing and Understanding Between Artists and Perceivers of Installation Art. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2018.

Schepman, A., & Rodway, P. (2019). Shared Meaning in Representational and Abstract Visual Art: An Empirical Study. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2019.

Searle, J. R., 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Stavrova, O., & Meckel, A. (2017). Perceiving emotion in non-social targets: The effect of trait empathy on emotional contagion through art. Motivation and Emotion, 41(4), 492–509.

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Is Beauty Pleasure?

by Whitney Hung, Leon Koch-Mehrin, Carole Leung, Kamila Smyk

              If money, power and cheesy-curly-fries are capable of inducing the same feelings of pleasure as beautiful art or music, then what is the importance of a neuroaesthetic finding regarding these artistic practices?

              Currently, two brain regions, the medial orbito-frontal cortex (mOFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), have been associated with the experience of various dimensions of beauty (see picture below). The same brain regions are activated when experiencing pleasure whilst doing drugs, devouring delicious tacos or having sex. How then, does beauty differ, and can it be dissociated from pleasure?  Dr. Tomohiro Ishizu at the University College London has dedicated his research to the aesthetics experience and to decomposing the nature of pleasure and beauty to answer the question: “Is beauty pleasure?”.

                                   Dimensions of Beauty. Image sources see reference.

Pleasure and Valence

              Tomohiro agrees beauty is mostly pleasure – gazing at an attractive face or marveling at a mathematical equation is simply put; an enjoyable experience. However, he believes the pleasure we derive from beauty may possess characteristics that are absent in pleasure acquired from consuming a burger or taking drugs. The act of mating, getting high or eating are regarded as primary rewards and inevitably lead to high positive valence. In other words, they simply feel good. Fundamentally, this is also true when we see something beautiful. However, beauty has the potential characteristic of being negatively valenced. Take for example the image presented below; the photo can be regarded as appealing, yet one might feel afflicted too. The shot of a young girl kneeling beside a grave may evoke feelings of grief and fear. This is an example of sorrowful-beauty- a mixture of a positive aesthetic experience charged with negative valence.


Image depicting both a positive aesthetic experience (beauty of photo) and negative     valence. Image from Shutterstock.

              Tomohiro empirically tested the idea of sorrowful-beauty (Ishizu & Zeki, 2017). Participants rated a plethora of images on two dimensions; valence and aesthetic value. It was indeed possible for images to be experienced as joyfully or sorrowfully beautiful. Brain scans confirmed the mOFC and vmPFC were not only active during joyful-beauty conditions but also during the sorrow-beauty conditions. The latter also showed functional activity between the mOFC and brain regions known to play a key role in sympathy. This network may be what enables us to experience beauty in emotionally-negative stimuli. Tomohiro concludes that, unlike pleasure, beauty seems to have the capacity to be negatively valenced.

              Although the results suggest there may be something different in pleasure derived from beauty rather than primary rewards, answering the question: “is beauty pleasure?” remains difficult – in part due to its poor formulation. With so many forms of pleasurable experiences, it is unclear what is meant by “pleasure.” To better define the term, we must take a closer look at rewards.

Pleasure, Reward, and the Brain

              Tomohiro described how reward can be subdivided into two types: physiological and non-physiological. The physiological concerns everything that our bodies demand: food, water, sex and shelter, which are considered ‘primary rewards’. These biological needs keep us in physiological homeostasis and in turn; satisfied. This subtype of reward also has a secondary component, which encapsulates the things we require to attain said physiological homeostasis: money, tokens and power. Having money can provide us with shelter and food, whereas power makes us more desirable in the eyes of potential mates.

              On the other side of the spectrum, there is non-physiological reward, which entails social interactions, moral acts, and all forms of artistic expression, such as visual arts and music. These intrinsic rewards are not first in line to ensure survival and physiological homeostasis. In fact, they go against optimisation of survival of the individual. Paradoxically, these are often, but not always, considered to be the essence of human existence.

              What’s more, a social interaction may have either positive or negative repercussions – positive or negative valence. Similarly, an artistic experience or an encounter with beauty may produce positive or negative feelings, which contrasts with physiological rewards, which produce positive valence only.

