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The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation

Simple ways you can use music to create changes in mindset and behavior.

What songs evoke a strong emotional response or inspire you? Do you have a theme song that captures the essence of 2012? As simple as it sounds, scientists have found that listening to particularly happy or sad music changes the way we perceive the world. According to researchers from the Netherlands, listening to a song like Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Music and mood are inherently linked. Scientists continue to uncover how these influences occur at a neural level. Studies prove that the music we listen to engages a wide range of neurobiological systems that affect our psychology. A recent study by researcher Jacob Jolij and student Maaike Meurs of the Psychology Department of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands shows that music has a dramatic effect on explanatory style and perception.

Jolij and Meurs had their test subjects perform a task in which they had to identify happy and sad "smiley icons" while listening to happy or sad music. Music turned out to have a great influence on what the subjects perceived. Interestingly, even when a "neutral face" with no smiley was shown, the subjects often thought they recognized a happy smiley when listening to happy music and a sad one when listening to sad music.

This finding is particularly interesting according to the researchers. Jacob Jolij says, "Seeing things that are not there is the result of top-down processes in the brain. Conscious perception is largely based on these top-down processes: your brain continuously compares the information that comes in through your eyes with what it expects on the basis of what you know about the world. The final result of this comparison process is what we eventually experience as reality. Our research results suggest that the brain builds up expectations not just on the basis of experience but on your mood as well."

Rose tint my world: pragmatic optimism vs. pollyannaism

You can dial up a mood, mindset, or perception on demand by choosing music that elicits a specific emotional response in you. As an athlete, I developed an ideal mindset for peak performance and used an arsenal of time-tested songs to fortify this alter ego and invincible state of mind. During my training and races, it became obvious that even in really horrible weather conditions, or when I was physically suffering, that I could use music (and my imagination) to create a parallel universe that had little to do with reality. I used music to stay optimistic and see the glass as perpetually half-full while doing ultra-endurance races. You can use music as a tool when you work out or in your daily life the same way.

We all know the feeling of finding just the right song for that specific moment in time. Through trial-and-error, you can find songs that strike a particularly emotional chord in you and use this music to create a targeted mindset or explanatory style. Ask yourself: "Does this song make me feel like the glass is half empty or full? Does this song make me feel energized or depressed? What state-of-mind do I want to be in right now?" I have specific songs I'll listen to before a big interview, public put me in the right frame of mind.

Our emotional response to music is very individual. Not all "happy" songs are universally perceived as being uplifting or are guaranteed to put you in a good mood all the time. I choose "pragmatic optimism" over being a cloying Pollyanna when selecting music. As Joni Mitchell sang, sometimes there is 'comfort in melancholy' and a song that is technically depressing can be cathartic and soothing. Take constant inventory of how a specific song affects your mood and mindset. Play around with lots of songs, artists, and different genres knowing that all music is a powerful tool you can use to alter your perceptions at a neural level.

Identify the target mindset you want to click into and then use music to tap into this conscious state-of-mind by entering 'up' through a "trap door" buried at a subconscious level. This is called bottom-up processing. Neuroscientists have found that music enters our nervous system through the auditory brainstem and also causes the cerebellum to "light up" on a brain scan.

Top-down vs. bottom-up processing

Researchers at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University have found that music can enter our consciousness through bottom-up processing. Nina Kraus is a neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University in Illinois, who studies the effects of music on the nervous system.

Please take a few moments to watch this short video of Nina Kraus explaining how musical sound waves translate directly from our auditory brainstem into correlating brain waves. Music enters your nervous system through your brainstem, which my father (and other neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio) suggest may be the seat of sentience, among many other things.

Nina Kraus, states that “Humans and songbirds” are the only creatures “that automatically feel the beat” of a song. She said, the human heart wants to synchronize to music, the legs want to swing, metronomically, to a beat. “Our bodies,” Dr. Kraus concluded, “are made to be moved by music and move to it.” I find the current research on songbirds to be really interesting as it relates to human behavior and neurobiology.

Researchers find a correlation between mating birdsongs and human romance

A study released on December 27, 2012, found that a bird listening to birdsong may experience some of the same emotions as a human listening to music. The study was published in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience. It turns out that songs of unrequited love in music could have parallels to a discordant birdsong in how it hits the amygdala. On the flip side, songs of new love and the rush of limerence may tap into the mesolimbic reward system in both animals and humans.

"We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like," says Sarah Earp, who led the research at Emory University. For male birds listening to another male's song, it was a different story. They had an amygdala response that looks similar to that of people when they hear discordant, unpleasant music.

During the non-breeding season, both sexes of sparrows use song to establish and maintain dominance in relationships. During the breeding season, however, a male singing to a female is almost certainly courting her, while a male singing to another male is challenging an interloper. "Scientists since the time of Darwin have wondered whether birdsong and music may serve similar purposes, or have the same evolutionary precursors," Earp notes.

Sarah Earp reviewed studies that mapped human neural responses to music through brain imaging. The study used a marker to map and quantify neural responses in the mesolimbic reward system in male and female white-throated sparrows listening to a male bird's song at various stages of the breeding season.

"The neural response to birdsong appears to depend on social context, which can be the case with humans as well," Earp says. "Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival."

