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How Music Affects The Mind's Perception

By Wesley Fenlon

Listen to music, watch the world wobble.

"Your brain is not a video camera," writes Vice, in an article that describes something seemingly impossible: Music affecting how our brains perceive the world. This is not about a perspective or point-of-view--it's about how music can actually create a motion aftereffect in our perception. What we see is fundamentally different from reality.

Motion aftereffects are common without a musical element. Stare at this animated waterfall, for example, and when the image shifts, your brain will still see motion when it isn't there. But the idea of music affecting our perception is far more interesting, because it shows how tangled our sensory processes are.

Photo credit: Flickr user Maxime Gendre via Creative Commons.

"[Pascal] Wallisch and colleagues are the first to report a disruption in people’s judgment of visual motion from listening to music," writes Vice. "The experiment was simple. Participants listened through headphones to ascending and descending piano scales for sixty seconds. Then they had to judge the direction of moving dots on a computer screen. The authors found that subjects who listened to scales that moved “up” the piano perceived the dots to move down. Those who listened to scales that moved “down” perceived the dots to move up."

Wallisch furthers his statement, that the world we perceive is hardly concrete reality, by pointing out that the retina is a 2D surface, and our 3D perception is actually created by how the brain infers information. "Put differently," writes Vice, "not only is the brain not a video camera, the audio feed is not even independent of the visual feed. It is inherently tangled up. Already on the frontend. In most cases, this is beneficial to disambiguate the world. We are simply taking advantage of this in this experiment.”

Listening to jazz, which is structurally complicated, may do more to affect your cognition than pop music.

The article digs beyond how music affects perception into how music actually affects the way we think. Listening to one type of music or another isn't going to completely define your personality, but listening to jazz, which is structurally complicated, may do more to affect your cognition than pop music.

When you think about our cultural understanding of music and how deeply it's integrated with our visual processing, the motion aftereffect makes sense. Vice writes that it's"elicited by confusion between your brain’s audio and visual feeds" and how we perceive musical scales. We associate "up" with ascending scales and "down" with descending scales (even though those keys are actually arranged from left to right on a keyboard).

Wallisch speculates that tribes who haven't been exposed to this musical form won't experience the same aftereffect. Sounds like the basis for an even more interesting experiment.