Anyone who’s ever heard a Beethoven sonata or a Beatles song knows how powerfully sound can affect our emotions. But it can work the other way as well – our emotions can actually affect how we hear and process sound. When certain types of sounds become associated in our brains with strong emotions, hearing similar sounds can evoke those same feelings, even far removed from their original context. It’s a phenomenon commonly seen in combat veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in whom harrowing memories of the battlefield can be triggered by something as common as the sound of thunder. But the brain mechanisms responsible for creating those troubling associations remain unknown. Now, a pair of researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has discovered how fear can actually increase or decrease the ability to discriminate among sounds depending on context, providing new insight into the distorted perceptions of victims of PTSD. Their study is published in Nature Neuroscience.
“Emotions are closely linked to perception and very often our emotional response really helps us deal with reality,” says senior study author Maria N. Geffen, PhD, assistant professor of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery and Neuroscience at Penn. “For example, a fear response helps you escape potentially dangerous situations and react quickly. But there are also situations where things can go wrong in the way the fear response develops. That’s what happens in anxiety and also in PTSD -- the emotional response to the events is generalized to the point where the fear response starts getting developed to a very broad range of stimuli.”
Geffen and the first author of the study, Mark Aizenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in her laboratory, used emotional conditioning in mice to investigate how hearing acuity (the ability to distinguish between tones of different frequencies) can change following a traumatic event, known as emotional learning. In these experiments, which are based on classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, animals learn to distinguish between potentially dangerous and safe sounds -- called “emotional discrimination learning.” This type of conditioning tends to result in relatively poor learning, but Aizenberg and Geffen designed a series of learning tasks intended to create progressively greater emotional discrimination in the mice, varying the difficulty of the task. What really interested them was how different levels of emotional discrimination would affect hearing acuity – in other words, how emotional responses affect perception and discrimination of sounds. This study established the link between emotions and perception of the world – something that has not been understood before.
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