              Tomohiro then shared several previous brain imaging studies examining brain activation in response to rewarding things or events like facial beauty, altruistic donations, etc. He concluded that processing physiological reward would activate both the ventral striatum (VS) (in particular, the nucleus accumbens NAcc) and the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC); whereas processing non-physiological reward would dominantly activate the OFC.

              Tomohiro also pointed out that in fact, each reward region is connected to other brain regions. The VS has strong connection with areas around and, in the midbrain, like globus pallidus, substantia nigra (SN)/ ventral tegmental area (VTA), and thalamus. The OFC has connections with the frontal parts of the brain, like lateral prefrontal cortex and sensory cortex.

CaptureOther brain regions connected to the reward network for physiological and intrinsic pleasure.

              With a firm grip on the brain regions that are active for each type of rewards, it is possible to explain the differences between the two types of reward processing with regard to the functioning of the brain regions. The VS and its connected areas are for fast and autonomic processing of sensory information, thus, the areas process biologically-based beauty and the person would experience physiological pleasure. The OFC and its connected areas are responsible for cognitive inferences and top-down regulations. Their processing speed are slower, compared to the VS areas. Hence, the areas process high-order beauty and the person would experience intrinsic pleasure.

Back to the Question – Is Beauty Pleasure?

              So, to answer the question, “is beauty pleasure?” Tomohiro suggests the answer is positive for physiological rewards, which leads to physiological pleasure and therefore, is categorised as “biological beauty”. And negative, such as for intrinsic pleasure, which doesn’t lead to mere physiological pleasure, thus being categorised as “high-order beauty”.

              Aristotle noted that human happiness and well-being largely consists of two components: Hedonia and Eudaimonia. Hedonia is pure happiness, such behaviours as mating, safe shelter and nutrition etc., they optimise individual survival and the physically rewarding feedback reinforces the act. Eudaemonia, on the other hand is having meaning and feeling purpose. This is important for both individuals and the society to build a strong community, including self-sacrificing acts, altruistic behaviour, and moral behaviour; however, these do not carry physiological rewards. As a consequence, there’s a lack of reinforcement for these behaviours. How, then, are these behaviours preserved?


Hedonia, eudaimonia model of behaviour reinforcement.

              Tomohiro wraps up the talk by suggesting a philosophical model, as depicted above. What reinforces eudaimonia is feeling beauty in the actions, rather than the physiological rewards. Because we feel beauty in altruistic acts, they can motivate towards altruistic behaviours and this suggests why we have different types of beauty.


Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 627-668.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: An introduction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 1–11.

Haber, S. N. & Behrens, T. E. J. (2015). The neural network underlying incentive-based learning: Implications for interpreting circuit disruptions in psychiatric disorders. Neurons, 83(5), 1019-1039.

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Dimensions of Beauty Image sources:,,

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Embedding music and music therapy interventions in dementia care pathways: research trends, clinical practice and policy in the 21st century

On 28th February 2019, Helen Odell-Miller gave a visiting lecture for students and staff of Goldsmiths’ MSc programmes Music, Mind and Brain, and Psychology of the Arts, Neuroaesthetics and Creativity, discussing research exploring therapeutic uses of music for people living with dementia.


Helen Odell-Miller – Professor of Music Therapy and Director of The Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research
Source:   Anglia Ruskin University website

Dementia is described as a cognitive decline commonly accompanied, and occasionally preceded, by deterioration in emotional control, social behaviour, or motivation (WHO, 2017).  Demographics show that life expectancy is increasing, resulting in a higher population with this condition.  There are nearly 10 million new cases of dementia every year and the estimated proportion of the general population aged 60+ with dementia at a given time is 5-8 per 100 people (WHO, 2017).

Odell-Miller defines music therapy (MT) as ‘individualized personal care through music, adapted at the moment for the person’s needs and their family/carers’ (Odell-Miller, 2018). MT is a registered UK profession, where professional musicians are trained in a 2-3 year postgraduate degree. Direct MT interventions are individualised for the patient according to their needs, whilst indirect interventions are more generalised, e.g. benefits are obtained through listening to or taking part in group musical performance. MT can be delivered in community groups with carers, families or as individual MT. 

