A self-defining period

Christopher Panks is affected by the music in the BBC drama 'Looking for Alaska'.

“If heaven and hell decide, that they both are satisfied/
Illuminate the ‘noes’ on their vacancy signs/
If there’s no one beside you, when your soul embarks/
Then I’ll follow you into the dark.”

Death Cab for Cutie I will follow you into the dark


With that, the tears which had been forming at the corners of my eyes made a gravity-assisted rush to my cheek, chin, then chest. It had been coming. The scene was reaching an emotional crescendo, and the song was an old favourite of mine examining a choice to die with your beloved.

However, the most interesting thing was the musical accompaniment was a cover. An arrangement I had never heard before. This got me thinking about the ways that the brain processes music. When I have cried at songs in the past, I had always assumed that I was accessing a direct memory, but this didn’t seem to be possible in this case, as it was an original treatment. I started to investigate some studies related to the psychology of music, and here’s what I found.

It has been proposed that neural structures of the brain can affect how much music can affect emotions. There are some people, an estimated 3-5% of the world’s population who seem to not feel any pleasure from music at all (Mas-Herrero et al., 2013). Researchers call this neurological condition music anhedonia, and, in studying this population, found key differences in the neural pathways connecting areas associated with auditory processing, and the ventral striatum, which is a part of the reward network (Martínez-Molina et al, 2019).

Though some feel no positive emotion as a result of listening to music, for others, it can enhance recovery from serious illness. In one study, people affected by stroke were randomly assigned to one of three groups, music listening, music listening + mindfulness, and audiobook listening (control). Relative to the control group, both music groups reported better cognitive and emotional recovery (Baylan et al., 2017; 2018; 2020). 

A simple intervention of listening to music daily following ischemic stroke was enough to raise self-reported energy and mood. When two short, 5-minute mindfulness practices were added to music listening, participants reported greater emotional regulation, relaxation, concentration and attentional control. In addition, the thematic analysis of qualitative post-intervention interviews revealed that both music groups experienced increased memory reminiscence, while the control group did not endorse this theme. 

The lead author of the original study, Dr Satu Baylan from the University of Glasgow told me: “We were keen to investigate whether combining music listening with mindfulness might help address some of the difficulties that people commonly face after a stroke using an approach that can potentially be both enjoyable and accessible. We found that participants across all groups were willing to listen regularly and found listening to be enjoyable.” 

Looking at the lyrics above, it appears that the music which is pleasing to me is of a sad hue. One controversial study from 2015, suggested that those prone to low mood or depression choose to maintain their negative affect by choosing sad-sounding music (Millgram et al., 2015). These findings were challenged by a later study which found that sad music can act like a ‘soothing friend’ to those in emotional distress (Van den Tol & Edwards, 2013).

Perhaps we go back repeatedly to the same songs. What can make us choose them? A recent study looking at the selections of ‘castaways’ on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – which has asked notable public figures to select eight recordings, a book and a luxury item to take with them to a deserted island since 1942 when it debuted – found that half of the recordings were representative of a period of time between ages 10 and 30 (Loveday, Woy & Conway, 2020). The researchers term this period as ‘the self-defining period'. Lead researcher, Professor Catherine Loveday, said: “Because the premise of the programme is that people imagine themselves in isolation, this research has relevance to anyone who becomes isolated, including during lockdown measures in the current coronavirus pandemic.”

My first exposures of the Death Cab for Cutie song, and the literature which had inspired the programme I was watching, all came from within that self-defining period, from moments of emotional distress. Perhaps, the isolation of coronavirus, the significance of the period from which it stemmed, and my penchant for sad music drawn from depression, all compounded in this emotional release. Most interesting for psychologists, perhaps, is whether prescribing listening to ‘positive’ music from the self-defining period, could be effective in lifting patients out of distress or sadness.

What’s certain is that music has evolved with humans for a purpose, and perhaps we are only beginning now to see the power of this creative force.

Christopher Panks MBPsS

Twitter: @cpankspsych

Watch Looking for Alaska on BBC iPlayer


Baylan, S., Haig, C., MacDonald, M., Stiles, C., Easto, J., Thomson, M., … Evans, J. J. (2020). Measuring the effects of listening for leisure on outcome after stroke (MELLO): A pilot randomized controlled trial of mindful music listening. International Journal of Stroke15(2), 149–158. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747493019841250

Baylan, S., McGinlay, M., Macdonald, M., Easto, J., Cullen, B., Haig, C., … Evans, J. J. (2018). Participants’ experiences of music, mindful music, and audiobook listening interventions for people recovering from stroke. Annals of the New York Academy of Scienceshttps://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.13618

Baylan, S., Stiles, C., MacDonald, M., Easto, J., McGinlay, M., Cullen, B., … Evans, J. (2017). A single-blind randomised controlled trial of mindful music listening to enhance cognitive recovery and mood after stroke (MELLO): Feasibility and acceptability. European Stroke Journal.

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Millgram, Y., Joormann, J., Huppert, J. D., & Tamir, M. (2015). Sad as a Matter of Choice? Emotion-Regulation Goals in Depression. Psychological Science26(8), 1216–1228. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615583295

Sachs, M. E., Ellis, R. J., Schlaug, G., & Loui, P. (2016). Brain connectivity reflects human aesthetic responses to music. Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosciencehttps://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw009

Van den Tol, A. J. M., & Edwards, J. (2013). Exploring a rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music41(4), 440–465. https://doi.org/10.1177/0305735611430433

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