Free to be you and me. . . Choose any music that inspires you.

We all have songs we're embarrassed to love. Who cares?! Don't be self-conscious about 'guilty pleasures' or 'uncool' song choices on your playlists. If you select music for the sake of seeming 'cool', you are denying yourself the primal benefits of heartfelt, innate bottom-up processing.

The music you fill your mind with should come from an authentic, soulful place that has nothing to do with pretense. This is common sense. Besides, with headphones, you can listen to whatever you want in your own "private Idaho." No one needs to know what songs resonate with you or why.

That said, I just confessed to my 18-year old niece, Annelise, (who I thought only likes 'indie records') that "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift is currently my favorite running song. She admitted with a sheepish giggle that it's her favorite work out song, too.

What were your favorite songs of 2012? I suggest making a list of your top 10 of 2012 and consciously reinforce all the emotions and associations you have with these songs from the past year. You can permanently imprint these memories like a time capsule of the people, places, and events of 2012.

If you had hardship this past year, like so many of us did, make a playlist that bows to those emotions but is infused with any glimmers of 'pragmatic optimism' you can muster. "The a Team" by Ed Sheeran is my song that fits the 2012 niche of a 'downer' song that is somehow uplifting and great to run to.

On the flip side, "Starships" by Nicki Minaj was my favorite adrenaline rush running song of the summer. Even now, in the middle of winter, it gives me a turbo-charged feeling of wide-open blue skies and the freedom of running along the ocean. "Cherish" by Madonna from 1989 still taps the nostalgic exuberance of summertime when I was younger. Watching the Herb Ritts video always takes me right back to that era and puts me in a good mood on demand to this day.

What songs remind you of summer and sunshine? What music videos do this for you? Find them on YouTube or make a playlist and create a neurobiological flashback. Making a playlist of songs that remind you of summertime in the dead of winter and working out to them is a healthy way to combat the effects of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). To amplify this experience at a neural level try applying some sunscreen to trigger the 'summertime' associated olfactory-memories housed in your most primal sub-conscious brain. The smell of Coppertone always reminds me of clear blue skies, being a kid, and sunny weather. I wear sunscreen year-round to protect against UV damage, but more to keep me in a summer mood. Aromatherapy is another way you can combat SAD in the wintertime.

One caveat, by overplaying any song you will dilute the original neural network associated with that song by constantly embedding it with an overlay of new memories. This is why a song that you haven't heard in decades can take you right back to all the emotions, and feelings of the original time. (The same is true with scent.) If you want a song to have an emotional impact linked to a specific person, place or experience from your past listen to it sparingly and make it part of a time capsule memory vault that you consciously preserve.

Randomness of song choices increases dopamine

Randomness in music has been linked to increases in dopamine. Predictability on a playlist can make songs you love seem mundane by reducing anticipation and create a rut. Once you've memorized the sequence of songs there is no mystery, which can create monotony. "That song, again?" You can turn your iPod into a Las Vegas-like slot machine delivering hits of dopamine by mixing it up with shuffle mode. Having a perfect song randomly come on shuffle mode, Pandora or Spotify will give you a dopamine rush and that lucky "Jackpot" feeling of reward.

Your "power song" or anthem won't always hit the spot. Remember to mix it up. Some people only like to run to songs with a BPM (Beats Per Minute) that correlates with stomping feet of an upbeat workout. I find that playing a slower song with a strong emotional resonance can actually supercharge a workout that I'm lollygagging through. Try it and see if it works for you. Again, remember to play around with all genres of music to find songs that work for you in that moment. But, also encode some 'power songs' to be anthems that you reserve for times when you need a trigger that cues a specific state of mind or alter-ego of peak performance on demand.

Technical advice for working out with a music player

Using a decent pair of headphones will greatly enhance your musical experience, especially when working out. I find that earbuds jiggle around too much and need constant readjusting when I'm running. It's annoying. I recommend using over-the-head 'vertical' style headphones. They won't budge once you slide the earpieces into place and are hassle-free.

Also, if you put the headphone cord underneath your shirt it won't dangle and get caught on your thumbs when you're jogging or on the elliptical. I recommend using a neoprene carrying case that sits snugly just above your pelvic bone (just below your belly button) to hold your music player in place when you're working out. This allows you to be hands-free and not be annoyed by the dangling cord.

These are seemingly trivial things but they can make a huge difference by allowing you to lose yourself in the music without being distracted by the technology delivering it.


Music is one of the most powerful neurobiological tools we have to change our mood, mindset, and behavior. What is the impact of listening to music that promotes violence, hate, or aggression on our minds? How does this music shape the minds and explanatory style of our children?

I grew up in the "Soft-Rock" '70s when artists like The Carpenters, ABBA, John Denver, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Olivia Newton-John... were in heavy rotation on the radio, turntable or 8-track. This music greatly influenced the mindset and explanatory style of me and my peers.

I'm not on a crusade to restrict musical expression like Tipper Gore did with the "Parent Music Resource Council" (PMRC). However, as a Parent Paying Attention (PPA) I want to make sure that my 5-year old daughter grows up listening to as much music that promotes loving-kindness as possible. The songs our children listen to literally shape the neural networks of their minds and their perceptions of the world.

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