A new study, published in Scientific Reports, looked at how memories are able to influence our emotional responses induced by music and images. Traditionally different domains, music and pictures are usually studied separately. The current study aimed to renew research of emotional experiences evoked by music and pictures through comparison.
“We all have experiences of being emotionally moved after listening to music that we have strong personal memories of,” study author Johanna Maksimainen told us, “or to seeing an image that captures particularly important memories from our life... In their daily life, people often engage in music for emotional self-regulation, and music allows a symbolic space for this. Even the more difficult emotions can be experienced and perhaps even processed, as they are only accessed as sounds, detached from the actual painful memories.”
The study, titled, The Effect of Memory in Inducing Pleasant Emotions with Musical and Pictorial Stimuli, had participants bring in four pieces of music and four images that either made them feel happy or sad based on memories triggered, and that either made them feel happy or sad just based on the piece of music or image itself.
“We explored whether the induced emotions were stronger if they carried personal memories when compared to emotions induced by stimulus features,” Maksimainen told us. “Secondly, we scrutinized if episodic memories led to similar emotional valence in both domains. In other words, whether is there a three-way interaction among the emotion induction mechanism (memory vs. stimulus features), emotional valence (positive vs. negative), and domain (music vs. picture).”
The researchers hypothesized that emotions involving memories would be more intense than experiences based on stimulus (i.e. musical or visual) features. The second hypothesis concerned the modality and valence of emotions. The researchers didn't expect a main effect of modality, but they did expect to observe an interaction between valence, mechanism and modality.
“Overall, it can be concluded that memory plays an important role in the induction of all types of emotions, but this effect seems to be even more pervasive for the social and negative emotions in comparison to general positive emotions,” Maksimainen told us. “Concerning our exploration of the role of memory across the musical and visual domains, the results generally confirmed that memory is the primary induction mechanism regardless of the domain. Yet, some distinct asymmetries related to the domain and emotion induction mechanism could also be observed. The pronounced role of memory as an induction mechanism was generally even more evident in music than in pictures, which may reflect the fact that music engagement is closely linked to everyday life events.”
Maksimainen says the main effects of modality on emotions were not expected, but that her and her colleagues did observe that music led to slightly higher ratings of joy and strength, while pictures evoked more sadness than music. Also, their assumption that memories would play a stronger role for inducing negative affects in music than in pictures received some support. For the induction of melancholia and sadness, memory contributed more highly to these emotions in comparison to stimulus features, and Maksimainen says this was particularly clear in the case of unpleasant music. Interestingly, explains Maksimainen, the stimulus features were more inductive of sadness in the case of pleasant music.
“There are numerous unanswered questions in emotion research, particularly concerning mechanisms in general and the complex and social emotions,” Maksimainen told us. “Another possible line of research is to explore in more detail the interactive effects of memories and stimulus properties in paradoxical effects such as the simultaneous experience of pleasantness and sadness. Also, despite the inherent differences in the stimulus properties between images and music, the concurrent use of multiple modalities offers exciting prospects to further our knowledge of affective experiences regardless of the domain.”
Maksimainen says the results give insights into the way positive emotional reactions can be triggered by music and pictures and how such processes might be linked with musical interventions that attempt to harness the effect of positive mood through memories in emotional disorders or in dementia.
“It seems that in music, sadness and melancholia can be experienced with more positive emotions if sadness is evoked by musical structures and sounds, not memories,” Maksimainen told us. “This capacity of music to evoke such ‘pleasurable sadness’ may allow for constructive access to and reflective processing of negative emotions.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com