The Music You Listen To Can Change The Way Your Mind Wanders

In the last decade psychologists have been massively looking at the impact of music on emotional processes, but far fewer have investigated music’s influence on thoughts. In this new study, entitled “Effects of Sad and Happy Music on Mind-Wandering and Default Mode Network” recently published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, we specifically examined the relation between music, emotion, and thought.

We focused on a specific range of cognitive experiences known as “mind-wandering” or “daydreaming”, which represent our mind’s tendency to engage in thoughts and images that are unrelated to the here and now, are spontaneously evoked, and naturally flow over time. Mind-wandering is incredibly omnipresent in our everyday life, reaching up to 50% of our waking mental activity. Research has emphasized that when our minds wander we tend to be less happy compared with when we are focused on a task. However, much of the effects of mind-wandering on mood has to do with the content of thoughts: e.g., thoughts focused on the past lead to subsequent negative mood and thoughts focused on the future lead to subsequent positive mood. Because mind-wandering is such a frequent mental activity, it is essential to identify what tolls we can use to direct our minds towards more positive directions. Our idea for this study was that music could indeed function as a mediator of these inwardly-oriented mental experiences that are somehow supposed to be beyond our control.

In particular, we tested whether music with a sad and/or happy emotional tone can modulate the level and content of mind-wandering episodes. We did that in three experiments — two in which participants described their mental state immediately after listening to sad and happy music, and a third in which other participants’ brains were scanned as they listened to sad and happy music pieces. The main findings were the following: 1) sad music evokes stronger mind-wandering levels compared with happy music as well as stronger self-referential thoughts; 2) thoughts during sad music are focused on emotion and nature, while happy music is linked to dancing imagery; 3) sad music is associated with greater activity of the Default Mode Network (the main brain network responsible for mind-wandering).

The Music You Listen To Can Change The Way Your Mind Wanders
Word cloud of thought content during sad and happy music.

Interestingly, our data do not support the idea that mind-wandering during sad music is inherently detrimental to mood, because thoughts during sad music were not focused on the past more than thoughts during happy music. This may depend on the music selected for this study (instrumental classical and soundtrack music, unfamiliar to all participants, thus with no explicit reference to participants’ personal memories). Moreover, keep in mind that sadness in music, is often described by listeners as a melancholic yet pleasurable experience, and for this reason sad music may shape mind-wandering in a unique way. This has also important implications for how we can use art in general to trigger specific types of mental experiences. Other crucial implications of these results concern the use of music in education and clinical settings. For example, the stimulating effect of sad music on mind-wandering could be harnessed to improve creativity, while the diminishing effect of happy music on mind-wandering may reduce rumination as a repetitive style of thinking associated with depression.

Here is a YouTube playlist with some of the sad music pieces used in the study to stimulate mind-wandering.

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