Music, the Neural Harmonics of Emotion, and How Love Restrings the Brain

“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”

Music, the Neural Harmonics of Emotion, and How Love Restrings the Brain

“Lights and shadows are continually flitting across my inward sky, and I know neither whence they come nor whither they go; nor do I inquire too closely into them,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in his notebook one spring day in 1840. “It is dangerous to look too minutely into such phenomena. It is apt to create a substance where at first there was a mere shadow… It is best not to strive to interpret it in earthly language, but wait for the soul to make itself understood.”

A century after him, the French philosopher Simone Weil — another visionary of uncommon insight into the depths of the soul — contemplated the paradox of friendship, observing that “it is a fault to wish to be understood before we have made ourselves clear to ourselves.”

For one consciousness to understand another — to understand what it is Like to be another — might be the supreme challenge of communication and coexistence, because we each move through life half-opaque to ourselves. We aim the analytical mind — that magnificent novelty-instrument millennia in the evolutionary making — at the opacity, but occluding the lens of self-understanding is something much more primeval: Emotion smudges the eyepiece of life, often without our awareness, changing what we see and making us react not to what is but to what we are perceiving. Anybody with moderate self-awareness will relate to feeling irritable, angry, or sad. This is because there’s something else filling our minds with its charged nimbuses of wrongness.

Why emotion so easily clouds the lens of experience is what psychiatrist trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explore throughout A General Theory of Love (public library) — the altogether revelatory book that remains, in my life of reading, the single most illuminating inquiry into the neurological nature and psychological nurture of why we feel what we feel and how this shapes how we become what we are.

Also available as a printed version.

Drawing an analogy to music — which might be so elemental to our sense of aliveness precisely because it shares a fundamental neuropsychological mechanism with emotion — Lewis, Amini, and Lannon examine the composition of feeling out of neural notation, illuminating the interdependence of and difference between emotion and mood:

Emotions can have the same effect as musical notes. A pianist hits a key and a hammer strikes the string that matches it. This causes it to vibrate at its specific frequency. The sound fades and falls away as the amplitude decreases. The same way emotions work is analogous: when an event touches a sensitive key, an inner feeling-tone will be sounded. Soon, it fades into silence. (The figures of speech “pluck at one’s heartstrings” and “strikes a chord in me” have found a home in our language for just this reason.) The rise in activity within the emotion circuits does not produce sound but, among other things, a facial expression. The result is an excitation of the neural system that exceeds some threshold. Feeling — the conscious experience of emotional activation. While feeling intensity drops as neural activity declines, there is still some activity in these circuits that persist after the feeling has stopped being perceptible. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an emotion appears suddenly in the drama of our lives to nudge the players in the proper direction, and then dissolves into nothingness, leaving behind a vague impression of its former presence.

One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. This illustration is also available as a printed copy.

The haunted background of feelings is where the dance of mood takes place, leading us to tumultuous percussion.

The Mood exist because of the musical aspect of an emotion’s neural activity, the lower portion imperceptible to our conscious ears… A mood is a state of enhanced readiness to experience a certain emotion. A mood can be described as a continuous, almost inaudible sound that is created by an emotion. An emotion could only be a single note clearly struck hanging in still air. A fading amount of activation is registered by consciousness in the emotion circuits, either faintly or completely. And so the provocative events of the day may leave us with emotional responsiveness waiting beneath our notice… Since the neural activation that creates a given emotion decreases gradually, provoking it again is easier within the window of the mood.

Our present experiences are shaped by these subtle resonances and pulses. They reverberate with the echoes from the past.

An object vibrates when it hears a sound, causing sympathetic reverberation. When she sings the correct note, a soprano makes a wineglass jiggle along with her voice. The brain’s emotional tones create a harmonious relationship with the past in an identical way. There are not oscillating fibres in the brain, nor is it made of strings. However, the nervous system transmits information through the neural network’s filaments. A striking emotional chord can bring back memories from the past.


All previous memories are reactivated when a particular emotion is experienced. Each feeling, after the first, is multilayered and only partially reflects the sensory world.

Arthur Rackham’s art from the 1926 Edition of The Tempest. (Available )

Our lived experiences rewire the brain over time and create a strong momentum of emotional habits. It is what we experience that shapes the reality we see. The world is perceived as what we perceive it to be, not how it appears. This reality-discord is what Lewis, Amini and Lannon call “the heart of it.” Limbic Attractors — pre-conditioned patterns of interpretation of incoming sensory data, densely networked and deeply ingrained in the limbic brain, activated so reflexively and powerfully that they can obscure and overwhelm the raw signal of reality.

The source of blindness and the reason we are so unable to see ourselves clearly, Limbic Attractors allow us to link up with others, who are more sympathetic and sounding with different emotions. Through such mutual harmonics — nowhere more powerful than in the limbic linkage we call love — we can recompose our own patterned soundtrack of emotion:

Human beings retain information with neurons. This means that we can see and hear more of the things we’ve seen before, as well as remember what we heard, and think exactly what we always believed. Our minds are burdened by an informational inertia whose headlong course is not easy to slow… No individual can think his way around his own Attractors, since they are embedded in the structure of thought… Because limbic resonance and regulation join human minds together in a continuous exchange of influential signals, every brain is part of a local network that shares information — including Attractors.


Through the limbic transmission of an Attractor’s influence, one person can lure others into his emotional virtuality. All of us, when we engage in relatedness, fall under the gravitational influence of another’s emotional world, at the same time that we are bending his emotional mind with ours. Every relationship is a binary star. It’s a flux of exchanging force fields and the ancient and deep influences that are felt, felt, and emanating.

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. This image is also available as a printed version.

In any such binary star system, this limbic resonance allows two people to harmonize their Attractors, fine-tuning the respective musical tones that most easily flow from each consciousness — Pythagoras’s music of the spheres and Kepler’s celestial harmonics, right here on Earth, in the infinite universe of the human heart:

One mind can revise another, and one’s heart can change its partner in a relationship. This astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love, as our Attractors activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them. What we do and don’t become is partly determined by who we love.

Complement this fragment of the altogether illuminating A General Theory of Love with poet Ronald Johnson on matter, music, and the mind, then revisit José Ortega y Gasset on how our loves shape our character and George Saunders on breaking our patterns to unbreak our hearts.

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.


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