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This is what happens in your brain when you hear your favorite song, whether it’s Bieber, Biggie or The Beatles

Reuters/Gary Hershorn
Whether you prefer Em or Elton, your brain reacts similarly.
By Zach Wener-Fligner
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In 1973, the British rock star Peter Frampton posed an important scientific question via a killer talkbox solo: “Do you feel like I do?”

According to a new study, when it comes to our reactions to our favorite music, the answer is, “Yes.”

The study, published August 28 in Nature, shows that people brains exhibit the same patterns of connections when they listen to their personal favorite songs, whether those songs are free jazz, Swedish progressive death metal, or anything in between.

Researchers monitored each participant’s brain activity while they listened to a series of songs: a genre-spanning control playlist picked by the researchers, and one song the participant had identified in advance as their favorite. (They had diverse and eclectic taste, including (pdf) songs from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Goo Goo Dolls and the Notorious B.I.G., among others.) Afterwards, the participants rated how much they liked each of the control group songs.

Here’s what they found:

Most music creates memories, but favorite songs recall memories

When participants listened to the control songs, researchers found a lot of activity between the auditory cortex and the hippocampus, which plays a large role in the formation of memories. When they listened to their favorite songs, those connections vanished. The paper suggests this is because most people already have powerful memories associated with their favorite songs, which preempt the formation of new memories.

Regardless of genre, music we like makes us introspective and empathetic

When listening to their favorite song and other songs they liked, participants exhibited high activity in a part of the brain known as the default mode network, which the researchers write is “like a toggle switch between outwardly focused mind states and the internal … sense of self.”

Neuroscience supports what we feel: music we love makes us self-aware. This could also have implications for the use of music as therapeutic treatment for conditions like autism and depression, which are associated with abnormal activity in the default mode network.

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