Music is almost ubiquitous in our lives – we hear it in commercials, in the car, on the radio, at the movies, when you go out, when you stay in… we’re quite a musical society nowadays. But we still don’t understand many things about how music affects our bodies and our brains; now, a new study has found that listening to music you really like – frisson inducing music – makes you more altruistic.

Frisson-inducing music can make you more altruistic. Image via Song for the Songless.

If you’ve ever listened to a song and liked it in such a way that your hair went up, you got goosebumps and you felt the chills, then you know what a frisson is. A frisson is a sensation caused by audiovisual stimuli expressed as an overwhelming emotional response combined with piloerection while listening to specific passages in music. Frissons don’t last for very long (usually just a few seconds), and are usually pleasurable and associated with passages of loud, inspiring music.

Hajime Fukui from the Nara University in Japan found that listening to this type of music makes people more altruistic; in order to figure this out, they asked 22 undergraduate and postgraduate students to play the dictator game. Basically, they were given some money, which they were then asked to distribute it to several recipients, who were presented as stylized images of men and women displayed on a computer screen. They were asked to play this game 4 times – after they listened to music they liked, they didn’t like, and after a period of silence.

“Both male and female dictators gave more money after listening to their preferred music and less after listening to the music they disliked, whereas silence had no effect on the allocated amounts. The group to which the recipient belonged did not influence these trends. The results suggest that listening to preferred “chill-inducing” music promotes altruistic behavior”, researchers write in their paper.

Listening to music you don’t like also makes you more selfish. Image via Harvard.

Listening to music can be a highly rewarding experience for humans. However, there has been relatively little research regarding how positive or negative music-induced states affect our behavior. This study goes both ways – it shows that music we like can make us more altruistic, while music we dislike can make us more selfish.

“It is vital to note that music affects an individual’s behavior greatly; preferred music promotes altruistic behavior, whereas disliked music is associated with selfish behavior, and what differentiates these behaviors is the emotional response dictated by the listener’s musical preferences.”

Emotions induced by music are thought to be associated with the action of mirror neurons and the limbic system. The limbic system (or paleomammalian brain) is a complex set of brain structures located on both sides of the thalamus which supports a variety of functions including adrenaline flow, emotion, behavior, motivation, long-term memory, and olfaction. Our limbic system is also crucial for our emotional responses. It also hosts the amygdala, which performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The amygdala is also necessary for developing and expressing normal interpersonal trust. A study has shown that when the amygdala is damaged in an individual, that person invests more money with other people who are unfamiliar than do healthy controls; it’s likely that the way in which music excites the amygdala and the lymbic system makes us also trust others more.

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It’s also interesting to note that in the experiment, male dictators gave higher amounts than did female dictators regardless of the type of music, relationship to the recipients, or sex of the recipients. However, given the fairly small sample size, this may not be conclusive.

Journal Reference: Hajime Fukui and Kumiko Toyoshima. Chill-inducing music enhances altruism in humans. Front. Psychol., 28 October 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01215

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