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Issue 22 Science (of) Fiction

Stranger Things 4: The effect of music on our emotions

🕒 5 min

Some parts of the following article contain spoilers from the Netflix original series Stranger Things.

As the super fans of popular Netflix series Stranger Things (also, me) are waiting for the Season 4 Volume 2 episodes, I still cannot get over the very powerful scene of Max escaping the deadly claws of Vecna. It positively shook me to the core that I decided to share it with you, as well as analyse it from a scientific point of view.

Source: Netflix

It all starts with Max moving to Hawkins, Indiana with her stepbrother Billy after their parents’ divorce. Max and Billy do not get along well but are trying to stay on good terms as they are living under the same roof. Unfortunately, after a turn of events in Hawkins, loses her stepbrother Billy in Season 3 to the monster also known as the Mind Flayer. Since then, Max falls into the never-ending circle of constant nightmares, fear and guilt-inducing hallucinations followed by depressive episodes. In every school break, Max can be seen with earphones and a Walkman by her side, trying to fight the demons in her head by listening to her favourite music and avoiding any conversation with her worried friends. Most of her suffering comes to an end in Episode 4 called Dear Billy, when Max finally escapes the living nightmare of Vecna, the monster and main antagonist of the season. In the above-mentioned scene, we see Max in the Upside Down, the dimension alternate to ours, where she is possessed by Vecna’s powerful curse. Vecna is trying to occupy her mind by reminding her of all the bad things that happened in Hawkins in the previous year, while in our dimension, her body is paralysed in the air before the eyes of her friends Dustin, Steve, and Lucas. The boys are desperately trying to get Max to wake up, but they are failing. Luckily, after visiting Victor Creel in the mental hospital, Max’s friends Nancy and Robin figure out a way how to escape Vecna’s curse- by listening to one’s favourite music. Finally, Dustin manages to find Max’s Walkman, which immediately started playing “Running up that hill” by Kate Bush. Hearing her favourite song playing in the background, Max starts to think about all the heart-warming moments spent with her friends and in the end, escapes from the certainly deadly Vecna’s curse.

Source: Netflix

It is well known that the human brain can dynamically adapt to changing surroundings by reacting to different stimuli. Researchers have observed listening to music as the important brain stimulus for many years now, since music is present in every culture around the world and it is an important part of everyday life. Neuroimaging studies of the brain have shown that musical stimuli activate specific pathways in several brain areas associated with emotional behaviours, such as the insular and cingulate cortex, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. In addition to that, neurochemical studies have suggested that some biochemical mediators, such as endorphins, endocannabinoids, dopamine, and nitric oxide play a role in the perception of music and therefore in the complete musical experience. In a recent study, researchers investigated possible boosting effects on behaviour and brain functioning when brain-injured patients were exposed to their preferred music. Their results have shown that listening to patient’s preferred music leads to increased connectivity in the networks of some brain regions that are involved in consciousness, language, emotion, and memory processing. Observed changes suggest that preferred music has the ability to stimulate patient’s brain function, which could be tightly connected to its emotional and autobiographical properties.  

In the episode Dear Billy, a few moments prior to Max’s encounter with Vecna, we are following Nancy and Robin to the mental facility where they are visiting Victor Creel, the only person who could help them fight the Vecna’s curse. As they are given a quick tour of the facility on their way to Victor, they come across the listening room, where patients spend their time listening to music as a form of therapy. Dr. Hatch, their guide and the headmaster of the facility, explains how they found that music has a particularly calming effect on the broken mind and that the right song, which holds a more personal meaning, can prove a salient stimulus. This scene portrays that music has always been, and still is, an interesting and powerful brain stimulus which could be useful in clinical management of numerous psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders. A growing body of evidence indicates that music therapy could also be effective in patients with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, music may also modulate the immune response by increasing the activity of natural killer cells, lymphocytes and interferon-gamma, which is an interesting feature as many diseases can be a result of the misbalanced immune system. Today, neuroscientists are sure that music has a beneficial effect on brain connectivity, but further research in the form of clinical trials that observe short- and long-term effects of musical therapy in diverse clinical conditions is still very much needed.

According to the first publication in 1993, the Mozart effect was described as the enhancement of reasoning skills by solving spatial problems in normal subjects after listening to Mozart’s piano sonata K 448. A further evaluation of this effect suggested that auditory stimulation evokes emotions and results in temporarily enhanced activity of many cognitive domains in the brain. These findings inspired many parents and expecting parents to exposure their newborn or unborn children to classical music, as there is evidence that it has many benefits during development of the babies in the womb and in the early weeks of human life. This can be due to release of feel-good hormones, endorphins, which improve children’s mental health by relieving distress. Regular listening of classical music can help with children’s intellectual development, memory skills, language development and spatial awareness. In addition to that, neuroscientists also observed the effect of music on the brain of premature infants in the neonatal intensive care units. They concluded that music exposure leads to the development of functional brain networks that are similar to those of full-term newborns, providing evidence for a beneficial effect of music on the preterm brain.

To conclude, music stimulates the human brain in the ways that are not completely described yet, but it is safe to say that without it, our lives would be dark and boring. The therapeutical potential of music in clinical practice remains an important topic, as there is moderate but not altogether convincing evidence that listening to known and liked music helps to decrease the burden of a disease and enhance the immune system by modifying stress. But surely, the answers are on their way, as neuroscience is progressing and getting smarter every day. At the very end, my question for you is: what song would save you from Vecna’s curse?

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