We’ve all felt it; that moment when the world around you seems to move in unison. All your troubles melt away. You stop dancing to the music and start being moved by it. You’ve hit a trance state!
Ecstasy. Unity. Revelation. It may seem like a state of dreamy wonder at the time, and indeed it is, but behind the hedonistic mysticism experiences of the mind, body and soul, there is a solid science of hypnotic beats and uplifting melody. The trance is no accident. The music has served its purpose.
For some people, music is just relaxing, and that can cause the brain to slip into an “alpha” brainwave, which is conducive to “zoning out” and/or looking inwards. But that’s not a very satisfying answer. As always, dopamine has a significant role to play.
A study published in Nature Neuroscience used fMRI and PET scans to examine brain activity while people listened to music. Unsurprisingly, dopamine was released into the dorsal and ventral striatum; the areas of the brain often associated with response to pleasurable stimuli. On one level, that’s why music makes us feel good.
But the study also discovered that timing was important. There is a reason the age-old tribal drums have been translated into modern electronic formats to make them club-ready, which, again, trance-heads might not be too surprised to hear.
What was discovered was that large amounts of dopamine found its way into the caudate system, an area of the brain associated with sensory and motor functions, before the climax of the music. The researchers labeled this the “anticipatory phase” of the music, but in trance terms, they are talking about the buildup. The anticipation of the drop makes us spike in dopamine as the expectation for resolution heightens. The longer we are left waiting, the larger the emotional response.
Unpredictability, which comes from breakdowns in the patterns and structures that we expect, this makes us crave the return of the familiar. Awaiting the arrival makes us drool. In other words, the emotional ups and downs that we experience when listening to music often come from the anticipation of the climax, the unpredictability infused by awesome producers, as well as the eventual climax itself.
Musicologist Leonard Meyer takes this a step further. He believes that the emotions we experience when listening to music come from our interpretation of “unfolding events” within the music. Patterns form, and then are broken or ignored, and our mind tries to resolve it all with clarity and meaning. This leads to us creating a sort of emotional (and often visual) “story” in our minds — our personal journey, which is a combination of the music and the projections of our inner world.
So, that covers the emotional elements of music. And since we have already measured dopamine as a pleasure response, which are all elements of the trance experience, what about the loss of “self” and the feeling of oneness and unity?
The answer can be found in findings by the Society of Neuroscience. They conducted tests that demonstrated that the brain’s decision-making processes are accelerated by rhythm, and are at their highest when in sync with the beat. The findings imply that it is not only our bodily processes that fall in line with the beat of the music but also our mental processes.
To take the study further, the researchers hooked participants up to EEGs. The recordings showed immense electrical activity in the cerebral cortex, and alpha and beta brain waves synced up with the rhythm. The individuals synchronize with the music, and so does the group as a whole. This is the feeling of connectivity between those who are in the moment with the music.
Interestingly, even our visual perception of the outside falls into sync. We actually see visual objects at points which are in time with the beat and are more likely to overlook them if they are out of sync. So, the whole world around us becomes a living manifestation of the rhythm in the room. The researchers even believe that this sense of oneness serves an evolutionary purpose, allowing us to synchronize our brain waves for better communication and understanding.
Trance producers and musical composers are not the only people to tap into the psychology of sound and rhythm. When slot machines evolved from simple, pull-lever devices to the flashy digital machines we see today, it gave casinos more opportunity to use lights and sounds to soothe and pamper gamers. And retail stores use background music to encourage shoppers to buy more. But only dance nights (and the odd tribal ritual) use music to restore a sense of oneness and unity — and we think that’s pretty special!
So, there you have it, folks! There is a method to the madness. The next time you have to explain to your dear parents why you love trance nights, you can tell them that the music is scientifically proven to synchronize your brainwaves with the people around you. But really, you just know that it feels right!