Odell-Miller focused on the psychological and social aspects of musical impact on dementia patients; specifically the aim of using music related to improvements in patients’ lives, beyond their symptoms. Most importantly, improving social outcomes through interaction with others. This is accomplished by working in group sessions with familiars or carers, wherein they encourage a special bond shared through music making and improvisation, and provide valuable opportunities to communicate with their family. Odell-Miller illustrated this with a video extract of a session from the “Together in Sound” project. Patients attended sessions with their carers for 10 weeks, moving between talking and making music and incorporating psychotherapy. In this video, the group of patients and their carers sitting beside them in a circle, led by a music therapist, were rhythmically synchronised while tapping different percussion instruments, without direct pre-instruction. That example demonstrated how active musical engagement with a partner can improve rhythmic synchronicity and result in an elevation of social bondedness between patient and carer. Moreover, in a new study HOMESIDE (see below) which is going to be a large RCT trial between 5 countries starting in June 2019, carers will be  trained and encouraged to use some of these musical activities in their homes with their family member who has dementia, and during daily routines, to improve both communication and relationship between the person with dementia  and their carer (e.g. giving them instructions by singing or tapping in a rhythm). This may help to combat the negative psychological and social aspects associated with dementia, such as loneliness.

The neural processing of music (Koelsch et al. 2004) makes MT a powerful means to access memory, which dementia progressively impairs. Motor tasks related to instrument playing are stored effortlessly in procedural memory which remains intact in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (Baird & Samson, 2009). Musical features, e.g. changes in melodic contour or motives, are stored in semantic memory. These features are good predictors of success when recalling new and old melodies (Müllensiefen & Halpern, 2009). While other cognitive abilities decline in dementia, musical memories are preserved until later stages of the disease. This implies that people with dementia can recognise a melody, lyrics, and emotions in music despite cognitive deterioration, suggesting MT could be a useful tool for improving dementia patients’ wellbeing, by encouraging them in an area where their cognitive abilities are still intact, potentially restoring some sense of independence. Furthermore, the association between music, emotion, and memory has been demonstrated in research showing music can evoke autobiographical memories in dementia patients (Belfi, Karlan & Tranel, 2016), suggesting MT may also be beneficial for reconnecting patients with memories triggered by music.

Odell-Miller explained that dementia patients also suffer from anxiety, apathy and depression, and regulating these emotions is essential for their physical and psychosocial wellbeing (Smith & Arigo, 2009). MT may be able to help manage these emotions. Tamplin and colleagues (2018) found that 20-week singing interventions helped both patients and carers to engage in meaningful interactions and improved the wellbeing of patients with Alzheimer’s. Music is an effective emotion elicitor and MT can be effective in managing them, therefore enhancing the quality of life for people with dementia.

Approximately 80% of people with dementia display behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD).  These include depression, agitation, apathy, and anxiety.  Suffering from BPSD can severely impact the quality of life and increase stress levels in both patients and carers. MT has shown convincing evidence of effectiveness in reducing BPSD (Abraha et al., 2017). Odell-Miller drew attention to a study she co-conducted, showing MT to be an effective tool for reducing negative behaviours associated with dementia during and even months after treatment (Hsu, Flowerdew, Parker, Fachner & Odell-Miller, 2015). These results are contrary to previous research suggesting benefits of MT only occur during and immediately after therapy sessions (Livingston, Johnston, Katona, Paton, & Lyketsos, 2005).


Mean scores for symptoms of dementia for MT and standard care groups, showing a decline in negative behaviours over time for patients receiving MT.
Source: Hsu et al. (2015).

Odell-Miller emphasised the necessity of communication between music therapists and carers, encouraging consistent employment of MT techniques,  to maximise the impact of  MT sessions (Hsu et al, 2015). Carers have reported that incorporating MT improves their own mood, but also enhances communication and relationships with patients. Odell-Miller, herself, described how she built up rapport through musical language between herself and a patient (M), whose speech was otherwise broken and confused (Odell-Miller, 2002). Furthermore, she mentioned the preventative benefit of family/significant other carers using MT techniques prior to worsening of their condition to enable dementia patients to live longer in their own home, a well-known environment where they are likely to feel more comfortable. This allows for a better quality of life for patients and gives them the chance to connect with their families in this special way.

