Sharks, scary music and the temporal lobes

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The film starts. It’s a calm day at sea and there’s nothing for miles around except for a lone fisherman, relaxing and hoping for a catch. Deep below the water, something stirs. Urgent music starts, your adrenaline starts pumping and you know something terrible is about to occur. Your heart is racing, and according to recent research, so are your temporal lobes.

Neuropsychologist Nathalie Gosselin and her colleagues have been studying the brain’s response to scary music, and has recently published an intriguing study on a series of patients who have had parts of their temporal lobes and amygdala surgically removed, to treat otherwise untreatable epilepsy.

Gosselin’s team played the patients various pieces of music and found that although they could recognise peaceful, happy and sad music, their perception of scary music was impaired.

This wasn’t a problem with sensory monitoring of the music, as the patients performed normally when asked to detect subtle timing errors which had been implanted into some of the pieces.

It has been known for a while that the amygdala (which are located in the inner temporal lobes) are involved in the perception of emotion in other people’s faces, and this study shows that these areas may be essential in understanding fearful emotions in music, and perhaps other abstract aspects of the world.

Link to study summary.

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