Front. Psychol., 13 December 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02187
A Neurodynamic Perspective on Musical Enjoyment: The Role of Emotional Granularity
Nathaniel F. Barrett and Jay Schulkin
Musical enjoyment is a nearly universal experience, and yet from a neurocognitive and evolutionary standpoint it presents a conundrum. Why do we respond so powerfully to something apparently without any survival value? A variety of explanations for the evolution of music cognition have been offered (e.g., Wallin et al., 2000; Morley, 2013), nevertheless most current neurocognitive theories of its specifically affective aspects do not posit any specially adapted emotional circuitry (but see Peretz, 2006). Rather, it is assumed that whatever processes are responsible for pleasure and emotion in general—be they subcortical, cortical, or both—are also responsible for the thrills of music. Accordingly, the problem of musical enjoyment is to explain how and why these processes are engaged so effectively by musical stimuli.
While this is a perfectly sensible approach, a major obstacle lies in its path: the paradox of enjoyable sadness in music (Davies, 1994; Levinson, 1997; Garrido and Schubert, 2011; Huron, 2011; Vuoskoski et al., 2011; Kawakami et al., 2013; Taruffi and Koelsch, 2014; Sachs et al., 2015). Music frequently elicits experiences of negative emotions, especially sadness, which we nevertheless find deeply gratifying. For neurocognitive perspectives, the implication of this phenomenon is that normal processes for generating emotional responses are not sufficient to explain musical enjoyment, as something special to music must allow us to enjoy negative emotion. How is musically induced sadness different from “normal” sadness such that the former can be enjoyed while the latter cannot?
To make progress on such questions, in this article we propose a theory of musical enjoyment based on implications of a neurodynamic approach to emotion (Pessoa, 2008; Flaig and Large, 2014), which highlights the role of transient patterns of coordinated neural activity spanning multiple regions of the brain. The key advantage of this perspective is its ability to register the possibility that emotional experiences differ not only in kind (happy vs. sad) but also in “granularity,” complexity, or differentiation (Lindquist and Barrett, 2008). Studies indicate that increased emotional granularity functions as a kind of positivity that can meliorate experiences of negative emotions (Smidt and Sudak, 2015). Accordingly, perhaps we can account for enjoyment of negative emotions in music if we can show that these emotions are more finely differentiated than “normal” negative feelings.
Based on this approach, we also propose a general distinction between pleasure, defined here as bursts of positively categorized feeling, and enjoyment, defined as sustained flows of finely differentiated feeling regardless of emotional categorization (cf. Frederickson, 2002). For this perspective, the categorical meaning of an emotional experience (e.g., happy or sad) is closely related to but separable from its positive or negative affective tone, at least insofar as this tone is influenced by granularity.
Neurodynamics, Emotion, and Music
Here “neurodynamic approach” refers to a family of neurocognitive theories that regard transient, large-scale patterns of rhythmically coordinated neural activity as the main vehicles of cognition/emotion (e.g., Freeman, 1997; Bressler and Kelso, 2001, 2016; Varela et al., 2001; Cosmelli et al., 2007; Breakspear and McIntosh, 2011; Sporns, 2011). An especially pertinent feature of this approach is its divergence from traditional notions of functional specialization and localization (Pessoa, 2008, 2014). Broadly speaking, insofar as neurodynamic theories understand cognitive functions as supported by transient, task-specific coalitions rather than stable processing pathways, they tend to affirm the multifunctionality of neural structures at multiple scales (Anderson et al., 2013; see also Hagoort, 2014; Friederici and Singer, 2015). According to this view, which contrasts with the modular approach commonly adopted by computational theories of neural function, the precise functional role of any given neural structure changes according to the context of coordinated neural activity (McIntosh, 2000, 2004; Bressler and McIntosh, 2007). On the other hand, this approach does not herald a return of “equipotentiality,” as it allows for characterizations of the functional “dispositions” of neural structures (Anderson, 2014).
Similarly, with regard to affect and emotion, the neurodynamic perspective can register the importance of distinct structures—e.g., subcortical structures and hedonic “hotspots” (Berridge and Kringelbach, 2015). But it holds that the full range of emotional experience must be understood in terms of continually evolving patterns of globally coordinated neural activity. Thus, while localized structures may have consistent roles in the production of emotional responses, they do not by themselves constitute emotion nor can they be said to govern emotion in any simple way (Flaig and Large, 2014). The point is not just that emotion is the product of the continual interplay of cortical and subcortical dynamics (Panksepp, 2012). Rather the key implication of neurodynamics is that this interplay is constituted by transient patterns of coordinated activity whose dynamic features—especially complexity and continuity—are relevant to the categorization of emotion and affect (cf. Spivey, 2007 on dynamical categorization). Here, we are mainly interested in the possibility that neurodynamic categorizations of emotional content can range in complexity, corresponding to differences of emotional granularity in experience (analogous to the difference between simple and rich color palettes).
It should be noted that this approach encompasses both categorical theories of “basic emotions” (e.g., Panksepp, 1998, 2007) and dimensional theories of “core affect” (Russell, 2003; Barrett et al., 2007). What is essential for present purposes is the way in which the dynamic interplay between subcortical responses and the complex cortical elaboration of emotion (Reybrouck and Eerola, 2017) gives rise to both categorical distinctions (happy vs. sad) and differences of granularity (fine vs. coarse).
Neurodynamic approaches are well-established in the field of music cognition (for reviews see Large, 2010; Flaig and Large, 2014). Among the advantages of a neurodynamic approach is its capacity to register the relationship between bodily movement and music (e.g., Large et al., 2015). This relationship has been indicated by numerous studies of sensorimotor involvement in music perception (e.g., Chen et al., 2008) and must be taken into account by any theory of musical experience, as we briefly indicate below.
However, few attempts have been made to understand musical enjoyment from a neurodynamic perspective (see Chapin et al., 2010; Flaig and Large, 2014). A notable exception is William Benzon's groundbreaking treatise (Benzon, 2001), which anticipates the perspective offered here. One reason for this neglect is the challenge of empirical verification: like neurodynamic theories of consciousness (Seth et al., 2006), neurodynamic theories of musical experience are in need of high temporal-resolution data (e.g., from EEG or MEG) that show how relevant characteristics of neural dynamics change during musical experience (see Garrett et al., 2013). For the current proposal, the key challenge is to find and measure just those variations that correspond to differences of emotional granularity or complexity. Until such methods are developed, studies of emotional differentiation in musical experience must turn to the refinement of self-reporting methods (Juslin and Sloboda, 2010).