Shut your eyes, let the music scare you more

The simple act of voluntarily closing one's eyes instead of listening to music and sounds in the dark can elicit more intense physical responses in the brain itself, said Talma Hendler, neuroscience professor at Tel Aviv University (TAU).

The experience of scary music becomes more emotionally and physically intense. And the converse may well be true: happy music could produce a joyous effect when our eyes are shut as well.

Hendler's research suggests that when our eyes are closed, a region in our brain called the amygdala which is the seat of emotions is fired up. The latest study is "just an example of how a small manipulation in one's physical state such as eyes open or shut can change our mental experience," she said. This phenomenon may open the door to a new way of treating neurological diseases, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's included, said the neuroscientist.

Listening to sounds with our eyes closed seems to wire together a direct connection to the regions of our brains that process emotions, says Hendler. "Music is a relatively abstract emotional carrier." "Using a functional MRI (fMRI), we can see that distinct changes in the brain are more pronounced when a person's eyes are not being used."

Yulia Lerner, a post-doctoral fellow at Hendler's lab, had healthy volunteers listen to spooky Hitchcock-style music, and then neutral sounds with no musical melody.
They listened to these twice, once with their eyes open and a second time with their eyes shut, as she monitored their brain activity with an fMRI.

While volunteers were listening to the scary music, Lerner found that brain activity peaked when the subjects' eyes were closed. This medical finding corresponded to volunteer feedback that the subjects felt more emotionally charged by the scary music.
"We don't know exactly how or why this happens -- it's like a light switch gets turned off, allowing the brain to better integrate the highs and lows of the emotional experience when the eyes are shut," adds Hendler.

Small physical behaviours can radically alter the balance and colour of emotions. Not long ago in US classrooms, teachers found that hyperactive students learned better while standing, rather than sitting at their desks, said a TAU release. Her study was published in PLoS One and builds on her 2007 study published in Cerebral Cortex.

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