As I listened to the rain fall on my back porch this afternoon, I automatically felt a sense of calm. When my peaceful moment was broken by my neighbor’s footsteps upstairs, it made me frustrated. These sounds directly influencing my emotions made me curious as to why some sounds evoke joy and others frustration. Perceiving sounds as “good” or “bad” may seem obvious, but the process of sound to our brains - and our perceptions of them - is actually quite complex.
Sounds keeping us safe
The sense of hearing exists to keep us safe.1,2 Everyone jumps or gets startled when there is a sudden, unexpected loud sound nearby. In contrast, most people find the song of birds peaceful and comforting as it represents no immediate threats in our environment. Researchers have not yet been able to determine what level of sound intensity and frequency begins to incite fear, but they do know that the intensity of our emotional and physical response depends on how familiar our brains are with a sound and in determining where the sound might be coming from (“is that rattling coming from my car’s engine or is that just coins in my cupholder?”).3 Since the beginning of humanity, emotional and physical reactions to sounds have saved countless lives by instantly turning on our natural fight or flight reaction. Even when we are in our deepest cycle of sleep, listening neurons in our brains are constantly “on” and are scanning our surroundings for sounds of danger to wake us, such as when a fire or security alarm sounds.
Music and emotion
Hearing also has a big impact on our positive emotions. Within the past decade, researchers have been studying the connection between music, emotion, heartrate and even body temperature.4 It has been found that when we listen to music that we enjoy, our brains release dopamine, the chemical that produces the feeling of happiness, sometimes at the same rate of a drug high or eating our favorite food. Late physician Oliver Sacks, who studied the powerful impact of music in the brain, stated that music elicits “emotions and associations that had been long forgotten, giving the patient access once again to mood and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.”5 Music has been used as one of the most effective tools of therapy in mid- to late-stage dementia patients. It is thought that the music memory area of the brain remains unaffected by most forms of dementia and, when stimulated, reduces stress and negative behavioral symptoms of the disease.6
Sounds and our overall health
Our ability to hear provides one of the most important links to our emotions and surrounding environment, both in keeping us safe and also allowing us to enjoy music and other sounds that initiate positive physical reactions. Most of us know someone who has trouble hearing and are missing out on things they used to enjoy, as well as conversations with family and friends. Hearing loss can lead to social isolation and depression due to being disengaged from other people and activities.7 Protect your overall health by protecting your hearing. If you or someone you know has suspected hearing loss, don’t delay in finding help from a hearing health professional.