Student Research | Tuning into human emotion via music

Gregory Devine/Courtesy

According to a 2017 study published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, the human emotional experience of music has been at the center of centuries of philosophical and psychological studies. However, the study also reports that the influence of music on human moods has only recently been verified as a meaningful and progressive study.

One researcher exploring this new field is Gregory Devine, senior neurobiology and music double major.

This summer, Devine worked with the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships program, or SURF, to study music as a form of emotion regulation through carefully structured musical compositions, corresponding surveys and statistical analyses. College of Letters and Science SURF recipients apply in the spring and are awarded $4,500 in research funds for their original projects. Devine in particular was one of two recipients of a fellowship sponsored by the Leadership Fund, a donor-supported resource also responsible for student services such as Big Ideas courses and the On the Same Page program for incoming freshmen.

Devine focused his project specifically on the discrete versus dimensional emotion theory of psychology by composing music that fell into one of four specific categories (happy, sad, calm or tense) and then asking a large sample size of volunteers to identify which emotions they recognized in the music.

He discovered that the most popular mood regulation strategy was using music as entertainment.

“Even the music selections that were composed to be negative — so bad emotions like sadness … or fear — (still had a positive valence),” Devine said. “So even listening to music that evoked a negative emotion was a positive experience.”

Even before beginning this research project, Devine has been witness to the positive correlation between music and mood for a large part of his life.

He grew up with an autistic brother who struggled with social cognition and emotional expression. Devine discovered that he could calm his brother’s tantrums and frustrations by playing songs on the piano that matched his brother’s emotional state, describing the music sessions as “a really cathartic process” that brought the two brothers close together.

Once Devine recognized music as a form of therapy, he took up a volunteer position at a therapeutic community center in San Jose that allowed patients and volunteers to communicate daily emotions through music.

In one particularly striking experience, a dementia patient heard a song Devine was playing and immediately recalled in remarkable detail a day during his 30s — something he had much trouble doing before.

“I could see the light return to his eyes, and I saw the person in him again. … It was a really impactful experience. I always wanted to pursue music as a form of medicine from that,” Devine said.

Devine’s research results and volunteer experiences have endowed him with a deeper understanding of music and its effects and have encouraged him to change his own lifestyle.

He now feels more comfortable sharing his original music via piano, bass, guitar, trumpet and vocals, and he has a much more mindful approach when it comes to listening to music.

Devine also wholly considers music a form of medicine. He warns people who do use music as a therapeutic tool to stray away from using music as “a form of rumination” because, just like any medicine, music can do more harm than good if used improperly. Instead, Devine hopes the public will become more open to using music in a variety of ways, including as energy-harvesting and social tools. He also recommends using music to meditate.

“Listen to music that is relaxing. … Do a body scan and feel the music moving from your ears all the way throughout your core and into your feet, and just try to be more mindful with how music makes you feel. … Tune into that.” Devine said.

“Your research kind of plays out like a song in a lot of ways, where you have to add layers to harmonize it,” — Gregory Devine

In upcoming semesters, Devine plans to begin clinical experiments in which he can bring in volunteers, induce mood states and then try to either stabilize or change those mood states.

Further down the line, Devine aspires to work with schizophrenic patients who experience a negative symptom known as anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, to evaluate whether or not emotional stimuli such as music can positively affect their lives. Devine ultimately hopes to use tools like music to fill in the gaps in the exploration of human consciousness and in the treatment of emotional dysregulation in patients with mental illnesses.

Looking back on his summer, Devine said his experience with SURF provided him with a genuine love for interdisciplinary studies and that he strongly believes that scholars from seemingly unrelated fields can come together to create innovative solutions to today’s issues.

“(SURF) really has pushed me towards pursuing an MD/Ph.D. that would allow me to operate within different circles of research in order to synthesize them to generate new knowledge.” Devine added.

Devine does not see art and science as two separate realms of the human experience. In fact, for all those who are interested in similar studies focusing on the intersection of art and science, Devine recommends bringing an artistic approach to the scientific method itself, highlighting the importance of improvisation, creativity and big-picture thinking.

“Your research kind of plays out like a song in a lot of ways, where you have to add layers to harmonize it,” Devine said. “You have to organize it in a way that it makes sense — in a progression.”

Contact Priyanka Athalye at [email protected]