Excitingly, Odell-Miller described a new research project she is involved in, funded by Alzheimer’s Society UK, called HOMESIDE, which aims to collect data from 500 couples (patient and home unpaid carer) across five countries. Participants will make music at home in 30 minutes-sessions with their carers, for five days a week, across 12 weeks. These interventions will be compared with two control groups where participants will either receive reading interventions or no interventions over the same period. The primary outcome measure will be the Neuropsychiatric Inventory (Cummings et al., 1994), but the study will also consider resilience, depression, and quality of life, for both the person with dementia and their carer. This study aims to explore whether musical interventions at home delivered by a carer can have similar reductions in BPSD to interventions led by music therapists.  It is hoped that this will solidify MT as a useful tool for enabling people with dementia to live longer on their own.

Click here for more information about research funded by Alzheimer’s Society UK.

Overall, MT seems to demonstrate multiple benefits for those with dementia and their carers, whilst new research could open the avenue for preventative measures, alongside reducing more developed symptoms. In summary, Odell-Miller provided an insightful lecture telling the story of where MT interventions in dementia have come from, and where they are going.


Abraha, I., Rimland, J. M., Trotta, F. M., Dell-Aquila, G., Cruz-Jentoft, A., Petrovic, M., Gudmundsson, A., Soiza, R., O’Mahony, D., Guaita, A. & Cherubini, A. (2017). Systematic review of systematic reviews of non-pharmacological interventions to treat behavioural disturbances in older patients with dementia. The SENATOR-OnTop series. BMJ Open, 7(3), e012759. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-012759

Belfi, A. M., Karlan, B. & Tranel, D. (2016). Music evokes vivid autobiographical memories. Memory, 24(7), 979-989.

Baird, A. & Samson, S. (2009) Memory for music in Alzheimer’s Disease: Unforgettable? Neuropsychology Review, 19(1), 85-101.

Cummings, J. L., Mega, M., Gray, K., Rosenberg-Thompson, S., Carusi, D. A., & Gornbein, J. (1994). The Neuropsychiatric Inventory: comprehensive assessment of psychopathology in dementia. Neurology, 44(12), 2308-2314.

Helen Odell-Miller People at Anglia Ruskin University (2018). Retrieved from

Hsu, M. H., Flowerdew, R., Parker, M., Fachner, J., & Odell-Miller, H. (2015). Individual music therapy for managing neuropsychiatric symptoms for people with dementia and their carers: a cluster randomised controlled feasibility study. BMC Geriatrics, 15(1), 84. doi:10.1186/s12877-015-0082-4.

Koelsch, S., Kasper, E., Sammler, D., Schulze, K., Gunter, T., & Friederici, A.D. (2004) Music, language and meaning: brain signatures of semantic processing. Nature Neuroscience, 7:302-307.

Livingston, G., Johnston, K., Katona, C., Paton, J., & Lyketsos, C. G. (2005). Systematic review of psychological approaches to the management of neuropsychiatric symptoms of dementia. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(11), 1996-2021. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.11.1996

Mullensiefen & Halpern (2014) The role of features and context in recognition of novel melodies. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 31(5), 418-435.

Smyth, J. & Arigo, D. (2009) Recent evidence supports emotion regulation interventions for improving health in at-risk clinical populations. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 22, 205-210.

Tamplin, J., Clarck, I.N., Lee, Y-E C. & Baker, F.A. (2018) Remini-sing: A feasibility study of therapeutic group singing to support relationship quality and wellbeing for community-dwelling people living with dementia and their family caregivers. Frontiers in Medicine.

World Health Organization. (2017). Global action plan on the public health response to dementia 2017–2025.





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Garden Design, Birdsong and Creativity

The psychology of aesthetics and creativity finds footing in numerous disparate realms. However, researchers like Paul Sowden at the University of Winchester have found common ground in the realm of nature. His interests lie in the cognitive and affective mechanisms of creative and restorative thinking processes, which he describes within the contexts of natural environments. Creativity in garden design, beauty and serenity in natural settings, and the role of birdsongs in producing such experiences all converge in the investigation of the experience of nature.

