6 Ways Your Brain Transforms Sound Into Emotion

Contra Costa Hearing Blog

It has long been established that there are powerful connections among sound, music, emotion, and memory, and that our personal experiences and preferences determine the type and intensity of emotional response we have to specific sounds.

For example, research has uncovered these prevalent associations between specific sounds and emotions:

  • The sound of a thunderstorm evokes a feeling of either relaxation or anxiety, depending on the person
  • Wind chimes commonly evoke a restless feeling
  • Rain evokes a feeling of relaxation
  • Fireworks evoke a feeling of nostalgia and pleasurable memories
  • The vibrations of a cell phone are often identified as annoying

Other sounds have a more universal identity. UCLA researchers have observed that the sound of laughter is universally identified as a positive sound signifying amusement, while other sounds are globally linked with fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise.

So why are we predisposed to particular emotional reactions in the presence of specific sounds? And why does the reaction tend to vary between people?

While the answer is still ultimately a mystery, recent research by Sweden’s Lund University offers some interesting insights into how sound and sound environments can have an impact on humans on personal, emotional, and psychological levels.

Here are six psychological mechanisms through which sound may stir up emotions:

1. Brain-Stem Reflex

You’re seated quietly in your office when all of a sudden you hear a loud, abrupt crash. What’s your response? If you’re like most, you become emotionally aroused and motivated to investigate. This type of reaction is subconscious and hard-wired into your brain to warn you to potentially critical or life-threatening sounds.

2. Evaluative Conditioning

People frequently associate sounds with particular emotions dependant on the circumstance in which the sound was heard. For instance, hearing a song previously played on your wedding day may bring about feelings of joy, while the same song first heard by someone during a bad breakup may produce the opposite feelings of sadness.

3. Emotional Contagion

When someone smiles or starts laughing, it’s tough to not start smiling and laughing yourself. Research conducted in the 1990s discovered that the brain may contain what are called “mirror neurons” that are activated both when you are carrying out a task AND when you are viewing someone else carry out the task. When we hear someone talking while crying, for instance, it can be challenging to not also experience the associated feelings of sadness.

4. Visual Imagery

Let’s say you enjoy listening to CDs that contain only the sounds of nature. Why do you like it? Presumably because it evokes a positive emotional experience, and, taking that further, it probably evokes some strong visual images of the natural setting in which the sounds are heard. For example, try listening to the sounds of waves crashing and NOT visualizing yourself lounging at the beach.

5. Episodic Memory

Sounds can spark emotionally potent memories, both good and bad. The sounds of rain can stir up memories of a tranquil day spent at home, while the sound of thunder may lead to memories linked with combat experience, as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder.

6. Music Expectancy

Music has been identified as the universal language, which seems logical the more you consider it. Music is, after all, merely a random grouping of sounds, and is pleasurable only because the brain imposes order to the sounds and interprets the order in a certain way. It is, in fact, your expectations about the rhythm and melody of the music that induce an emotional response.

Sound, Emotion, and Hearing Loss

Irrespective of your particular reactions to different sounds, what is certain is that your emotions are directly involved. With hearing loss, you not only lose the ability to hear particular sounds, you also lose the emotional force associated with the sounds you can either no longer hear or can no longer hear well.

With hearing loss, for example, nature walks become less engaging when you can no longer hear the faint sounds of flowing water; music loses its emotional punch when you can’t distinguish specific instruments; and you place yourself at greater risk when you can’t hear fire alarms or other alerts to danger.

The bottom line is that hearing is more important to our lives—and to our emotional lives—than we probably realize. It also indicates that treating your hearing loss will probably have a greater impact than you realize, too.

What are some of your favorite sounds? What emotions do they evoke?

Are there any specific sounds or songs that make you feel happy, angry, annoyed, sad, or excited? Let us know in a comment.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Schedule an appointment to see if hearing aids could benefit you.