Music for relaxation or relaxation for music?

Many people feel that music has powerful effects on their mood and emotions. The fact that lullabies exist attests to music’s capacity to soothe. Adults too use music to relax: they play music to focus before an exam or to cool down after a stressful day. If music is beneficial for relaxation, could relaxation be beneficial for music? A recent study by Oshin Vartanian (DRDC Toronto) and Peter Suedfeld (University of British Columbia) adds to the growing evidence that relaxation and music might be mutually beneficial.

The study aimed to test whether a particular form of relaxation could enhance certain aspects of jazz improvisation. Prior evidence had shown that floating in a virtually stimulus-less environment (floatation version of the restricted environmental stimulation technique-REST) enhances perceptual and motor skills as well as creativity in sports and sciences. This disconnection from external stimulation reduces stress and induces a state of relaxed alertness and concentration. Could the same technique also lead to improvements in the perceptual-motor and creative aspects involved in jazz improvisation?

To answer this question Vartanian and Suedfeld asked 8 students enrolled in a jazz improvisation course to undergo one floatation session, which lasted an hour, each week for 4 weeks. Five other students acted as control group. All the participants individually performed five minute long freely conceived improvisations a week before and a week after the floatation sessions. These performances were recorded and then rated by an expert for improvisation, creativity, expressiveness, technical ability, and overall quality.

The results revealed that the initial performances of both groups of students did not differ on any of the assessment dimensions. However, the participants that completed the four floating sessions scored higher on technical ability than the control students on the post-treatment performance. No significant differences were found between both groups on any of the other measures. This result was confirmed by an independent measure of progress throughout the course.

Hence, flotation REST can improve the technical aspects inherent to musical improvisation. Contrary to the authors’ initial expectations, however, the same technique did not lead to better creativity scores. This might have been because these sessions have only short-term benefits on creativity, which faded before assessment. Alternatively, creativity in performing arts might not be expressed in the same ways as it is in other fields.

Clearly these results warrant further studies to test the effects of flotation REST on other musical abilities, as well as on other performing arts, and to clarify the neural mechanisms responsible for these improvements.

International Dance Day Today!

Since 1982 the International Dance Council (CID) of the UNESCO invites us to celebrate the International Dance Day on the 29th of April. Its aim is to promote the international recognition of dance as a distinctive art form because, as the CID notes, across countries and cultures of the world dance still does not receive the same attention and consideration as other art forms.

The universal recognition of dance as an art form has clear implications for neuroaesthetics! Research in this field in the past few years has shown dance to be a noteworthy art form that can gracefully reveal important details of the emotional, cognitive and neural underpinnings of human art appreciation.

However, neuroaesthetics of dance is undoubtedly still in its infancy. Research on dance appreciation poses an array of remarkable experimental design demands to the neuroaesthetician. The first obstacle to overcome is the short-lived nature of a piece of dance –it is gone at the very moment of performance. Moreover, for experimental purposes, ideally, the dance movements must be extracted from very thoroughly crafted choreographies; the movements must be isolated from facial and musical information and, furthermore, be presented to experimental participants in the remote setting of a laboratory. Undoubtedly, this entrains an experience in the observer that is considerably different from the experience of attending a genuine dance performance. Secondly, as in all art forms, the perception of a dance is notably influenced by its cultural background and meaning, as well as by the historical moment of choreography and performance. Thus, a truly ecological experimental approach to dance seems complicated, if not impossible. Nevertheless, scientific aesthetics can overcome at least some of these constraints. By integrating existing scholarship from dance theory and humanistic approaches on dance practice, neuroaesthetics may actually find ways to approach the process of experimental design with dance movements in a more ecological fashion.

Research on dance appreciation, so far, has focused on movement perception, structure perception and emotion recognition, both in behavioral and neuroimaging studies. However, to date only few studies have linked the findings from such basic research questions with the hedonics of the proper aesthetic experience derived from the observation of that same dance movement. This is where promising avenues of study for future experimental aesthetics and neuroaesthetics reside…

Dopamine release during anticipation and experience of emotion in music

What is the role of emotions in aesthetic experience? This is an important question for researchers attempting to clarify the neurobiological underpinnings of our appreciation of different art forms. Peak emotional responses, or chills, however, have mostly been studied in the context of the enjoyment of music. A recent study by Valorie Salimpoor and colleagues, still in press in Nature Neuroscience, showed that peak emotional experiences while people listened to music was associated with dopamine release in the striatum. The authors’ examination of the time course of this association revealed that anticipation of the emotional peak was related with dopamine release in the caudate and its experience with release in the nucleus accumbens. Thus, the study shows a neural dissociation between two important emotional constituents of our enjoyment of music: the intensely rewarding experiences and their anticipation. Read the study here.