The Creative Process in the Context of Garden Design


 (Garden Design:, 2018)

Contemporary art challenges boundaries. Researchers have shifted their attention from mainstream manifestations of traditional artistic practices, such as music and visual arts, and have conducted studies on human behaviour in relation to less well-known art forms. With his students and colleagues, Paul Sowden exemplifies this alternative viewpoint by studying the creative processes employed during garden design (Pringle & Sowden, 2017), following a personal attachment to gardens and nature. He sees garden design as an overlooked art form and a rich and complex source of creative inspiration.

Sowden is interested in creative thinking as a dual process comprising of an associative mode and an analytical mode. The associative mode involves memory retrieval, generating ideas and concepts, and insight (‘aha’) experiences. In contrast, the analytical mode involves logical deduction, evaluation of remembered experiences and past behaviour, and evaluation of design ideas and concepts. Sowden studies these two modes of the creative process using a participant sample consisting of professional garden designers, garden design students, professional fine artists, and members of non-academic staff with lower creative achievement scores on the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ)* (Carson, Peterson, & Higgins, 2005) who were used as the non-artist control group.


Figure 1. Means of transition probabilities for each modal transition (Pringle & Sowden, 2017)

In a first experiment (Pringle & Sowden, 2017), participants were asked to design a garden with the theme ‘journey’ and were instructed to express their thoughts verbally. Pringle & Sowden developed a coding scheme to deconstruct participants’ verbal reports and found no difference between each group and how they transitioned between thinking modes (see Fig. 1). However, when comparing transitions between affective and cognitive thought within these thinking modes, findings revealed that the group of professional garden designers switched between analytic affective, and associative cognitive more than the non-artist control group (see Fig. 2).


Figure 2. Means of transition probabilities for each modal transition including affective and cognitive states (Pringle & Sowden, 2017).

Sowden also explores the impact of meshed thinking in the context of flexibility (shifting between designs and/or producing more designs). Building on dual process theory as applied in psychology, according to which thought (in this case, creative thinking) is the result of two different cognitive processes (analytic and associative), Sowden uses a coding scheme based on two models of meshed thinking. Instances of meshed thinking occur when (1) both associative cognitive and analytic cognitive modes can be clearly identified in a text segment of a participant’s verbal report, and (2) there is clear textual evidence of both associative cognitive and analytic affective modes. Sowden’s research shows that, overall, professional garden designers carry out more meshed thinking, with meshed associative cognitive and analytic cognitive thought occurring more often than meshed associative cognitive and analytic affective thought. Interestingly, his research also shows that meshed analytic affective-associative cognitive thought correlates with design quality and creativity. Shifting from analytic affective to associative cognitive modes of thought is related to increased probability of initiating a transition between designs, and, the more shifting between designs occurs, the more the design outcome correlates with creativity and final design quality–with affect playing an important part in the shifting process. Therefore, including affect in the explanatory model for creative thinking in garden design increases its explanatory power.

The importance of meshed analytic affective-associative cognitive thought is also backed by neuroimaging research (Beaty et al., 2014). There is also evidence that activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) implicates affective and associative processing and is connected not only to each of these processes separately but to a combination of both. Positive affective states are linked with disinhibited association (i.e. greater readiness to form or activate associations between stimuli) so that objects valued affectively as positive are more likely to facilitate associative activation and better mood (Shenhav, Barrett and Bar, 2014; Bar, 2009). If the mOFC plays a role in representing specific states and stimulus contexts associated with an experience one has learned to feel and recognise as rewarding, it may integrate value representations and their contingent contexts, thereby providing stronger association (Shenhav, Barrett and Bar, 2014). Sowden’s analysis spells out one of the possible behavioural effects of our ability to affectively hone in on an object from the material environment to trigger high reward associative processes. Seeking that mood reward, we learn to shape the material environment into a form which reflects our affectively invested associations between self and evocative objects.


Natural Environments: Cognitive and Affective Restoration

Although we may not immediately recognise them, external environments can have strong psychological effects on even the most resilient minds. The bustle of a city street, the tranquillity of a forest stream, or the excitement of a thunderstorm influence what we feel and think. Sunsets over rolling hills and dew-covered ferns make their way onto computer desktops and smartphone backgrounds, and noise-cancelling headphones block out the auditory chaos of urban settings. Where does this ubiquitous sense of calm and restoration in association with natural environments (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Valtchanov, Barton, & Ellard, 2010; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983) come from?


