UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Dr Cesar Lima scans Billy Bragg's brain to explore the effect of music

18 October 2016

On a flight to Bolivia, singer-songwriter, Billy Bragg, stumbled across a unique cure for his nervousness about flying by listening to a track by Little Feat. He met up with Dr Cesar Lima, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and Dr Saloni Krishnan, University of Oxford to explore the science behind it.

Drs Lima and Krishnan designed an experiment using fMRI to examine Billy Bragg's brain activity while he was passively listening to music. The researchers played Billy excerpts of his favourite song, randomly interleaved with excerpts of a second song he also knew but did not like.

Listening to music, as compared to silence, elicited brain activity in several auditory, motor/premotor and prefrontal areas. A direct comparison between responses to the song he liked and the one he disliked revealed activity in several regions that are often found in neuroimaging studies of emotional responses to music, including the amygdala, temporal pole, anterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. In these regions activity was lower for his favourite song as compared to the song he did not like. In the amygdala, in particular, listening to the favourite song was associated with a deactivation, which could be related to the pleasurable/relaxing effect that Billy associates with this specific song. 

The project was part of The Guardian series of films on music and emotion, produced by Ian Anderson, and scans were undertaken at Birkbeck-UCL Centre for NeuroImaging (BUCNI).