Music Taste Linked to Brain Type

How does the way you think influence the music you choose to listen to? Scientists at Cambridge University have developed a test that marries up a person’s personality traits including how empathic they are, and how systematically they think, with the tunes most likely to resonate with them. I went to see the lead researcher David Greenberg to discover what the test revealed about my own musical tastes…

David – The measure of empathy is called the empathy quotient and it’s a sixty-item measure that asks about how you interact in your daily life and your care for others, how you perceive emotion and react to emotion and thoughts of others. Another dimension is called systemising and systemising is the drive to construct, analyse and look at the rules that govern different aspects of the world.

Tom on the empathy quotient you scored a 56, and the average male scores around 30 so you were slightly above average on empathising. On systemising you scored very high – so you’re score is a 95 and the average male usually scores a 68.

Tom – Okay so that makes sense I guess – I do maths, I do see patterns in things and so this is sort of reflecting how I would have thought my brain worked.

David – It’s not too surprising because previous research has shown that males tend to score higher than females on systemising. And mathematicians score higher on systemising than for example students who are studying humanities.

Tom – And then once you’ve worked out how someone thinks, how did you then try to find out their musical preferences – do you say to them perhaps ‘here’s a list of band names who’d you like’?

David – No, so that’s been done previously where participants would just list how much they like a genre, but the problem with genres is that they’re so vast. If you take the rock genre in general, you have heavy metal, punk and you have bands like Metallica. But also in the rock genre you have Jeff Buckley or Jodie Mitchell and so there’s a vast difference. So we thought a more accurate way of doing it could be to just administer pieces of music to the participants: have them listen and then to indicate how much they liked each piece of music.

Tom – And so what did you find then? Once these participants have done this questionnaire you’ve worked out how they think – how did this affect their music choices?

David – What we found quite consistently over several studies was that empathisers in terms of the style of music that they liked, they were preferring music that was mellow and was from R&B, adult contemporary and soft rock genres. Whereas, systemisers were preferring music that was more intense and that was from the punk and heavy metal genres.

Tom – So what do I like? What did you find out about me?

David – You scored for example with mellow music or unpretentious styles which is from the folk genres or music that’s from classical or jazz, you scored average on those preference dimensions. But you scored the highest on intense music – so musical extracts that were from the punk, heavy metal and hard rock genres those were your favourites by far.

[MUSIC]

Tom – That was my favourite one that I listened to yesterday! I feel like I’ve been the perfect test student here! We’ve just been discussing exactly what type of music a systemiser should like and we’re just looking at my results here and I’ve nailed it to be honest!

And are there any applications for this beyond just figuring out which music people should and shouldn’t like?

David – A lot of research and there’s volumes of it has shown that music can be effective in music therapies. So, for example in terms of social skills or emotion recognition, we could use these results as a way of say teaching emotion recognition to children through music.

Tom – Based on my test results, play me the song that I should absolutely hate – I should leave the room I should dislike it that much!

[MUSIC]

…Yeah not liking that! That’s just so depressing I’m just not buying it.

David – But that’s the great thing about this study: there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s just that people like different things and you can actually say that music is a mirror of the self in a way, it’s a reflective of who we are. And that our musical choices are a link or an expression of our mind, our personalities and the way we interact with the world.

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Naked mole rats could help stroke victims

Stroke occurs every 2 seconds worldwide and is the second largest cause of death. When a stroke happens, the most important tissues of our body, the brain and heart, are starved of oxygen causing cell damage. To improve therapies for stroke patients we need to understand how the human body copes without oxygen and one researcher at the University of Cambridge thinks he may have found the answer in the form of a small rodent called a naked mole rat. Dr Ewan St John Smith and his colleagues were able to identify a new mechanism used by the naked mole rats to maintain an energy supply to the cells in their body without using oxygen. He told me more about these fascinating creatures…

  • Naked mole rats are the same size as a mouse, are the only cold-blooded mammal that we are currently aware of and they live for over 30 years despite the maths suggesting they should only live between 3-5 years.
  • They live underground in large colonies of up to 300 and so have adapted to be able to function normally in a low-oxygen environment.
  • A low-level oxygen environment, such as that experienced by the brain when a human suffers a stroke, will kill a mouse, but the naked mole rats are able to survive for 20 minutes without experiencing any side effects.
  • The heart rate of the naked mole rats drops to around 20-25% of normal levels during the oxygen deprivation and the question faced by the researchers was where does the energy come from, as it can’t be via the usual method of aerobic respiration with glucose.
  • Their findings suggest that the brain and heart cells of the naked mole rats are able to undergo respiration using fructose in their blood, rather than glucose from their cells, and while this also has a limited supply, it does provide a back-up plan to survive the oxygen depletion.
  • With this new understanding of how nerve cells function, Ewan and his colleagues hope to be able to develop a similar response in human cells to act as a preventative strategy to stop brain damage during a stroke.

You can listen to the full interview with the Naked Scientists here.

Photo credit: Jedimentat44 on Flickr

 

Putting flies to sleep with light

Gero Miesenboeck is one of the pioneers of the field of optogenetics – an incredible neurological tool that uses light to activate specific cells in the brain. He is using the technique in fruit flies, which can be put to sleep simply by flashing a red light in their direction. I went to Oxford University to meet Gero and find out why…

  • Optogenetics works by genetically modifying cells in the brain to be activated by light, thus allowing them to be controlled.
  • Gero and his team identified the area of a fly’s brain that causes it to go to sleep and then embedded a light-sensitive gene into DNA of these cells.
  • By shining a red light onto the fly from above, the light penetrates the skull of the fly and acts as the ‘on switch’ to turn on the neurons that cause the fly to go to sleep.
  • This is tested experimentally in Gero’s lab where flies that were previously buzzing around almost instantly stop moving when the red light is turned on and enter a state that demonstrates all of the classical hallmarks of sleep.
  • When the light is turned off the fly begins to instantaneously move once again and returns to its normal behaviour.

 

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

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