(Photo:, 2019)

Researchers like Paul Sowden explain this restorative potential in terms of attention. The psychology of attention and its absence dates back to William James’s (1892) “voluntary attention”: an attentional mechanism that requires effort, can be voluntarily controlled and involves inhibition. From this concept, Stephen Kaplan derives the notion of “directed attention” (Kaplan, 1995) to substantiate the Attention Restoration Theory (ART) to model the power of an environment to restore one’s focus and concentration. ART consists of four dimensions: being away (geographical and psychological distance from causes of stress), coherence (connection to one’s environment as a whole), soft fascination (effortless attention) and compatibility (reconciliation between a person’s desires and opportunities afforded by their environment) (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983). Because it is both conscious and purposeful, prolonged directed attention causes fatigue and the experience of natural environments ‘restores’ our capacity for directed attention by redirecting ‘involuntary’ attention to the experience of nature.

Numerous studies justify the restorative potential of natural settings, from horticulture activity to garden design to river-rafting (Chen, Tu, & Ho, 2013; Garg, Couture, Ogryzlo, & Schinke, 2010; Pringle & Sowden, 2017), but appraisals of this effect tend to differ across studies. Hartig and colleagues (2003) used blood pressure to measure stress-reduction after walks in urban and natural settings, while Ratcliffe and colleagues (2013) used cognitive and affective appraisals coincident with previous models of perceived restorative potential (PRP) (Berman et al., 2008), but both approaches conclude that cognitive distraction, directed attention, and novelty (‘being away’) are associated with restoration, as well as positive valence and low to moderate arousal.

Bird Sounds and Cognitive Restoration

It appears that natural environments have the power to restore one’s focus and concentration by transporting us, fascinating us, and distracting us from habitual cognitive rumination and stress. But what specific aspect(s) of natural settings are responsible for nature’s restorative potential? There may be many answers to this question (e.g. the aesthetics of a panorama, being outdoors, engaging in an activity such as walking, listening to nature sounds such as the wind or birds, etc.). Visual contributions to an environment’s soothing potential have long been studied. However, the literature lacks insight into auditory contributions to the restorative potential of setting­, a gap that Sowden his students and colleagues seek to bridge.

Ratcliffe, Gatersleben and Sowden (2016) analysed reports of natural sounds which were deemed restorative by participants. They found that 35% of the 186 references to natural sounds included birdsong, followed closely by water (24%) and non-avian animals (18%). Amongst natural sounds, birdsongs are most often reported as having restorative power.

However, not all birds are particularly relaxing to listen to. For example, a raven’s singing is often perceived as threatening (sometimes called screaming rather than singing) while robins’ sounds are almost universally perceived as pleasant. Sowden and colleagues (2016) investigated which characteristics give a birdsong its restorative potential. They presented participants (N=174) with a stressful scenario and exposed them to bird sounds, before asking them to complete a PRP report and to state any associated memories. The highest PRPs were achieved through associations with green spaces, positive animal behaviour (e.g. raising young), certain times and seasons (e.g. morning, springtime) or active behaviour (e.g. walking). It was shown that the restorative power of birdsongs depends mainly on cognitive associations with feelings of soft fascination (R2 = .74) and of being away (R2 = .70) rather than affective associations (arousal). These findings support Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (1995) and the idea that birdsongs restore our capacity for directed attention by redirecting ‘involuntary’ attention to the auditory experience of nature.

Paul’s research has elucidated a definitive yet nuanced connection between nature and psychology and given us an important intellectual portal between inner and outer worlds in both goal-oriented activities such as garden design and passive experiences such as restorative potential and stress reduction. In the same way that natural environments and birdsongs help with restoration by evoking wonder and transcendence and by facilitating a mental space to withdraw from focused attention, the process of interacting with nature in garden design invokes specific cognitive states and processes. It may come as no surprise that sunsets over ocean scenes make their way onto laptop screens (not to mention gurgling brooks inside our alarm clocks) as we learn more about how restorative experience and analytic affective-associative cognitive thought processes influence our minds and moods.

Published by Dwaynica Greaves, Lucas Klein, Tudor Balinisteanu and Agathe Fauchille

*The CAQ is the creative achievement questionnaire developed by Carson et. al. (2003) as a measure of creative achievement in 10 different domains. Creativity is considered proportional to score.


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