Music helps you focus on your own thoughts, but only if you like it


Parts of the DMN, which put us in a resting daydream state, are better connected when we listen to music we like. (Wilkins et al)

When we listen to music we enjoy, it makes us feel different. Truly beloved songs inspire a different state of mind than the average pretty background noise. A study published Thursday in Scientific Reports pinpoints the changes in neurological activity behind that experience.

In the small study (with 21 young adults, total), participants with different genre preferences were exposed to entire songs while in an MRI. They were exposed to a liked genre, a disliked genre, and their self-reported favorite song. They were looking for changes in brain activity that related to preference for the music being listened to, as opposed to changes that might occur based on differences in the musicality or lyrics of the tune. If your favorite artist is Beyoncé, her dance anthems probably make you feel as focused as a classical music lover listening to Beethoven — and that's pretty crazy. The researchers wanted to understand how people could have the same feelings associated with their favorite music (greater self-reflection and inward thought) regardless of genre.

When listening to a preferred genre or a favorite song, the participants had greater connectivity between regions of the brain called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is associated with that switch we can flip between inner and outer thought. When the DMN is active, you're not focused on what's happening in the physical world around you — you're using internal stimuli, like memories and your imagination.

Of course, you probably already knew that your favorite music could make you zone out. The study authors hope that these findings will encourage innovative music therapy in individuals who have conditions associated with poor DMN activity and connectivity, like autism and schizophrenia.

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.
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